Caregivers on Overload: Strategies for Self-Care
By Mary Beth Garvey, LMSW
Q: With so many people suffering right now, I feel it’s important to be a good support for my family members and friends. But I find I’m really struggling as social restrictions persist. How can I stay engaged as a caretaker?
A: Despite our best intentions, many of us are starting to feel weary. There is a significant mental, emotional and physical toll from dealing with the collective grief, anxiety and unpredictability we are experiencing. This is a time where there is a tremendous social responsibility to our communities, and we want to be at our best for the people we love. While we want to remain positively connected, it’s getting more challenging as one week turns into another and all our time is family time.
It’s impossible to take care of our loved ones perfectly right now, but there are a number of things to be mindful of to avoid burn out or unnecessary meltdowns.
• Practice Self-compassion. This may sound counter-intuitive when we are thinking about taking care of others, but if we don’t practice self-compassion, we will have little left to give. Self-compassion is different than self-indulgence, and there is still plenty of room for personal accountability. It allows for some margin of error when we don’t get things right, giving us more room for recovery. Self-compassion suggests you extend yourself the same kindness, compassion or forgiveness that you would give to others and recognizes that many of our interactions right now, though flawed, are still helpful and supportive to those we care about.
• Focus on Recovery, not Mistakes. This goes hand-in-hand with self-compassion. There may be many things you would like to be doing better than you’re doing right now, but it is important to recognize the tremendous stress being experienced given our vulnerability and lack of control. Accept that you will have missteps – maybe many. It is far more important to recover quickly than behave perfectly. Reinforce for your family that there is plenty of room for each of you to have bad moments, short fuses or behavior that reflects the big emotions we are dealing with. Give each other the time and space to regroup and be generous in your empathy and forgiveness, with yourself and others.
• Maintain Good Boundaries. Boundaries are important both within your family, and outside of it. In order to be able to support others, it is useful to have some balance between connectedness and alone time. This looks different for everyone and it is reasonable to carve out some time when you are not engaged, so that you can refuel and reconnect in a way that is satisfying. It is helpful to make the choice to be engaged or not, in an intentional way, rather than waiting until we are frustrated or overextended. Check in with yourself, be aware of your emotional bandwidth, and give yourself room to move in and out of the caretaker role.
There may also be limits to some relationships right now and boundaries may be different depending on who you are with and what their needs – and yours - are. You may be trying to orient yourself to gratitude or optimism, limit your exposure to certain worries, or protect yourself from catastrophic conversation. Many people are operating from a place of grief, anxiety or vulnerability right now, which invites compassion and empathy. However, this also suggests the need for us to adjust our boundaries accordingly from time to time.
• Cultivate Gratitude. Gratitude is an antidote for grief and fear. Practice gratefulness in whatever small ways you can, whether prayer, reflection, or mindfulness. Notice the kindnesses people extend, snap pictures during a walk, follow social media that speaks to resilience and hope. There are many people doing many amazing things, small and large, and this is an opportunity to see the best in people
• Allow Yourself the Negatives: It is equally as important to give yourself room to attend to some of the negative thoughts and feelings that you have. In our efforts to bring forth our best, we may minimize the less desirable emotions we are experiencing, such as grief, anger, anxiety, vulnerability or fear. Given the scope of this crisis, it is understandable – even normal – to have a wide range of feelings. You may be all over the map and you are entitled to whatever your experience is. There is a tendency to invalidate concerns when there are others who are suffering more, but grief is not relative, and you will manage the darker emotions better if you attend to them rather than mask them.
• Practice Self-Care. Self-care is an active choice to engage in activities that foster our health, to behave in a way that reduces emotional and physical distress, and to self sooth constructively. It is mindful and unique. Self-care may be an elaborate homemade meal or eating pizza off paper plates with minimal clean up. It may be family time or alone time, moving your body or being still. But it is an intentional choice to do something for yourself. For some it is creating structure and routine, and for others it is letting yourself off the hook. Self-care is not achieved at the expense of others. It gives us the emotional resources to attend to both our own needs and the needs of those we most want to take care of.
This is an important time to think of doing, giving and caring for others. If we want to have the endurance to remain connected in a meaningful way, we have to let go of our perfectionism and our guilt, and not allow ourselves to be so overtasked or maintain excessive expectations about how and what we “should” be doing.
Mary Beth Garvey, LMSW, is a therapist in private practice in Grosse Pointe. She works with children, adolescents and adults and helps families with anxiety and mood disorders, grief and loss, ADD/ADHD, adjustment and transition issues and more. Mary Beth can be reached at 313.408.2180 or firstname.lastname@example.org. She is a member of The Family Center's Association of Professionals.
written April 2020