“You cannot serve from an empty vessel”
— Eleanor Brownn
By Rev. Carla Cheatham, MA, MDiv, PhD, TR
When we care for a family member, taking time to care for ourselves can be especially hard, assuming the resources are even available to allow us to do so. We do not want them to think they are a burden. We might feel sad for what they are going through, wishing we could fix it and make it all better.
We may feel selfish about stepping away for a bit of respite because they do not get to take a break from their illness, so why should we? We often feel compelled to push ourselves harder and further than is healthy, mistakenly seeing self-care as a luxury or feeling guilty for taking time away.
Selfishness is when we take care of our own needs at another’s expense. Self-care is when we take good care of ourselves so we CAN show up well for others. Exquisite self-care is our first and greatest priority if we wish to be good caregivers.
When we do not put our own oxygen mask on first, we can help no one and are more likely to develop compassion fatigue, the emotional and physical state that occurs when the amount of care we are taking in isn’t enough to make up for the care we extend.
Setting too high of expectations for ourselves can leave us feeling something is wrong with us, but humans under stress can get impatient, short-tempered, and long for our situation to be different. That happens, but will be less likely if we take in what we need to maintain our internal resources.
We may feel powerless to change our circumstances and get the full support we need and deserve, but we are not helpless to take action on our own behalf. Even with very little time to ourselves, we can find mini-moments throughout the day to lower our feelings of stress and increase calm in our bodies and brains.
4-square breathing—Using your heartbeat as a timer, breathe in for the count of 4, hold that breath for 4, breathe out for 4, and hold for 4. You can do 3-4 of those in about a minute a couple of times a day.
Hand washing ritual—As caregivers, we wash our hands often and experts recommend doing so for 25 seconds. Take that time to breathe, feel your feet on the floor, soften your belly and torso, and lower your shoulders away from your earlobes where they’ve crept up due to stress.
Waterfall doorway—Pick a doorway you walk through often. Imagine a waterfall coming down through that doorway washing off the stress of the day collected to that point to keep from accumulating it all day long.
Common cues—Pick a common object, like a penny or a certain type of bird. Each time you see one, pause for 5 seconds and check in with the committee in your head to see if negative or self-defeating messages are running through your brain. If so, change the narrative with a positive phrase, mantra, or prayer repeated over and over again for a few more seconds until you feel a positive shift.
Phone a friend—Call someone you trust to talk about anything else other than your struggles and stressors. Even 5 minutes with someone who reminds us we are part of a larger world beyond the circumstances of our current moment can help to center us.
Three Good Things—Research has shown if, within one or two hours before sleep, we write down three good things that happened during the day and what made those moments positive, we sleep better and our rates of burnout go down substantially. Do this for 14 days. It only takes a few moments and re-trains our brain to see the positive as well as the negative our brains can so easily focus upon.
ABC’s of Gratitude—When we most need to practice gratitude is often when we feel the least grateful. Name something that begins with each letter of the alphabet for which you are grateful. Even if our list starts frustratedly with apples, bananas, cats, and dogs, by the time we get to wisdom, yogurt and zebras our perspective will have shifted and we can feel the difference inside.
Hopefully something in these words has given you a couple of tools and encouragement to help you walk this journey. You and your loved ones deserve all the support and moments of peace you can access along the way.
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Carla Cheatham is the principal and lead trainer for Carla Cheatham Consulting Group, LLC and serves as a national keynote speaker and educator teaching in the areas of clinical presence and attunement, compassion fatigue and resilience, ethical spiritual and existential care, grief support, ethical boundaries and healthy teams, and more. She publishes two blogs through CarlaCheatham.com and HospiceWhispers.com. She is the author of Hospice Whispers: Stories of Life and its companion piece, Sharing Our Stories: A Hospice Whispers Grief Support Workbook.