Are you the family member everyone looks to when times get tough? Are you who your friends call when they need a supportive ear? Are you in touch with everyone else’s needs, but kinda clueless about your own?
Guilty? Okay then, this post is for you.
Yes, you. You know who you are, you do-ers, givers, caretakers, and get-things-done-ers.
You’re steady and unflappable, empathetic, sympathetic, compassionate, and caring. When the going gets tough, you’re there making things easier. You’re loyal and thoughtful and you always put those you love first. True, you may spend a lot of time standing around in other people’s corners and, yes, your shoulder is usually a little damp from people crying on it, but that’s okay because taking care of people is your thing! Selflessness is a great quality! How could it ever not be a great quality?
I’ll tell you how.
You’ve heard the expression “too much of a good thing”, right? Well, selflessness and self-sacrifice are no exceptions to this rule. In past posts, we’ve discussed the benefit of conceptualizing emotion and behavior as though it exists on a continuum. By doing this we see that there’s a wide range of normal behavior, but sometimes extreme low points and extreme high points might be considered maladaptive (i.e. not healthy).
For example, let’s look at how a parent might balance a child’s needs with their own. On the low end of the spectrum, the parent completely ignores their child’s needs and focuses only on their own. This is bad parenting. On the higher end of the spectrum, the parent completely focuses on their child’s needs, to the detriment of their own needs. This type of selfless behavior can look like good parenting, but in actuality, it may cause the parent to be less healthy, patient, and empathetic. The same holds true for any type of relationship where someone seeks to support, help, and take care of another individual.
If you are a giver (or, if you prefer, a giving griever), the days, weeks, and months after someone dies may feel especially confusing. On the one hand, you’re a devastated mess of emotion. On the other hand, your caregiving instincts have kicked into overdrive. There is so much to do and so many people in need of emotional support! You’ve been cultivating your emotional fortitude and ability to remain calm in crisis for moments just like these and so you’re (possibly) tempted to shove your grief aside and focus on everyone else. And aside from one’s natural proclivities, I can think of a few other reasons why stepping into the caretaker role may be comforting/unavoidable including…
1. It feels good to care for others, to feel needed, and/or to feel useful.
2. You feel pressure to take care of others because…
- …you are a parent, grandparent, or another primary caregiver
- …if you don’t do step up, no one else will
- …you are legitimately the strongest/most capable person
- …other people are looking to you to take charge
- …you feel guilty/selfish when you’re not helping others
- …you have a taker in your midst
3. Taking charge and helping others helps you feel more in control
4. Focusing on others allows you to avoid your own thoughts and emotions.
Now, I would never suggest you completely change who you are, that’s not what this post is about. Instead, I’m simply hoping that you will stop and consider whether the above description sounds a little (or a lot) like you. If so, I’m asking you to be cautious.
Giving is your comfort zone, we’ve established this. Grief is pretty much no one’s comfort zone and asking for help and focusing one oneself is uncomfortable for many people as well. So, it may be far easier for you to tell yourself that there’s too much to be done, you will worry about yourself later, or that you have to stay strong for others than it is to allow yourself to feel the discomfort of being emotional, helpless, and out-of-control.
Self-care for the giving griever:
Focusing on yourself may go against everything in your nature and self-care may not be your forte, but as someone who is grieving it is important now, possibly more than ever, for you to strike a good self-care balance. As this Psychology Today article, ‘Is Self-Care Selfish?’ notes…
“There is a difference between self-absorbed, narcissistic behavior and sound internal self-care. Self-care is about taking good care of our own feelings so we don’t project them onto others, act badly, or cause problems in relationships. Being in touch with our own feelings and embracing them is the healthiest thing we can do.”
In order to do your best work as a supportive friend and family member, you have to deal with your own grief and well-being. So how does a giver practice self-care in grief? That depends on you, but here are a few general suggestions to get you started:
- Be honest with yourself about your needs.
- Be honest with others about your needs.
- Be realistic about how much you can take on.
- Recognize when focusing on others is enabling you to avoid focusing on yourself
- Assess your support system and know how to spot emotional manipulation
- Deliberately set aside time for yourself.
- Learn how to draw boundaries
- Practice saying ‘yes’ when someone offer to help or practice asking others for help
- Learn more about supporting other people while grieving
- Read our other posts on self-care
- Make a self-care contract with yourself and have a friend, family member, or therapist hold you to it. (You have permission to steal the one below)
Subscribing to WYG is an act of self-care.
So is listening to the WYG podcast.