Caregiver Syndrome

That title sounds like there is some danger or negative consequence for being a caregiver, right? People get paid to be caregivers, sometimes earning a certification to help gain and maintain such a position. How can it be a bad thing to provide assistance to family members, friends, coworkers, or even strangers?

I was taught to care for others, even learning a chorus about receiving joy when others are put first. Maybe it’s my nature or maybe it’s the message I got – that I must never think of myself. I’m not saying I was told to never think of myself. But I watched my parents and others give of themselves, with humility, but sometimes to the detriment of their own physical or emotional health. When I became a mom, my over-abundant caregiver nature kicked in at full throttle. That’s the way it’s supposed to be done when you bring the highly-anticipated miracle into the world, right? I remember my dad taking our family on summer trips to see various locations he wanted us to experience. I also know that his health suffered as a result of those activities. If you had a chance to ask him, he most likely would deny any regrets for any physical pain he experienced. Making sure children are healthy and happy is the priority for parents. Period.

So how do you justify taking care of yourself without appearing selfish? (That’s a rhetorical question, by the way!) A couple of years ago I came upon an example that clarified the need for self-care. Have you been on a commercial flight in the last decade or so? When the airline attendant begins explaining the safety procedures, you roll your eyes and put your ear buds in, don’t you? At some time you’ve heard them tell you that if the plane loses pressure, oxygen masks fall from the overhead compartments and should be strapped on over your snout. The attendant proceeds to explain that if you’re traveling with small children, you should put on your own mask first, then attend to placing the apparatus on your child. The first time I heard it, I clearly thought they were absolutely wrong. Every mom knows you make sure your child is safe first! But the explanation of their instruction makes sense once you understand why. First, if you’re three, or five or ten, the plane is losing pressure, strange things are falling from the ceiling, people are screaming in fear, and your mom looks like she did the time you climbed 20 feet up in a tree, you are probably not going to allow her to put the strange thing on your face without a struggle. If Mom puts her mask on first, the likelihood of allowing her to put yours on increases greatly. Role modeling safety is the key, here. Second, if Mom is safely breathing oxygen, then she is capable of caring for and calming you.

This applies to everyday life, as well. If I don’t take care of myself, how can I expect to be who and what my family, my friends, my colleagues, my clients need. No more thinking, “If my clients find out I need to see a counselor, they might wonder if I can help them.” Being a counselor doesn’t mean I have all the answers. It certainly doesn’t mean I have everything together or that I’m better than clients, or anyone else, for that matter. It does mean I can’t be the mother, daughter, friend, colleague, or counselor I need to be if I don’t take care of myself. That includes healthy eating, enough exercise, proper rest, appropriate fun, and sessions with a counselor to help me process my personal stress and my caregiving career. I’m putting on the oxygen mask. So I can help you with yours.

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Hello. My name is Vicky and I’m a perfectaholic!

I have a few hours of sobriety since my most recent frustrating thoughts of what I might need to do to be perfect. I keep attempting to quit using perfection as a goal. Then I see a friend accomplishing something in her life, an acquaintance being acknowledged for his heroism, someone I don’t know from Adam appearing to have her life together perfectly, and it triggers the craving for perfection. I can’t seem to stay away from it. It pulls me in like trying to blow up a balloon sucks all the wind out of me. These attempts at perfection have become unmanageable, so I’m here to admit I have a problem and I need help. (And everyone said, “Thank you for sharing, Vicky.”)

So … I’m not mocking Alcoholics Anonymous or patronizing the many people who confessed a substance problem and have been helped by the organization of those who have been helped by helping others. This craving for perfection is real. My childhood was greatly influenced by godly people who spent their lives desiring to be like Jesus, adhering to the scriptural exhortation of being perfect, as God is perfect (Matthew 5:48). Unfortunately, I didn’t get the “as God is perfect” part as much as the interpretation that “if I mess up, I’m ruined, because everyone around me is perfect.” And when you finish high school at #17 out of 29 classmates (Yes, that is what my transcript says, and I can’t count the number of times I have looked at it and beat myself up for not being at least in the top half.), knowing that you are that far away from perfect is like trying to run a marathon with no training, carrying a 200 pound barbell. It doesn’t seem to matter that your first two years of high school were riddled with the losses of three close family members. You should have been strong enough and spiritual enough to push through, be strong, and reach your potential. Instead, the constant reminder that perfection is just out of reach leads you to be paralyzed with fear of trying anything outside your comfort zone because you will certainly fail and feel the looks of pity from those you admire for their perfect lives.

