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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