Have you been putting yourself last? Are you so busy taking care of everyone else that there’s no time and energy for yourself? Well, you’re not alone! Lots of us are stretched to the max.
Perhaps you’re happy to take care of everyone else’s needs – your kids, spouse, friends, parents, even your dog. Or you may be overwhelmed, exhausted, and growing resentful because their needs are consuming so much of your time and energy that there’s nothing left for you.
We all have needs (physical, emotional, spiritual, relational, and so forth). So, it’s not sustainable to consistently prioritize other people’s needs and neglect your own.
Is it codependency?
Taking care of others at your own expense is a symptom of codependency. However, not all caretakers are codependent, of course. The list below can help you determine if your caretaking is rooted in codependency.
- Our relationships are out of balance – we give but receive little caretaking in return.
- We think our needs are less important than everyone else’s.
- We feel responsible for other people’s happiness and wellbeing.
- We have unrealistic expectations of ourselves and feel guilty or selfish when we put ourselves first.
- Our self-worth is based on our ability to care for others. Taking care of others makes us feel important, valued, loved.
- We also feel angry or resentful of taking care of others because our help isn’t appreciated or reciprocated.
- We feel compelled to help, fix, rescue.
- We often give advice when it’s not wanted or find it difficult to refrain from telling others what to do or how to solve their problems.
- We feel insecure and afraid of criticism, so we do whatever it takes to please others.
- As children, we learned that our needs and feelings don’t matter.
- We think we should be able to do without.
- We don’t think we deserve care.
- We don’t know how to take care of ourselves. No one modeled self-care for us or taught us about things like feelings, boundaries, and healthy habits.
- We’re not sure what we need, how we feel, or what we like to do.
You can also learn more about codependency here.
Codependent “caretaking” is often enabling
It’s important to pause here and distinguish caretaking from enabling.
Enabling is doing something that the other person can reasonably do for themselves. So, it’s not enabling to drive your ten-year-old to school, but it might be enabling to drive your twenty-year-old to school or work.
Most 20-year-olds can drive themselves to work, so we need to explore the situation further to decide whether this is enabling. Is it enabling to drive your young adult child to work if she has severe anxiety about driving and is working with a therapist to overcome her anxiety? In this case, it’s probably helpful in the short-term to help her with transportation. But, what if she has severe anxiety about driving, but refuses to do anything to overcome her anxiety? In this case, driving her is probably enabling because it encourages dependency and makes it easier for her not to address her anxiety.
Taking care of your young children or elderly parents is probably not enabling them because their ability to care for themselves is limited. However, it is useful to periodically ask yourself whether your children or parents can do more for themselves. This is especially true for kids, who generally gain more skills and competence as they grow-up.
Enabling is usually part of a bigger pattern of doing things for others out of guilt, obligation, or fear. There’s nothing wrong with cooking dinner for your spouse (even though they are perfectly capable of doing it themselves) if there is a mutual give and take in the relationship. But it’s problematic if you’re giving and giving, but not being appreciated and taken care of in return.
Self-care isn’t optional
So, whether you’re in a codependent pattern of caretaking or simply in a season of your life when you have a lot of caretaking responsibilities, prioritizing self-care will help you take care of others and stay happy and healthy yourself.
Self-care is like a bank account. If you withdraw more than you deposit, you’ll overdraw your account and the bank will charge you a hefty fee. The same is true for people. If you’re constantly withdrawing your time and energy, but not replenishing it, it will eventually catch up with you and there will be a big price to pay. When we don’t take care of ourselves, we get sick, tired, less productive, irritable, resentful, and so forth.
Prioritizing self-care when you’re busy taking care of everyone else
- Give yourself permission. You need to start telling yourself that self-care is important and that you are allowed to do self-care activities. You might want to try writing yourself an actual permission slip (like your mom did when you were a kid and had to miss school). Here are two examples:
- Sharon has permission to ___________________ (go to the gym) today.
- Sharon has permission to miss ________________(staying late at the office) because she needs to ______________(take a bubble bath).
It might sound like a funny thing to do, but for some people a permission slip (even one you write yourself) legitimizes self-care.
- Schedule time for you. Self-care needs to be on your calendar. If it’s not scheduled, it’s probably not going to happen!
- Set boundaries. You need to protect your time by setting boundaries. If you’re already running on empty, don’t take on any new commitments. When you’re asked to help out, write yourself a permission slip to say “no”.
- Delegate. In addition to not taking on anything new, you may need to delegate some of your current responsibilities or ask for help in order to make time for self-care. For example, you may need to ask your brother to look after dad so you can go to the dentist or have your spouse take over cooking dinner a few nights a week so you can get to the gym.
- Recognize that you can’t help everyone. Sometimes we are burnt out because we’re trying to solve other people’s problems or help/fix issues that aren’t our responsibility. When you see someone struggling, your first impulse may be to rush in with solutions. However, we need to make sure our help is wanted and truly helpful (not enabling, which is largely to calm our own anxiety). You can read more about how to resist the urge to solve other people’s problems here.
- Some self-care is better than none. We don’t have to practice self-care perfectly (that’s why we call it a “practice”). It’s easy to fall into an all-or-nothing thinking trap that says if you can’t do it all or do it perfectly, why bother? But logically, we all know that five minutes of meditation is better than none. So, don’t be quick to dismiss the positive effects of micro acts of self-care (one healthy snack, a walk around the block, a quick call to your best friend, etc.). Finding the right balance between self-care and taking care of others is an ongoing process – and often it helps to remember that a little bit of self-care is better than none.
Taking care of others is important, meaningful work. And I’m not suggesting that you should stop caring. I just want to encourage you to give yourself the same love and care that you give to others. Make self-care a priority so you can live a long, happy, healthy life. You matter. Really.