I’m seeing a new wave of push back in the caregiver community around this issue of self care- “Don’t tell me I need to take care of myself”. I get it. It’s like when you’re feeling down and someone says: “Come on, smile” and you secretly imagine nudging them over a precipice into a deep abyss for infringing on your right to feel like dread.
There’s a strong measure of truth in the caregiver self care movement. Research often shows that as caregivers get more wrapped up in care they tend to forget their own needs. What research doesn’t always say is that no one does this with intention or for the purposes of self neglect. No one sets out to forget themselves- it’s simple opportunity cost- if I expend energy in one place, I simply do not have the reserves to expend it elsewhere. So, when you tell a caregiver they need to take better care of themselves, you’re secretly telling them they’ve made a bad choice or even worse a bad investment. Cue: anger.
There are other instances where self forgetting can also be very cathartic and healing for caregivers. Investing all of your energy into the welfare of someone else can be extremely validating at a personal level. Letting go to let someone else in fully is a very pure form of empathy that can be enlightening and help you see the world with new eyes. You’re not neglecting yourself, you’re expanding yourself to make room for another. There are occasions where this symbiosis can lead to self harm but there are so many others where it leads to genuine compassion and a new way of connecting with our deepest humanity and vulnerability.
Our fear that caregivers may be self neglecting may be warranted. The way in which we convey that to a caregiver needs to consider their own self perceptions and realities first. We can’t assume that just because someone is fully invested in another that they are divested of caring for themselves. They just may be temporarily redefining their role or identity to accommodate a new reality.
We don’t impose this self care mandate on mothers or fathers with new born children because we assume they have a made a choice to self sacrifice for the benefit of a vulnerable new being. Even though caregiving is different then child rearing because illness or disability is never a choice we make, we can’t assume that just because reality dealt them a tough hand that caregivers who go all in are at risk for dealing themselves out of their own lives. For some, they’re hedging their bets that if they give every ounce of what they’ve got that somehow, someway, everyone will come out on top.