With more and more of our generation trying to balance caring for our kids AND our parents, there’s little time left to tend to our own needs. Let me make something clear, though; you CANNOT care for others if you’re not first caring for yourself. Let’s discuss why, along with some strategies to help you find balance.
You Cannot Care for Others if You’re Not Caring for Yourself
Did you know that nearly half of Gen X reports feeling totally burned out? It’s no wonder, really! Our generation is in a rather unique position compared to those who came before us. We’re not only still raising our children (since many of us waited longer to have them), but more of us than ever before are also caring for our aging parents.
Between running our kids to practice and our parents to the doctor, helping our sons with homework and our dads with his blood pressure meds, making breakfast for our toddlers and dinner for our mothers…well, there really isn’t much time left over for our own needs, is there.
Even if you’re not caring for your parents’ physical needs (elderly doesn’t equal invalid, after all), chances are you’re taking on a good chunk of the responsibility for other needs. Otherwise, you wouldn’t even be reading this, right?
All of the pressures add up to something that medical professionals call “caregiver burnout.” It’s a very real and very damaging thing. The symptoms alone show you just how serious it can become, so let’s look at those quick. Then, we’ll talk about ways to avoid that burnout.
Symptoms of caregiver burnout
It shouldn’t surprise you to see that the symptoms are very similar to those of too much stress and depression. After all, caring for others without caring for ourselves is stressful. The symptoms vary by person, but include:
- Withdrawing from your friends and other family.
- Lack of interest in other activities.
- Mood swings that include grumpiness.
- Feeling helpless (and, at times, hopeless).
- Lack of appetite or overeating due to stress.
- Difficulty sleeping without the help of aids.
- Absolute exhaustion on every level (physical, mental, right down to your very soul).
In extreme cases, caregiver burnout can even lead to thoughts of self-harm and worse. So, yeah, it’s definitely something you want to avoid.
How do you care for yourself, though, when you’re so overwhelmed with caring for others? It’s starts with admitting that YOU matter just as much as everyone else in your life. Once you truly accept that, it becomes easier to give yourself the time and attention you deserve. Let’s talk about some tips to do that.
Tips for Caring for Yourself so You Can Continue Caring for Others
Like I said, the first step is reminding yourself that you deserve care, too. It’s a vital step, because without it you’re likely to keep pushing off your own needs. It becomes a game of “well, I’m healthy and my mom isn’t, so her needs are more important,” and “well, I can feed myself and my toddler can’t, so his needs come first.”
Of course, your toddler’s needs come first. No one is saying you should let your baby starve while you eat cookies. Likewise, of course your mom’s doctor visit comes before your trip to, say, your favorite bookstore. However, when we start putting other’s needs first, second, third, fourth, fifth, and so on, we have absolutely NO time left for our own.
So, go ahead, right now, and say, “My needs are equally as important as everyone else’s in my life.” Do it. Out loud. Say it again. Say it until you believe it.
Got it? Accept it? Good. Now, let’s move on.
Define your role in your loved one’s lives.
One of the biggest contributors to caregiver burnout is a lack of defined roles. Let me explain. Say you’re caring for your dad after your mom passes away. He’s used to her doing certain things for him, like making his eggs exactly how he likes them, washing his clothes in just the right detergent, and other things that our mom’s generation did as wives.
Now, he expects YOU to make his eggs extra runny, fluff his shirts, and so on. It’s not that he’s trying to be a pain, he just doesn’t really know any other life.
However- and this is a big however- you are NOT his wife. Your mom had her entire life to get used to his quirks and preferences, just as he had an entire lifetime to get used to hers. It’s unfair of him to expect you to fill her role in that respect, and unfair of you to expect yourself to be able to do so.
So, when you take on the role of caregiver for a parent- be it mom or dad- clearly define your role. You’ll help them with X, Y, and Z, but you are still their daughter, not a replacement spouse. It sounds like such a simple and small thing but setting these boundaries early will save you SO much heartache and stress down the road.
Spend time with friends in the same situation.
Most doctors recommend joining a support group for other caregivers, and that’s definitely a great idea if it’s something you think you’ll benefit from. If you’re not comfortable talking to strangers in a group therapy setting, though, set up your own support group within your network of friends.
We know that getting together twice a week with girlfriends is good for our health, right? So, why not make one of those lunch dates a support meeting? Just like a traditional support group, take turns talking about your feelings, your struggles, and your biggest stress triggers. Just let it all out with the people you trust the most.
Now, during the other lunch date, do the opposite! Make it an hour where you talk about literally anything else but your role as a caregiver. You’re already spending so much time thinking about your responsibilities.
We all deserve one hour a week to just put worries out of our minds and chat about absolutely nothing important. It doesn’t mean that you’re ignoring them. It’s not a sign that you’re in denial, avoiding reality, or shirking your duties. It just means you’re treating yourself like a human being.
Schedule “Me Time” Every Single Day
Yep, every day. Even if you’re going out twice a week with friends, you still need a breather during all the days between. So, right now, grab your calendar and a pen. Not a pencil, an actual pen. Heck, a permanent marker, even. Go through your schedule and carve out 30 minutes a day that are all yours.
Here’s the important part: it can’t coincide with your basic life needs. By that, I mean you can’t say, “Oh, I take my shower at 6AM, that takes 15 minutes, so I’ll just tack on another 15 after it!” Showering is a basic hygiene task, not a “special me moment.” Same goes for eating! Basically, if it coincides with something you have to do to stay alive (or, you know, not reek to high heaven), then it doesn’t count.
Now, if you truly can’t find 30 straight minutes every day, you can break it up a bit. Maybe take a 15-minute walk alone in the morning and spend 15 minutes at night stargazing with a glass of wine (or a cup of tea). However you decide to do it, the same rules apply as for your once-a-week “no responsibilities” lunch date- you can think about anything but your duties to others.
Ask for help.
This is perhaps the most important thing you can do to care for yourself while caring for others. Yet, it’s also one of the hardest for many of our generation. We’re used to doing everything on our own. We’re former latchkey kids, after all! Heck, we’re the original latchkey kids.
Here’s the thing, though: you CANNOT be your parent’s doctor, nurse, physical therapist, chauffer, “keeper of the memories,” stylist, nutritionist, hygienist, and daughter AND be a wife, mother, friend, sister, employee AND still find time to be your own person all at once. You just can’t. Something somewhere has to give.
Be a daughter. Be a spouse. Be a mom. Most of all, be yourself. For all the rest, reach out and ask for help. Remember, it’s 100% impossible to truly care for others if you’re not caring for yourself as all. Sure, it may work short-term (or at least feel like it’s working), but in the long run, you’re setting yourself up for exhaustion, and that does no one any good. Not you nor the people that rely on you. So please, make self-care a priority right now. Seriously, right this moment!