It is ingrained in American culture, and perhaps other cultures, that being helpful and selfless are two of the most important qualities a person can have. Calling someone selfish is often akin to calling someone else a four-letter word that I would not put in print. But this belief that our only job is to help others ultimately defeats that goal. You cannot give something that you do not have, and so when no one is “pouring” in to you, eventually you will run out! You cannot pour from an empty vessel and you cannot help someone walk to where you have never been.
This blog feels a little hypocritical, but what we know and what we do are sometimes different, and writing this blog will, hopefully, remind me of the things that I personally need to do to take care of myself. So, if you know me, and started to laugh as you read this blog, I am very aware that I need to continue to work on this myself.
For mental health professionals, and the loved ones of those struggling with mental health issues, this pandemic and lock down has created significant difficulties, that we were, for the most part, not prepared for. First, everyone is experiencing the same shelter in place, difficulty with not having contact with others, and not being able to see family and friends. This means that mental health professionals, and those who support the mentally ill, are experiencing the same problems that everyone else is. Second, mental health professionals are not able to do the things that they are normally do in order to help others. Although we can utilize telehealth, there is value, at least in my opinion, in sitting in a room with someone, playing with children, and engaging people in person. Thus, the effort that we as professionals are having to put forth is actually significantly higher than when we are providing services in a traditional setting.
And so, this begs the question, how do we continue to maintain our own mental health, our own boundaries, while still supporting others who need us? This is certainly not a call to abandon clients or loved ones, or to tell them that they are on their own for the next week so that you can take a break. Instead, this is intended to give you some ideas about how to proactively care for yourself, and a few things you can do if you are already on the burned-out side!
1. Know yourself. Everyone is a little bit different, and so how you truly are “poured into” is going to be similarly personally. However, if you do not know what fills up your cup, if you cannot identify how to care for yourself, no one else is going to be able to help you and you will very quickly find your cup running dry.
2. Have a support system for yourself. It is important that you have people who are pouring in to you, and also people who can give you a break. I recognize that during this time, that might be particularly difficult, and you might have to be very creative. But now is the time to do it. Be creative and find a way that people who love you can support you!
3. Set times aside for yourself, and keep those! Each week I plan an hour every day, in the middle of the day, when I can have a lunch break. When I told one of my colleagues about this, she said that she was proud of me, but jokingly said that she would wait and see if I actually kept that break. At least three times per week, I fail. I try to fail just partially, by always making sure that I eat lunch, it’s just sometimes faster than others! Remember, I said that this blog was really written for me, and I always want to be transparent.
4. Do what is good for you, not what feels good in the moment. If you are choosing between fast food and healthy food, choose healthy food. If you are deciding between a glass of water and a can of soda, choose the water. And if you are debating about going to sleep or watching just one more episode of Parks and Recreation on Netflix, turn off the television and go to bed. In the moment, that fast food tastes delicious, but it is actually giving you no nutrition, which means you will feel more tired as your body works endlessly to digest food that is pretty useless. In the moment, that soda or coffee feels like it is the only thing that will give you energy and make you feel better. The truth is that by the time you feel thirsty, you are already dehydrated. We do not drink enough water, get hydrated and you might be surprised by how much more energy you have. I am not suggesting that you never treat yourself to something fun, yummy, or funny. We need to be able to have those moments, but they need to be moments, not multiple times per day events.
5. If this is your job, set healthy “work time” boundaries. When we work at home, it is often easy for us to work longer hours, to simply allow work to go on until late in the evening. But work computers and paperwork should be put away at the end of the day, the work phone should be put away, and how much time and effort you spend thinking about work has to be done at the end of the day. This will not only serve to improve your own mental health, but it will also support the relationships that you have with your family and loved ones.
6. Finally, do one thing every day that is just for you. It is important for you to regularly remind yourself that you are as important as everyone else. This can take 30 seconds, or 30 minutes, but no matter what it is, it is just about you. Everyone has 30 seconds, even if it is just to take deep breaths while you wash your hands.
Now, if you have found yourself burned out, and you can use any word you want to describe it, caregiver fatigue, burned out, or just plain tired, in this time, it is vital that you notice how you feel and address it ASAP. Avoiding addressing it or not noticing until you have literally had a breakdown is actually very likely to happen because you are not in contact with the people in your life who would remind you about what you need to do!
1. Take some real time for yourself. This might mean taking a full day with no work and no caring for loved ones. This might be difficult for you, and for some of you, in this moment, it might feel impossible. But if there is any way for you to take some real time, get a good night’s sleep, eat food that you like and that is good for you, and refill your own cup, you will be able to continue on caring for others in a much more successful way.
2. Engage your clients and/or the ones that you care for in something that you enjoy and is also good for you. I regularly do bubbles with the children that I work with, even at home! They blow bubbles on one side of the computer, and I blow bubbles on my own side. It forces me to take deep breaths and it is enjoyable, and it is also great for little people. For you, it might be gardening, or watching a funny movie, baking or cooking something that you like, or reading a book that is for pleasure. This does seem strikingly like what you “should” do as a proactive strategy, but as a reactive strategy, you will need to do it more often and for a longer period of time to feel better.
3. Contact someone you trust and share with them the very depth of your feelings. This might be another mental health professional, a family member, or a colleague. It is important that you are not trying to manage these feelings on your own. We are intended to be in relationship with others, and caring for those who are struggling with their own mental health issues requires you to seek support from others. No matter how you work through your own “stuff,” you must do it in relationship and connection with others.
4. Finally, give yourself some grace. It is normal to have these experiences, especially in this particular time period. This means that it is vital for you to simply acknowledge that you might have a hard day, or a few hard days. Rather than judging your experience and feelings, it is important for you to simply accept that this is how you are feeling. Judging the feeling will actually make them worse.
This was not an easy blog to write. I hope that this is helpful for you, I can say that it was certainly helpful for me to process through all of this, consider how I am taking care of myself, and let myself have the moment to just appreciate where I am at.