By Mike Deluca
LCSW, Therapist – Summit Achievement
Ever since I entered the “helping profession” I have heard the mantra “You can’t adequately care for others if you haven’t cared for yourself.”
I remember learning this mantra when I was 15 years old while training for my first job as a lifeguard. It made sense to me then. I heard it again in college when I was training to be a wilderness educator. And yet again many years later while working as a guide at Summit Achievement. It was heavily reinforced in my master’s degree training as a clinical social worker.
It still makes sense to me now…actually, it makes even more sense to me now.
Most folks in the helping professions have heard this before. I am guessing many of you reading this have as well. Like most things in therapy, easier said than done, right? We know, as professionals, that taking care of our own needs is necessary for continuing to offer our patients, clients, and students the support they need. If we are compromised in some way, our care will be compromised as well. But I did not write this for my colleagues out there. They have hopefully already had that training. This is written for the people who arguably need to hear it most. Parents and caregivers.
THE MANY CHALLENGES OF PARENTING
In many ways, parents have a much more challenging job. They don’t have the luxury of working hours like many of the professionals who receive training on this sort of thing. Where professionals have supervisors and experienced colleagues to lean on for support and guidance, parents often feel isolated. Maybe they have a partner, but that kind of stress can be very taxing for a relationship. Parents are always “on call” for their child. That can be utterly exhausting, especially as your child struggles. And they will struggle…that’s part of the process. It’s inevitable and even essential.
As a clinical social worker, I have seen heroic parents upend their own personal lives to care for the needs of their children in times of crises…often without giving it a second thought. With a global pandemic upending seemingly everything about how we live our lives, these days, crisis’s don’t seem to be in short supply. Parents have delayed vacations, cut back on hours at work, cancelled plans with their friends, even quit their jobs entirely because their children needed the support. They skip going to the gym or even seeing their own therapist or doctor. Sometimes sacrifices are needed as a parent. But can parents sacrifice too much? Can you overextend yourself? Yes. How do you know? What does it look or feel like? And at what cost? We will touch on these questions. However, we will also focus on how to take care of ourselves. It is simply not enough just to identity that you aren’t taking care of your own needs. We also need to know what to do about it. We need a plan.
THE REALITY OF OVEREXTENDING
So, what does it feel like to overextend yourself? Well, in a word, stressful. These are some of the common signs and symptoms of elevated stress. I’m guessing many may be familiar to you. Most Americans (especially Americans) live their lives juggling these symptoms every day. Fatigue or exhaustion. Difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or waking up. Headaches or body aches. Irritability, increased frustration, and impatience. Depression. Anxiety. GI Problems. Decrease in interest in things you enjoy, loss of appetite or over-eating. Disorganization or inattention. Compromised immune system response. Social withdrawal. Performance issues at work. Increased alcohol or drug use. The list goes on and on. When we get stressed, it impacts us mentally, emotionally, socially, and physiologically. The more impacted we become, the harder it is to juggle all the bowling pins (or flaming chainsaws) that life seems to throw our way. That’s when it becomes impossible to help others.
READING THE SIGNS AND TAKING ACTION
When I trained as a wilderness educator we learned about hypothermia. It’s basically when your body’s core temperature becomes dangerously low and can no longer regain equilibrium on its own. I think hypothermia serves as a great analogy here. First, you need to know what the signs and symptoms are. If you don’t, you and whomever you are responsible for are much more likely to get it. As the leader, you are trying to juggle a whole host of outcomes for your participants (including preventing hypothermia). However, if you get hypothermia, because of how hard you are working to care for your participants, you have now jeopardized all of your outcomes! As leaders we were trained to mitigate those risks by taking great care of ourselves. Stay hydrated, consume some calories, take breaks, appropriately layer and vent clothing, exercise, etc. Then, if our participants are getting cold, we are in a position to do something about it. Furthermore, we are role modeling for them precisely how to take care of themselves. Lastly, staying warm is not a “one and done” intervention. It’s about balance, self-awareness, flexibility, and responsiveness. In other words, it’s an ongoing process. You need to be vigilant and keep drinking water, keep eating snacks, keep assessing your clothing and the environment around you. Is it windy? Maybe you do need to put that hat back on. You need to play the long game when it comes to staying warm, not that short game. So it is with stress.
Just to recap.
Step One. Know the risks, signs, and symptoms.
Step Two. Take proactive measures to mitigate risk factors. Step Three. Maintenance.
CRAFTING A PLAN FOR BALANCE
Make a plan for maintenance. This is both really simple and very complicated. Simply put, make a plan for taking care of yourself by regularly doing what you know you need to do. Eat, sleep, exercise, socialize, etc. Your self-care plan needs to be your own. It has to be personalized because it has to work for you. If you don’t know what you need to do or what you need, that is an important step to consider. What replenishes you? Is it engaging with friends and family and being social or are you more introverted and crave more “me” time? Are you a runner or is tennis more your sport? Yoga? Do a little self-exploration if needed, it will pay off in the long game. Then stick to your plan. Sure, you will need to make sacrifices or accommodations. That is inevitable. But make a commitment to get back to your plan and take care of yourself. Give yourself a break. You won’t be perfect. That isn’t the goal. Balance is the goal.
Care for yourself, and you’ll be more capable of caring for your child. In the process, you’ll be role modeling healthy coping and good self-care for your child. Good luck!