Daily Reflections: Week 1
Day One: Let us begin with you.
You may be a carer by your career choice (religious vocation, health care worker, counsellor etc) or by virtue of the age and circumstances of your children, partner or parents. Some of you will be caring for others in many aspects of your life. Some of us are carers by personality type and have probably been in multiple caring roles for much of our lives. Others of us may have found ourselves in a particular stage of life in which we seem to have had caring roles thrust upon us.
Probably we are all a little overwhelmed and under nourished as a result of the call to care for others. We probably know that we “should” be caring for our self too as part of being well adjusted mature people. But self care so often gets put last on the list of endless tasks and by the time we get near it the thought of doing more, even for ourselves, feels like a chore rather than nurturing!
Let me just say at this point that if I ruled the world then I would wave a wand, or make a royal decree, and reduce your stress, heal your relatives and/or clients, take some of your tasks away, get you more resources, and generally make your life easier. However I don't rule the world – I barely get to be in charge of my own life. So let me companion you for a little while as we seek to take a clear sighted look at your situation and try to identify what you can do to take better care of yourself (and where possible enlist some others in helping you).
While I am reluctant to make easy promises about guarenteeing improvements to your life we will go through a series of exercises that are aimed to help you get greater clarity about the demands on you as a carer, identify supports that you may be able to increase, and how to increase your self awareness so that you only take on those caring tasks that are really yours, and that you are able to choose greater balance as to what you give out and what you are open to receiving for your enjoyment and self care.
But the beginning and ending of our work together is stating in absolute terms that you are of infinite worth and completely loved as you are, for who you are, and not for what you do for others (although that is seen and appreciated). You are worthy of being cared for not simply to keep you functioning as a carer for others but that YOU are precious and important.
Day Two: Who and What do you Care for?
Take a piece of paper and write down each caring role you are in. Make it detailed. You may want to give each person or role that you care for a circle and then add details. Or you may wish to do a mind map and like a cross section of a tree and draw each person or task as a branch and then you can draw the details like sub branches. Or you can draw it like a village with all the people and roles in your family under your roof, and then all the people and roles under the church roof, your workplace etc. The beauty or otherwise of the art is not the task but rather getting an overview of how many people are in your heart and how many tasks demand your time and energy.
Start with your personal relationships. Do you have dependent children. Are you a single parent or the primary caregiver? Does your partner need care? Does a parent need your care and support? How many of these roles require 24 hour care and how many are a few times a week? How many live under the same roof?
Then list your professional caring roles. Maybe your professional role is completely about caring – health care, social work, counselling etc. Break down the role and identify all the caring tasks and identify the roles that you find the most rewarding and those you find the most exhausting.
Then list other community roles in which you are a carer. Maybe you coach your children's sports team. Maybe you volunteer to deliver meals on wheels. Maybe you are a pastoral visitor for your church. You may work in an animal rescue shelter.
And list any other caring roles that you fill. And you may need to come back to this from time to time.
No wonder you are motivated to consider increasing your self care!! The amount you do for those in your personal life and your community is amazing. No doubt such vital caring brings rewards into your life. But I imagine that it is also very costly to you – physically, financially, emotionally and socially.
I want you to honour yourself for the amount of caring you do. Not the amount of fixing, although I expect that is a lot, but the amount of caring you do. The holding of others in your heart, your carrying them around with you, the number of times a day you put others first. While I imagine that some see some of what you do (and some may even from time to time thank you or admire you for this) the enormity of caring cannot really be seen by any one other. Except by the one who sees all. Maybe this is part of what is meant by the phrase that occurres several times in Scripture especially related to prayer and good works "... and your Father in heaven sees ..." I do not think the point of this is to find comfort in knowing that a judgemental God notices that we are doing some good things and adds that to the balance sheet but rather the divine source of all that was, is and will ever be, is a wittness to our loving and struggling. Our caring for others is embraced by the one who cares for us. Everyone we care for is also cared for by God.
Caring for others is one of the most sacred tasks there is because it is what the Creator does for all of us. Which is also to say that sometimes we can pause in our caring and rest because it is not our task alone.
Day Three: Who and where does the energy come from?
Not all caring roles or occassions are the same. I remember as a new mother that caring for this new precious being could make my eyes shine with joy and gratitiude one minute and then I could be weeping with exhaustion and fear not long afterward. Few relationships are that intense but most of us know that caring can both bring us meaning and purpose, recognition and reward as well as exhauting us, isolating us, costing us dearly.
Beside the names or drawings that you made in the last session make a simple marking with +++ or --- or even stars as to whether this relationship or task brings you energy or takes energy away. (Use a different colour to the last session) It may of course do both. I remember in parish life that often people from the general community would want financial assistance on my days off. Sometimes it was a terrible drain of energy. At other times I felt energised by being able to help in such a practical way.
You don't need to get this diagram exactly right. And what is accurate today may not be next week. The point of the exercise is more to map what relationships and roles are reciprocal, which ones are draining and if any are sources of energy and replenishment for you. I have had one or two parishioners who although I visited them in their frailty supposedly as carer I always left feeling that I had been given so much more than I had been able to give them.
