Self-care will make the biggest difference in your loved one’s life than anything else you could do.
Self-care is a lot more than just taking a break, getting away from the routine, breathing, taking a hot bath, having balance, enjoying a girls’ night out, exercising or getting your toenails done.
Those things are awesome and important, and I would encourage you to do them as much as you can, but there’s more to self-care than that.
Not only do you deserve to take care of yourself, but it is also your responsibility to practice self-care.
You owe it to yourself, your loved one that you care for, and the other people around you to take care of your physical health, to stay strong and healthy. It feels good and you want to live a long time, for yourself and to take care of your loved ones.
The same is true for mental and emotional health. Here’s why your emotional self-care is so much more powerful and important in your life than even getting a lovely massage.
Emotional and mental self-care is the most important thing you can do for your loved ones. It’s what they most want and need from you, whether they realize it at the moment or not.
They want you to be happy, love yourself, and savor your life, even if it’s not perfect. Especially, if it’s not perfect, or what you thought it would be like!
Find joy in small moments and know how to be present, be one who allows yourself the space to make mistakes, and doesn’t create a whole lot of meaning and drama around it. Be vulnerable, and know how to handle and process negative emotions, rather than allowing it to control you or constantly reacting to, running from, or avoiding it.
Love your body no matter how tall or short, skinny or stout, strong or fragile—be someone who understands your value just as you are and no matter what you do. These things will impact your loved one more than some of the things that most of us invest our time and effort into.
They’ll impact your loved ones more than the best vacation you might have planned before the illness occurred, that you’ve had to cancel. It means more than how much training you get or how educated you are. More than whether you work full-time and hire help, whether you stay home and do it all yourself, or have oodles of money or none.
Those things, the kind of caregiver you are, and your emotional and mental health, will have much more of an impact on your loved one, as well as on your other relationships.
A very important thing to know is that self-care is not selfish. You may struggle to make yourself a priority because it feels selfish. It feels like in order to be a priority you must put other things, including the rest of your family’s needs after you own.
We all have needs. Wouldn’t it be great if you didn’t? Then it would be much easier to just serve everyone around you. But you do want to have needs. You’re meant to.
Whether you notice them, pay attention to them and focus on filling those needs or not, they still exist. Some of your needs are going to be met externally.
Sometimes you’ll have circumstances in your life that will naturally and easily fill your needs, and other times you won’t have as much.
For example, when my husband, Joe, was in the Navy, we wanted for nothing. Life wasn’t luxurious, but we had a home and food. We had medical coverage and good friends. Our boys were healthy and we enjoyed physical activity, the outdoors, sports, camping, hiking, and many other pursuits.
When he got sick and suddenly wasn’t able to work, I began working full-time and took on the role of the caregiver as well.
I felt resentment, my husband felt shame, and it was tough at first. But I was lucky to have a lot of my needs met, for connection with mentally and physically healthy adults, at work and church. My need to love my husband was fed by our children’s constant love and support for both of us. Somehow we always had a home, food, and a car. Our needs for fun and outdoor activity suffered a gradual demise over the years, but I’ve made it a point to always have a dog, which gives me a lot of comfort.
But we can become needy when we constantly look for external things to fill our needs. Sometimes these things aren’t filling our bucket, and we don’t consciously mean to be needy; we maybe don’t even realize we are.
We know we need something, but not how to get it. It’s a creepy place to be. I know now that I was needy for many years. I felt like a victim and depended on the kindness of others to listen to my sad stories and comfort me during my pity parties.
We can continue to live in that place of needing validation from outside of us, or we can learn the art of self-care. How can we do that?
The first thing that’s critical is to know what your needs are and how they’re best met. It sounds simple but it’s not always. It requires that you pay attention to yourself. It requires that you listen to yourself and that you become a watcher of your thoughts. You need to pay attention to your mind and behavior and habits, so you’ll know what your needs are.
How needs are best met varies greatly from one person to another.
Journaling is a great way to listen to yourself and pay attention to your thoughts and feelings. It can be very therapeutic.
Sincere, thoughtful prayers can be of great insight into what you need.
Meditation and anything that centers around mindfulness can be powerful in guiding you to learning how to meet your needs.
Exercise is a way many people get in touch with their thoughts and needs. Taking a walk, running, biking, swimming, and gardening are times you can ponder all the things of life and be alone with yourself.
Have a regular practice for connecting with yourself. If you’re walking or running, don’t always have music or a podcast to listen to. Just take the time to notice your thinking and learn what you want.
I’ve learned that I have a pretty high need to be with close family, hang out with my children and granddaughter, cuddle with my dogs, read good books, and get out in nature.
One of the ways I fill my needs is to connect with a loved one when I experience something beautiful or exciting in my life, or when I encounter a tough challenge. I immediately want to talk to someone about it, get feedback, understanding, and perspective by talking and sharing. If no one is around to share with, I find myself in the kitchen looking for a snack, an artificial and only temporarily satisfying way to deal with a challenge or to celebrate.
A good place to explore understanding what you need is to notice whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert. These two descriptions of people’s natures are often misunderstood.
