I use the term Detrimental Caretaker to describe a person who gives until she (or he) feels empty and angry.
The opposite of detrimental caretaking is healthy helping. When we think of healthy helping holding hands with the string of decisions we make each day, let’s think about what it means to be a Healthy Decision Maker.
Most women manage the trappings of modern life well. A male colleague of mine once said, “Frankly, I don’t know how you do it,” in consideration of raising kids, working for a company, doing everything else we do for others and for ourselves—the essentials, the extras, the stresses combined.
Healthy Decision Makers set boundaries so clearly that you’d be touching an electric fence of sorts if you crossed over their lines. Boundaries represent structure, which is important to order. Some people see the order and boundaries very clearly. For others, distracted thinking throws life out of balance all the time.
Measuring Sticks of the Healthy Decision Maker (HDM):
- manages her life according to a system of four “Ds”: do, delegate, delay and dump. Notice how only one of those four categories requires that the Healthy Decision Maker sacrifice her time. An HDM not only delegates, delays and dumps off activities: She’s a pro at it.
- knows that saying “no” need not involve conflict. The HDM employs gracious phrases that save face for others, such as “I’m sorry, that won’t work for me” or “I can’t manage that — how about if we …”
- puts herself first. She makes sure her needs come on top of the list, knowing that once they’re taken care of — and only then — can she do her best for others.
- knows she can’t save the world and doesn’t try. When others come to an HDM with big problems or unreasonable requests, she listens — often empathetically — but knows well enough not to dive into dangerous waters.
- enlists others around her to carry their fair share of the load. In the world of an HDM, husbands and partners share in the domestic work and clean up after themselves. Babysitters pick up around the house, or do laundry, after the kids get put to bed.
- doesn’t give in to threats, coercion or manipulation. The spouse of a Healthy Decision Maker who might make her choose between a beloved self-nurturing activity and giving it away would find his suitcases by the doorway with a note. She wouldn’t pack them, though: He’d have to do it himself.
- surrounds herself with people who encourage, support and guide her. The Real World doesn’t always afford us the luxury of not having to deal with difficult people. Recognize there are opportunities there to not only test your strengths (and weaknesses) but to be a guiding light to others in challenging situations. An HDM knows she can’t go it alone. But just as she might resist those who would make unfair demands of her, she also respect the boundaries of those she depends on to help her stay keep calm and carry on.
- has a great sense of humor. As she seeks to keep her head about her and her days orderly, the Healthy Decision Maker possesses two essential skills: She can laugh at herself, and she can get other people to laugh with her as they back off from their unreasonable demands.
- has a strong, resilient sense of self. A Healthy Decision Maker doesn’t define herself by her job, possessions, influential friends or other trappings. She defines herself by internals, not externals.
Living up to any of these measuring sticks, let alone all of them, might sound like a tall order. But as we seek to make the transition from giving it away to taking it back, we need reference points to help give us the serenity and peace of mind we deserve.
Know that Healthy Decision Makers are neither perfect decision makers nor perfect people … they don’t necessarily have the best jobs or the best set of life circumstances … they come from all walks. But, they would no more “give it away” on a repeated basis than you or I would overdraw our checking accounts as if they contained endless amounts of cash.
Healthy helping — being most helpful to others while taking care of oneself too — is achievable through healthy decision making, not detrimental caretaking.