Because that number, 17 out of 29, was stuck in my head as a representation of “not good enough,” I spent a good many years not knowing what I could possibly be slightly good at, much less perfect. I took a few classes here and there, and did well, but nothing clicked. I was certain that no one expected much of me, and yet there was desire inside to make a difference. I finally figured it out and started back to college, which was monumentally challenging while working full time and being a single mom. I still wanted perfect grades and I worked hard for them. Because a few grades were transferred in, my GPA still wasn’t as perfect as I wanted, but it was more acceptable (My academic advisor was WON-DER-FUL at pep talks.), and gave me the courage to attempt graduate school.  Two factors supported this new realization that I could do well: online classes and the encouragement of family, friends, and acquaintances. I never had to compare my grades to those of classmates. I only had to do MY best and many shared their belief in my capability when I doubted myself.

More than a year ago, I came across a statement that stood out to me. (I truly would credit whoever said or wrote it, if I could remember who.) This is what I took away: I don’t have to be perfect compared to the next person. I just have to be better than I was yesterday. Wow. Hit me like a ton of bricks. Or a huge wave of relief. I compare the concept to the training for swimmers. Initially, they are not focused on the other swimmers. They work on cutting off a second or two from yesterday’s time. And when you think about it, the constant frenzy to be perfect is selfish. Yes, selfish. Because it does focus on being better than the next person, possibly making them feel “less than,” rather than the progress I make each day. And while I desire to be respected, I can’t spend my days fretting over other’s seeing my imperfection.

I want to be great, not arrogant. I don’t want to be perfect. I want to be better than I was yesterday. I want to be human and forgiving when others make mistakes, because I know I will need that same forgiveness when I mess up. I will keep working on “better than yesterday,” and maybe, just maybe, it will allow for someone else to be okay with who they are today. Here’s to perfection recovery. (I tried to create a logo for Perfectionists Anonymous, but it wasn’t good enough! Oops.)

Why Journal?

As a youngster, I remember the novelty of walking through store aisles of writing tablets and drawing utensils and seeing tiny books with narrowly-lined pages, shiny clasps, and keys to lock them tight. Being raised by an artist mother, I was (and still am) enamored by the sight of fresh new paper and assortments of pens and pencils. But there was something about having a place to make thoughts come alive on paper where no one could read them. I don’t remember what age I acquired my first diary, but recently came across it in a box with other long-hidden memory items. The sight of it flooded my mind with a remembrance of thoughts scrawled on its pages with the careless hand and hurting heart of a teenager. It was the place I shared my heart at times when friends were physically unavailable.

Life has long since generously handed out circumstances of varying levels of difficulty, softened by even more moments of joy. When I think about and read the words of that old diary, I am taken back to the memory of painful experiences, but see myself and those circumstances in a different light from when I first expressed them. I often hear the cliché, “Time heals all wounds,” and agree to some extent. In reality, the pain of loss never goes away. The faces of loved ones who have passed are burned into our memories. However, we can heal. We find ways to go on. But we still have scars and meaningful stories to tell when asked about them.

So, what is the point? One of the ways that is significant in aiding those wounds to heal is journaling. There is something about writing out thoughts of grief, anger, joy, disappointment, or any other emotion, that relieves it like finding a clean truck stop restroom after a 2-liter bottle of water and a 2-hour road trip with a dad who hates to stop! (Yes, that has happened.) In our day of super technology, many of us resort to a keyboard to release our thoughts, although the preferred method, in my opinion, is pen and clean sheet of paper. (I admit, my perfection addiction leads to frustration when the pen in my hand can’t possibly keep up with the thoughts going through my head and the crazy thing makes a mess. In ink!)

When I started the remaining classes for a second graduate degree almost three years ago, I started this blog. I truly get the importance of writing thoughts and feelings, particularly when you’re the type that tends to over-think EVERTHING. Of course, ironically, I began to overthink, without writing one word here, and this blog sat here waiting for me to heed the advice I repeatedly give my clients. “Write,” I tell them. “It’s therapeutic,” I admonish. “You’ll benefit by seeing your words in black and white, and be able to identify faulty thinking patterns,” I say. Yet here I am, three years later, just getting started because I allowed my fear of having someone think I might not be perfect limit actions that would certainly benefit me, if no one else. It’s a silly title. No one will read it. If they do, they’ll think it’s stupid. They’ll think I’m stupid. And on and on. You know the pattern, don’t you?

But what if? What if someone else has the same issue of self-limiting or self-deprecating thoughts? Maybe someone, somewhere needs to know they are not alone? What if they read my words and felt empowered to do something courageous? I’m here at this laptop today because someone, somewhere, sometime faced their fear of the unknown and wrote what he was passionate about, in the hope that someone who was struggling with similar issues could find the strength to face theirs. I read it and found the courage to dive into the thought-sharing pool. And I have to tell you: it feels extremely freeing to stare fear in the face here. (I may need a life jacket, so be ready.)

Yes, I will most likely stress about whether a reader might express contempt or apathy for my content. But if even one person relates and feels empowered to reach for a goal, small or profound, I have fulfilled a purpose, and that. That. Is. Enough!