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Six Theories Why Some Caregivers Suck at Self-care

Are you great at being a caregiver but suck at self-care? Me too. Just the other day I made a colorful, varied and healthy lunch for my dad while I ate cold pizza. And, although I am meticulous about making sure that he is clean, odor-free and his clothing and bedding are fresh, I just forget some days to take a shower.

As a second-time caregiver (first for my husband who died in 2008) now helping my dad, I am fascinated by the challenge of caregiver self-care. It seems so counter-intuitive that we, as the people relied on for care, take such poor care of ourselves.

I remember being so busy and consumed with my first husband’s care that I blamed lack of time for neglecting myself. I was overwhelmed and dizzy with activity that I just didn’t think about my own needs until it was too late. When I started feeling crushing fatigue, resentment and started having memory problems, I realized something had to change.

Today, I use emotions as reminders before things get out of hand. When I feel a pattern of anger over the course of a few days, I view it as an indicator that I’m not getting enough time, care or space for myself. When I notice that I could fall asleep in the middle of lunch, it’s time for better rest. When I’ve woken up with a headache for a third morning in a row, it’s time for some relaxation techniques.

But, I also know that, if I start to feel complete loss of control and that sinking in quicksand feeling, I’ve waited too long to do something proactive and I am at risk for burnout.

So why do some of us suck at self-care? I have a few theories. See if any of these fit your situation and feel free to comment below.

1. “Being in control of my loved one’s situation will keep bad things from happening to them.”

We can get so consumed with our loved one’s world that we forget about our own. My father has told me many times that I dote on him too much. The controlling side of me can take over and overdo to try and protect him from a fall or from feeling depressed.

Do you find yourself ruminating about their problems and trying to make things perfect for them that you lose sight of your own needs?

2. “Others will criticize me if I don’t take great care of my loved one.”

Sometimes we go overboard in providing beyond-excellent care because we are afraid that family, friends or others will criticize us. I don’t typically worry about this. It could be because I’m my father’s only child, however, I remember a time when I was concerned that his old neighbors would disagree with something I had arranged for my dad and think I wasn’t doing right by him.

Have you ever gone overboard in providing care because you were afraid others would criticize you?

3. “This is my time to shine as a selfless caregiver who sacrifices myself for my loved one.”

Sure, I take great pride in being my dad’s caregiver. I like the skill that it requires and that I can show my love for him in very practical and tangible ways. However, when my love gets overshadowed by my need to be recognized, it can end up being more about me and the desires of my ego and not making sure my loved one is safe and well cared for.

Have you ever felt a shift from caregiver pride to self-sacrificing egoist?

4. “I feel completely responsible for their happiness, safety and wellbeing.”

I shared in a previous blog that we cannot be responsible for anyone’s happiness but our own. A physician disagreed with my post, but I stand by that sentiment. I feel strongly about it because I’ve experienced what it’s like to feel guilty because a loved one’s life has been struck hard by illness or injury. We can feel so bad about their situation that we, naturally, might want to take all of their pain away and take on the job of making up for all of their losses. That’s a recipe for disaster for a couple of reasons.

First, it is their life and their path. We are here to support and help them, but we cannot take away their lessons or pain or growth in trying to remedy the situation.

Second, if our ship goes down, no one stays afloat. I remember when I had terrible back problems after my first husband’s illness became acute. I realized that I had to lose weight and take better care of myself because our household’s survival depended on me being healthy and able to work.

Do you feel overly responsible for your loved one’s life? How does this belief take away from you caring for yourself?

5. “Only I can provide care for my loved one.”

This thought is related to the one that goes “I have no one to help me.”  Sometimes it can feel really good to be “the only one.” When no one else can care for them like we can, it’s a badge or pride. I’ve been guilty of the thought that someone else won’t do it like I do it. Although my dad might not care, I may be picky about how it needs done to my standards. Here, again, our ego can get in the way of self-care. That’s when “good enough” is a prudent approach.

When do you let perfect get in the way of good enough? Has seeking perfection in caring for your loved one cost you time to care for yourself?

6. “I don’t want to let my loved one down and he/she expects a lot from me.”

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to do right by our loved ones and give them what they need. But, if we build up false or unrealistic expectations that we can never meet, we’re doomed to fail. Sometimes I know what the task requires and can deliver on it. Other times, I ask my dad what he would like done and I set boundaries around what I can do. Even then, our loved ones may be disappointed or critical that we didn’t do enough.

I have found it helpful to clarify expectations with my dad, but if what he wants is really outside of what’s possible for me, I try to compromise. In the end, however, my goal shouldn’t be that our loved one always gets their way, but that we both have our needs met as best as possible.

Have you felt you left your loved one down or that their expectations of you are too high? Is that their expectation or yours?

Ironically, what creates a great caregiver can, also, make us sensitive to a lot of beliefs that don’t serve us or our loved ones well. As I explore what holds me back from taking better care of myself, I can find the path to being a better caregiver for us both.

About @susanharkema

Susan is the creator of MyHealthVoice.com, built upon her 20+ years in healthcare and her experiences as a caregiver and patient. She is a writer, speaker and advocate for people living with chronic or life limiting illness as well as their family and professional caregivers. Learn more - www.myhealthvoice/susanharkema/.

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