Caregivers: Is it Selfish to Put Our Needs First?

self care

Attention all Caregivers! The truth is caregiving can be fatal. That’s why they always remind us in airplanes to “put the oxygen mask on yourself first, before you help someone else, even a child”. Luckily this is obvious in this particular situation: If I don’t put the oxygen on myself first and die, I won’t be around to help anyone else.

In other situations it becomes a much more difficult mandate to follow. I said recently to a client in psychotherapy with me that she needed to think of herself first. She immediately retorted, “but that would make me selfish”. I replied, “I didn’t say to ONLY think of yourself, just first.” She acknowledged that she had misheard me, or assumed that thinking of yourself first was the same as only thinking about yourself.

In truth it does feel great to think of others and to be in a position to help them. All other things being equal, “The giver, on average, is 11 percentage points more likely to feel very happy than the non-giver”. I imagine there must be a certain amount of endorphins released when you know you have done something good for someone else.
Here’s something to read about this topic.

I think there are times it can even become a little addictive. Often it becomes a core part of our identity, a primary source of self esteem, and a way that we feel safe and connected in relationships.

These are the reasons Lois developed AlAnon as the caregivers counterpart to AA, and Melody Beatty wrote “Codependent No More” in 1986, a good read, by the way.

Ostensibly caregiving traits are designed to help our loved ones, but taken too far, our help can backfire and actually enable the loved one to stay sick. At it’s most severe, when care-giving becomes codependent, it not only becomes destructive towards ourselves, but towards the other as well.

So, for all these reasons, it is actually the opposite of selfish to learn how to put our own needs first. For me, it requires a constant, daily reminder. At this point, most of the time, the reminder is simply to consider what my own needs are. Oxygen may sound like a given, but I am always grateful when the flight attendants remind me to put the oxygen mask on myself first, because the truth is sometimes I even need to remember to breathe, at least to breathe deeply and relax the tension in my jaw, throat and shoulders. (You could take a moment to do that now.) It’s good to do a brief scan of everything you need financially, emotionally, medically, physically, intellectually and relationally, each day. Obviously we can’t attend to all our needs everyday, but becoming aware of them and prioritizing them is a good start.

And then we get to start on our wants! This is important too, if, for no other reason, because a whole, healthy, happy person is going to be a much better and wiser caregiver.

At it’s best, the relationship between caregiver and care receiver becomes a healthy cycle of giving and receiving, receiving and giving, instead of a destructive one way street. The empowering nature of a healthy “two way street” may not cure someone of a fatal illness, but in the process of tending and caring for someone dear to us, we will also find and remember that we are equally tended to and cared for by that person, just in a different way. It will feel like something perhaps more important even than a cure is being healed in both people.

Although, of-course, ideally there will be a cure as well. We just don’t always have control of that, but we can learn to expect mutual care, and learn that our best gifts to others come from being centered in our ability to love ourselves first.

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About Natasha Horsley Weston

Natasha Weston, MS, LPC is the owner of Weston Psychotherapy Services LLC & was a founding partner of the Temenos Center for 17 years. She has been an individual, family and couple’s therapist for twenty-two years. She is a specialist in the treatment of eating disorders and women’s issues, spending eight years as a therapist and supervisor at The Renfrew Center of Philadelphia. She has also received training in addictions counseling, Imago couple’s therapy, Men's issues, LGBTQ issues, DBT, and EMDR (a technique that helps people recover from trauma).

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