You may well notice that there is a net drain on your energy even though you do receive some energy back in your caring roles. No judgement, just notice who and where you lose the most energy (however you define that) and where there is some recipracosity. You may want to keep adding to this drawing or making notes. Remember the purpose of this exercise is not necessarily to make you a better carer of others but to gather information that will help you better care for yourself.
Day Four: Who else shares in the Caring?
Using yet another colour pen or pencil write next to the names of those people and tasks you care for the name of others that are also involved in the task of caring. If you are a parent of a child that still needs care is the other parent involved, are grandparents or godparents or other responsible adults involved? If you are in a caring role in your church or faith community are there others that are also responsable or interested in the same relationshp or task?
You may find that in some relationships you are the only one responsible for caring. But in most relationships and roles you are likely to find that there are others who also care (or should care). These are the names of those who are your potential co-carers, colleagues, fellow travellers, help mates, and support network. Make note of those who are already very involved as co-carers and also notice those who are on the edge but not yet as fully involved as they could be, or you just don't know. And also notice those 'missing in action' who you think should be involved but don't seem to be. Some family members often seem to go missing when there is work to be done.
We are gathering this information because your willingness to lay some of your burdens to rest, to share some of your caring, and to take the occassional respite from your responsabilities may to some extent be linked to being able to identify others who can share in the caring.
Day Five: Who is there for you?
You probably need a clean sheet of paper now. This session I want you to identfy who is there for you. Some of these people will have been mentioned earlier as those you care for and as co-carers. Sart with them. But there are hopefully others. Family, friends, neighbours, colleagues, fellow members of the faith community, social media contacts ...
Not all of them are equally available and supportive. Start with those, the inner circle if you like, of those who are the strongest supporters. I used to think in terms of those I could ring in the middle of the night if I needed to.
And then the next circle of those that you feel close to but with some reservation and slightly firmer boundaries. And then so on until you come to those you like but feel you couldn't ask too much of, or are mainly for a good casual time rather than reliably there for your needs. There is still room in life for these delightful folk but you do need to know who you can call upon when and for what.
It is good to know who is there for you at short notice if you need someone for you, who will fill your cup when you are feeling empty. It is also good to identify interesting kind people you care about that you want in your life but maybe your relationship has never had to go beyond sharing the easy fun things yet. These may be the people who you can share some fun and light times with and who will increase your sense of liveliness even if they do not "do" serious too well. When I moved to a small country community I had to learn to be very clear about what level I could share with people. And then when I retired I had to revisit that list all over again. I enjoy all the people in my life but I need to be careful not to ask too much of those who want to keep things simple and cheerful.
If you haven't seen or spoken with some of these folk for a while then think about who you can make contact with for a coffee or a chat. Cultivate those you can talk about the harder things with. And also cultivate those delightful relationships with folk who are good for having coffee with, going walking with or to the movies. We all need some light hearted friendships (not the same thing necessarily as light weight!). Sometimes what we most need is someone who brings the good times with them and rather than fixing whatever problems we have can lighten our load by reminding us how to laugh and dance and see the delightful.
Day Six: Self Care Strategies already in Place
Now that you have sketched a lot of information about the who and what of your caring for others it is time to think about what you do, and others do, for you.
On a blank piece of paper write or draw how you care for yourself. Maybe its a weekly coffee date, maybe you go walking in the morning or evening, maybe you get a massage once a month, or maybe you usually have a novel on the go and therefor somewhere exciting to escape to. Have a column of reliable things that you do or allow to have done for you. And then add those things that happen sometimes, especially any you started but have let lapse. For those that are infrequent or you have let lapse put a star next to those you would really like to have more of. What stops you? Money? Time? Just don't get around to it? No friends available to do it with?
All this writing and drawing is not about judgement but about information. Information about how things are now and the beginning of identifying what and how things might improve for you. In week two we are going to explore more about what caring means for you in terms of your identity. Then in week three we are going to circle around again and come back to all these drawings, diagrams and lists and look at what can be changed in your life that would result in better self care.
Whatever your reaction/s to the "pictures"of your life, honour yourself - the amount of caring you do, the complexity of your life, the depth and breadth of your connections, and even honour the gaps in your life for they may become the places of growth and replenishment.
However for now just sit with all your papers and sit with how you feel. Do you feel overwhelmed? Do you feel satisfaction? Maybe you can see some patterns and feel some excitement in anticipation of change. Maybe you can see an imbalance between the caring you do for others and the amount of care and support you get and this may lead you to feel sad, or hurt, or ashamed, even angry. Any and all feelings are ok, some are just more pleasant than others. And feelings are fleeting. You do not need to stay sad or anxious.
I encourage you to prepare for a time of Sabbath or sacred replenishment. Plan to go for a walk, or a coffee date, or get a chapter or two of your novel read, or whatever you can realistically do that will care for your self. If you can manage half a day wonderful. If you can only create half an hour take that and relish it (and we will work on increasing it).