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The Selfish Caregiver

Preventing the loss of the Self while caregiving.

Key points

  • A caregiver, particularly one that is not on a payroll and is on call 24 hours a day, has limited time to meet their own needs.
  • Making time for themselves is crucial for a caregiver's mental health.
  • Acting in their self-interest will help caregivers take care of others.
Eren Li/Pexels
Photo by Eren Li
Source: Eren Li/Pexels

One of the most profoundly difficult aspects of being a caregiver is the potential to lose your Self (and I mean self with a capital S). The reason for this is simply because as a caregiver, particularly one that is not on the payroll and is on call 24/7, you only have limited time to meet your needs.

The nature of your job requires constantly putting the needs of others before your own. Basic things like eating, using the bathroom, and showering can become privileges that you desperately slot into free windows of time that might present themselves. This almost tempts you into believing that you suddenly have hours at your disposal. But it’s not hours. It’s minutes. And racing through these basic needs before somebody else needs you can be a miserable experience.

Much of caregiving can be the kind of automated chores that do not require much thought, such as routine laundry, cleaning floors, cleaning bathrooms, or preparing meals. Thought can obviously go into these things, but caregivers come to like them because the more they are done, the less thinking about them has to be done. The downside is that the more you remove thought, the less time you spend thinking about and engaging with yourself and your needs. The way that you think is like a fingerprint, unique to you, and so by doing it, you are flexing yourself and allowing your personality to breathe and flourish.

Another way that your Self can become silenced while caregiving is that your natural responses to daily gripes and grievances can seem trivial compared to the chronic illness of the person in your care. While it is undoubtedly a good idea not to give daily grievances too much attention, it is also a means of social soothing and bonding to share the things that trouble you. This can often help with routine problem solving or developing a relationship through shared experience. However, if the person you spend the most time with has a chronic illness, it isn’t easy to talk about the little things that matter to you.

This problem is further compounded if the person in your care is a family member or life partner because you might have a history of sharing everything with them. Still, they are no longer receptive since the life-changing disease or infirmity. I believe it is true to say that many people define themselves through their meaningful relationships. So if a loved one is no longer receptive to sharing levels of intimacy, the caregiver is also dealing with the destruction of the Self.

For all of the above reasons, action must be taken to preserve the Self.

Actions that preserve and nurture the Self are by definition selfish, and as it is like a caregiver to be selfless, it could seem counterintuitive. Putting others before yourself is seen as a virtue, but there becomes a tipping point when a person has put the needs of others before themselves so much that they no longer address their own needs.

An obvious way to prevent this from happening is to put some time on the calendar for yourself and guard it militantly. During the week, there has to be some time that can belong to you, and an assessment of your responsibilities will reveal this.

The more challenging thing is knowing what to do with this time, especially when it is in a caregiver's nature to be perpetually tired. Mental exercises like reading, problem-solving, learning, or writing can be soothing because they are ways of having a conversation with yourself and getting to know yourself. Finding ways to inject or superimpose your personality onto the menial but necessary chores could also be a way to stay connected. Listen to music, sing, dance, and make games out of activities (even trivial ones).

If the loss of Self is so profound or the deterioration of a relationship is causing too much pain, then mental health counseling should be considered. For people who do not have time, even the job of searching for a therapist can be overwhelming. Still, available therapists will often reach back out to you if messages are left and they can often accommodate for time availability.

It is worth remembering that if you cannot take care of yourself, then, and perhaps through no fault of your own, you are not in a great position to take care of others. A little selfish behavior can help keep you on track.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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