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Caring for Ourselves while Caring for Others

Many of us go through busy seasons in our lives. We may be new parents, our jobs can demand much from us, or we may need to care for an ailing family member. As human beings our time, resources, and energy are finite; but the needs around us are infinite. To treasure and care for others are wonderful qualities to nurture, but if we want to be helpful in the long-term, we need to also balance our output with input. If we find ourselves growing increasingly irritable, restless, distracted, and stressed, we may be experiencing burnout. 


How do we care for ourselves in the midst of caring for others? If we view ourselves as caring and capable individuals who can function under high levels of stress, we can get very hard on ourselves when we sense we have reached our limits. It is important to adopt a stance of curiosity rather than judgement. What are those values and beliefs that make it hard to set limits? In what ways do we personally benefit from helping others? How might our involvement be costing us or our relationships? What are the likely outcomes of setting some parameters around our helping? Meeting with a therapist can provide some perspectives on where to realistically start, and how to better tolerate the guilt and discomfort of taking steps to change.


Another aspect of self-care involves shifting to a stance of self-compassion. We have a role to play in our well-being, but we also have limits as to what we can control. Self-compassion is the antidote to feeling not good enough. It can also provide self-soothing in situations where we feel stuck or under-resourced. It invites us to notice the difficult and complicated moments we are facing and permits us to receive comfort. When we are tempted to judge, we can instead choose to speak kindly to ourselves. We can acknowledge ourselves and our moment of suffering, our humanity apart from our performing.


In “The Mindful Self-Compassion” workbook, Kristin Neff suggests a simple breathing exercise for caregivers. It involves mindfully taking in one breath for yourself, and then taking one breath for someone you care for who is struggling. Imagine breathing in compassion for yourself, and then breathing out loving kindness towards the person you care for. “In for me and out for you.” “One for me and one for you.” Neff also suggests that some moments you may wish to focus a bit more on yourself: “Two for me and one for you.” Other moments, it may feel more right to give more to the other person: “One for me and three for you.” If you connect with the concept of prayer, you can also adapt the exercise to be: “One prayer for me, and one prayer for you.”


When we get into the habit of tending to ourselves while caring for others, we can be present for others in their pain while still maintaining our own distinction. In this manner, we learn to support others in their suffering while still taking responsibility for our own well-being. 



Angela Chan, MA, is a Canadian Certified Counsellor with the Canadian Counselling & Psychotherapy Association and specializes in the areas of self-esteem and interpersonal relationships, as well as many others. For more information on Angela and her work click here to link to her full bio page.