Being an introvert or an extrovert has to do with where you get your energy from, versus what makes you feel exhausted or low on energy.
If you’re an introvert, you tend to recharge with alone time.
An extrovert gets a recharge from being around other people.
Another thing that’s highly misunderstood is that you aren’t just a complete introvert or extrovert. Tendencies operate on a spectrum, so most of us lean more one way or the other, but we have affinities to the other side of the spectrum, too.
You may be a strong introvert or extrovert, with minimal connection to the other one. Maybe the comparison is mild for you, in terms of how it shows up, like definitely not black or white, and it may be a fairly even combination of the two. Life experiences can also swing you from predominantly one to the other.
For example, I’m more of an introvert. I get energy from reading, hanging out with one favorite person, or walking my dogs, but I also love coaching, being with a small group of friends, or attending a community event. The thing that tells me I’m an introvert is how I feel after the reading and the party. Reading re-charges my batteries and fills me up. I enjoy a good block party, but then I need a nap or a cuddle with my furball to recover.
There are many other personality tests and comparisons you can use to help understand your needs. As I’ve taken these tests and quizzes, I’ve realized that the answers are different for me now than they were before I became a caregiver.
I’ve heard many caregivers say they don’t like who they’ve become, they wish they had their life back so they would be happier, nicer, more fun, etc. The interesting thing is that they still have the same capacity to be nice, happy and fun. They’ve just forgotten who they really are because they’ve neglected their emotional self-care.
It’s not something to be ashamed of or regret, it’s all acceptable. It’s simply a stepping stone to realizing how important it is to observe our thoughts and to practice better emotional self-care.
There are a lot of other areas to explore, too. Think about what you enjoy doing.
Maybe you like to problem solve and fix things.
Maybe you like to take community or college classes. I have a friend who has three master’s degrees because taking classes fills her bucket.
Maybe you need to be creative, whether that’s through sewing or art or music or decorating your house or photography.
Maybe you have a need to give, to contribute time, or donate skill, or to be part of something big. After caregiving my husband from the time my oldest was four years old, he was 16 and finally able to drive. I let him drive neighbor kids, friends and classmates to school, activities, and events without expecting any reimbursement for gas or any thanks because, for the past 12 years, people had come out of the woodwork to help me transport our children to all kinds of practices, events, tryouts, classes, and get-togethers while I was at work and Joe was in the fetal position in bed. It felt so good to finally be able to pay it forward.
Maybe you have a need for hobbies, achievements or to be a part of a community project, team or strategy.
The critical message is that you need to understand what your needs are in order to care for yourself.
Most people don’t pay attention to their relationship with themselves. We have a toxic, cruel, harmful relationship with ourselves.
Pay attention to how you talk to yourself. Are you kind, or are you cruel? Are you critical, or are you compassionate? The truth is, if you’re mean to yourself, you’ll hide from yourself as much as possible.
None of us likes to be talked down to, and if it happens enough, we’re going to try to protect ourselves by avoiding whoever is talking to us. You may still have the habit of telling yourself you’re forgetful, but you don’t pay attention to it. You try to block it out and avoid it. Or you express it out loud to others, hoping that they’ll realize that you’re on to yourself, and they won’t feel the need to add to your pain by also telling you.
You won’t be as in tune with what you need if you’re hiding out from yourself. You need to learn how to be kind and how to hold the space for yourself.
Nobody has 100% clean, pure, positive happy thoughts. In fact, most people have crazy, bizarre, horrible thoughts that pop up. It’s part of how we’re wired.
I have a client who told me she hates being in the same room with her husband any more. As she told me this I could tell she was close to tears, because she judges herself for feeling that way. She thinks that if she was a loving wife and caregiver she would still enjoy his company, even though in many ways he has become a stranger to her. She thinks there’s something wrong with her.
I told her that it’s important for her to notice and acknowledge all her thoughts about her relationship, without beating herself up and thinking she’s unkind, or doing it wrong, or being any less of a wife and caregiver because she doesn’t enjoy her husband’s company.
Right now, it’s a sneaky little thought that keeps coming up for her, making her feel like she’s not a good wife and a horrible person. I’m helping her to see how she’s creating pain with this thought, that it’s optional, and that she can feel however she wants to about herself.
This will happen as she becomes more adept at noticing her thoughts, not judging them, and trusting herself to be compassionate and realizing that her brain is trying to make her feel bad so she’ll take better care of her husband.
Many of us think that if we feel badly enough about ourselves it will motivate change. This is absolutely backward. We can’t hate ourselves better. It takes love and kindness to feel inspired to act in positive ways.
Just like we all have needs, whether we pay attention to them or not; we all have a relationship with ourselves, whether we recognize it or not. All of us have a need to be reminded of our own worth once in a while, and that may vary from person to person.
Practice loving self-care: the kind of care you give to your loved one, your children, or your best friend. Be your own BFF. Be your hero and champion. You are amazing and strong and beautiful and loveable.
Do you know that you are infinitely loveable and precious just as you are?
In my book, Home of the Unknown Soldier you’ll find out how loveable you really are.