For as long as I can remember I have been taking care of people. I do not mean that to sound as if I am this magical selfless being who is gracing everyone with my care; rather I am existing just like the rest of us empaths who grew up with emotionally immature parents and were socially conditioned as “the females of the species” that our worth comes from our ability to take care of others.
The earliest moment I remember caring for others was feeling responsible for my parent’s feelings. If I did things “right” they would be happy. If I performed well on a test or won a competition that brought big signs and feelings of goodness and I would reap the benefits. If I didn’t ask questions, get distracted, stayed calm and quiet I was “good”. Versus displeasing actions, which resulted in disappointment, guilt, shaming and occasionally visible frustration and yelling.
Then around 10 suddenly all things in my little human life changed. We moved, lived in not the nicest of places, I had a new baby sister and I became responsible for mediating fights between my parents, trying to make my little sister feel safe, working at my dad’s restaurant (which comes with a bunch of other feels), doing my school work on my own while I was homeschooled, etc etc. I remember being so miserable I wanted to die.
I was my dad’s emotional outlet when he was upset. When my mom was mad at my dad, I was her confident. I heard for months about how any doctors’ bills were a burden and felt responsible for being sick or hurt. When I expressed the need for help, it was ignored until extreme reactions or actions occurred. When I was self-destructive and had teachers come forward with concerns, it was dismissed. It was never an option to go to therapy or rehab, or have outside help. That is not what my parents did. You had to be strong, resilient and suffer in silence.
This is why my dad self-medicated with alcohol, which ended up killing him. I think therapy or rehab could have been a better choice.
As I baby adulted, I found myself performing well in care taking jobs/tasks and school. While simultaneously was also failing hard at taking care of myself. While I was good at performing and anticipating other’s needs, I utilized my learned behaviors of bottling down emotions until they erupted and self-soothing with significant amounts of alcohol. But I was still performing optimally, so it was all fine right?
It makes sense as a middle-adult I gravitated toward care taking professions. And yes, I do absolutely love it, especially now as I have better tools, healthy support systems and am learning how to take care of me. Helping people, making others happy, truly brings me joy and gives me a sense of purpose in a world where we it seems we are constantly teetering on the edge of an existential crisis.
I also love taking care of my wife, my sister, my friends and the fur kids. When they are happy and safe, I feel at peace. When anything is off for them, when they are hurt, sad or suffering, I want to be their hero. (cue Enrique Iglesias interlude).
However, when it comes to those that make my world go round the feelings around their care and safety hits a little differently. When I love and care for someone deeply the thought of them in any type of pain sends my anxious brain into worst case scenario mode. And the amount of love for them manifests by immediate, intense, internal stress over whatever the thing is and sends my anxiety through the roof into catastrophic mode. I want to fix whatever is wrong. And I want to fix it immediately. My anxiety feeds on knowing that our human existence is delicate and fleeting.
The increase in anxiety I feel for my loved ones in distress or crisis with all of the childhood conditioning and hard adulting experiences, on occasion, manifests itself into feelings of overwhelm and burn out. Enter Panic Mode! Everything is bad, everything is wrong, everything is sick, everything is dying and it spirals and spirals until I am worrying about things so far behind me or ahead of me that I shut down.
In those moments I wish 1000 wishes that a magical adulting unicorn would appear with the sole mission to kick my brain's butt! Haha brain's butt (not a medical term)
When the anxious feelings come over me, I want to escape my own skin suit and run away. I want to crawl into my bed, cover my head and pretend to be invisible. I want to remove my brain and throw it against the wall.
Someone in my life recently expressed that they needed a break and their plans to implement it. A lot of things happened to them consecutively and they recognized they need some time to breath and reflect. My first reaction was envy, and then guilt. While completely supportive of their decision, I also thought to myself, when do I get a break?
And it was that exact thought that illuminated a little cartoon lightbulb above my head.
Maybe if you are envious that someone else is taking a break, you might need a break too?
And while I have the routine self-care things in place; therapy, chiropractic, regular body movement, time to read, meditate, listen to music, play video games, color, etc. Some days we might need something more.
Unfortunately, only we can figure out what it is we need to refill this mental battery. For me, that is often where my internal battle begins.
I have a problem for every solution. In this particular instance I thought maybe it would be helpful to get a hotel room for a night. No phone, no tech. Just an evening of quiet solitude. Little room service, nice bath. It sounds heavenly.
Then I immediately transitioned to thinking, ugh I have to book a room (feels hard), and drive there (feels like work), and talk to people to check in (weird anxiety). It also costs money, (budgeting fears) and why spend money on a room when I can just stay home. Why does it all feel so hard?
But if I was doing this for my wife. Or my sister. Or my friend. Or my pets. I would do whatever I could to provide them relief. Why do I, in this way, seem to value myself less. Especially when I literally get to feel first-hand the heavy, sad, anxious, give up, runaway feelings that are my very own experience. Why do those feels get stuffed down or seem to be harder to support? Why does taking care of me feel difficult when taking care of others feels easier.
Because that is not what I was taught. That has not been normal practice for me. That is not how little me was conditioned to function. Any time we make changes to the patterns we have used for years to survive, it is new. And new things are hard.
We as caring humans need to, at minimum devote the same energy to ourselves, our health and our healing as we would for anyone else in our lives. Again, doing something new rarely comes easily. We have to try in these moments to remember the long game. Who we want to become and how we want to feel in both our bodies and minds. And know that once we are better practiced at taking care of ourself and becomes a regular thing, it won’t be so hard. Plus, as a whole, we will get to feel better.
Listen to what your brain and body are telling you, don’t ignore it. Schedule a break. Schedule multiple breaks. Make it a weekly or monthly thing. Even if it feels hard, silly or unnecessary. Even if it means putting some things on hold. Tell the people in your life how you’re feeling and that you have made the decision to do (whatever that thing is that gives you space and fills your cup) to take better and more consistent care of yourself.
Being human is hard and life doesn’t stop just because we need it to, which is why we absolutely 100% have to take breaks.