Taking Care as a Caretaker

For those who love helping others; a gentle reminder to take care of yourselves, too.

As a physical therapist and meditation coach in training, I deeply sympathize with the joy that comes from supporting others on their journey, especially when your own life experience inspires you to reach out and lend that helping hand. What wisdom is more valuable than from those who have walked the same path? A fire may ignite within you to spread the insight you have gained through the trials and tribulations of your own experience, as these are things that simply cannot be learned in a textbook and are the most valuable gifts we can offer to those around us. Some of us feel it is almost a duty to help others in their suffering after we have experienced our own, I know I do.

I believe this tendency to take our own stories–which might come in the form of life experiences or a troubling, chronic illness, as in my case and possibly yours, and turn it around into something positive that can help someone who are on a similar path–is so beautiful and so valuable. It is not only valuable to those we are helping, but it is valuable to us as well. It gives immeasurable meaning and purpose to those experiences; the path that we walked that seemed unbearable once, until we found the light. The things we would have preferred to do without, yet now can be used for good. We can show others that in their own seemingly impenetrable darkness there is, fact, light; there is immeasurable value in that. It may even make it all worthwhile.

It is essential that we do not deny ourselves and others the invaluable gift of reaching out that hand. Although we find immense meaning, reward, and peace in knowing our past pain is being used for good, it is also important to practice care for ourselves as we are taking on the role of being caretakers for others. 

When you love something and it feeds you joy, it is tempting to dedicate all your time and energy to it. It may be easy to push yourself aside and forget about your own needs. This is human nature, and it is especially common and natural among volunteers and those in helping professions. However, later on we may see that not prioritizing ourselves may take a bit of a toll on our well-being. It may feel difficult to shift gears and dedicate more time to self-care once the fatigue sets in. However, if we do prioritize our own well-being, it will make caring for others that much easier, and we will be more effective as well. Luckily, there are very simple and easy things that we can all do and goals we can set to avoid getting overwhelmed or overly fatigued to ultimately continue to prioritize both our own needs and those of others.

Tips for Balancing Your Needs with the Needs of Others

  • First and foremost, never feel guilty saying no to taking on more. If you have completely filled up your plate but feel an obligation to accept more responsibility, remember how much more effective you will be at completing the tasks you already have if you do not spread yourself thin. The people around you will always understand if you have to set limits, it is just our own false perception or silly fear that they won’t. 
  • Set aside scheduled times throughout the day to take mental breaks, whether that be in the form of formal meal time or a few minutes to dedicate to quiet meditation. This can be just a few minutes at a time, and will provide a major reset. You will return to your task much more refreshed than you expect, I promise!
    • Personal note: It was always so tempting for me to work straight through lunch because I felt like I had so much to do. However, I learned that the best thing I could do for myself was to make taking a full lunch break non-negotiable. Once I set this boundary and made it a consistent rule, I always completed the rest of my day more happily and with more energy to spend with patients. Plus, it goes without saying that fueling yourself well is necessary! Take the time to do so.
  • If you happen to be going through a rough patch, share that information with those you are working with. Even those you are helping will find comfort in being able to relate to you further. Do not be afraid to be honest about your own experience in real time. So much good can come of it. 
  • Adopt a formal mindfulness meditation practice in the morning or evening. I even practice during my lunch breaks, sometimes for just three minutes at a time. Just a few minutes will make all the difference. Give it a try and see what happens. 
  • Set small goals. They are just as valuable as the big ones, and will allow you to place less pressure on yourself in the process of achieving them so you will ultimately prevent becoming overwhelmed. 
  • Space out the work you have so that you can fit in your non-negotiables, such as exercise, enough time for your meals, family time, and hobbies. You will be happier and healthier if you do not sacrifice the things that are important to you, and you will end up being able to help others more effectively. 
  • Understand that you may go through periods of fatigue, and if you take the necessary steps to prioritize yourself and your needs, they will pass. It is normal and expected to sometimes feel overwhelmed when you dedicate yourself to helping others in need. Let yourself experience these emotions, do the right things for yourself, and remind yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing! Usually, for most of us, it’s because we love it, which makes it easier to work through these low periods and let them pass, just as they came. 
  • Know that you are not alone! Just because you have taken on the role of a volunteer or caregiver does not mean that you have to be superhuman, or are immune to setbacks. Helping others may feel heavy at times, especially if you are navigating your own journey. Reach out to others for support. 

A Note from the Author

I would love to connect and chat further, please follow me on Instagram at @mindfullydizzy and message me any time. I share information on how to practice mindfulness meditation, how to implement easy ways to incorporate beneficial and healing mindfulness into your daily life, and expect to see some guided meditations to come!

by Claire Perfetti, DPT, MindfullyDizzy Monthly Digest