by Françoise Mathieu, M.Ed., CCC., RP
A few years ago, I was running late one morning and rushed out of the house to get to work. My teenage daughter called me a few hours later and told me on speakerphone, with all her friends in the car, “mom, you left the straightening iron on, it could have caused a fire. I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed.” And then she burst out laughing. Other than my dangerous oversight, this was a funny interaction because my daughter was using language that she clearly had heard several times in her life (from me, I might as well admit it right now) and she was enjoying the role reversal.
I don’t know if you’re like me, but there is very little I dislike more than knowing that I have disappointed someone. I think that a lot of us caregivers have this natural predisposition to please others and take care of everyone else’s needs. This makes us excellent friends, family members and professionals. There are also deeply fulfilling positives to feeling needed, helpful and caring. I would not trade that for the world.
However, there can also be a cost to being super-human caregivers, because, it turns out, the need will ALWAYS outweigh what we can provide. This is true professionally, as well as personally.
I recently went to a grocery store to pick up several favourite food items for my family and it wasn’t until I got back to the car and drove away that I realised that I had not for a second thought about getting what I myself needed or wanted. I parked the car on a side road, and took a few minutes to breathe. What was I trying to prove? To whom? That I am invincible, without needs? That I can always take care of everyone else, no matter what?
We learn these patterns early, and they become embedded in our identity.
I come from a long line of caregivers, and maybe you do too. My mother told me about caring for her depressed mother, cooking meals for the family, taking care of household chores at age five (yes, five years old, not even in primary school yet). My brother and I took on adult responsibilities at ages nine and twelve when our parents got divorced and things were tough in our house. We are still both known for our solid, dependable, reliable character. We pride ourselves on it. It has brought us professional rewards and tremendous satisfaction. My mother too, as a matter of fact. She was a shining star in her field, and was highly recognised for her incredible work ethic, fairness and trustworthiness.
And then, one day, we start to realise that we are running on empty. Or maybe we drop the ball, forget something, let someone down inadvertently. Or we get sick, or start feeling low. Or we completely max out our bandwidth and we simply cannot do it all because the demand is completely exceeding our capacity.
The wonderful author Cheryl Richardson has written about “Extreme Self Care” in several of her books. She invites us to reassess life’s true priorities, apart from the basics of safety, shelter, food and love. I return to Richardson’s books time and again and always find a quote to support what I know to be what I truly need.
Here is one from her book “The Art of Extreme Self-Care”: “if you want to live an authentic, meaningful life, you need to master the art of disappointing and upsetting others, hurting feelings, and living with the reality that some people just won’t like you. It may not be easy, but it’s essential if you want your life to reflect your deepest desires, values and needs.”
So, taking a page out of Cheryl’s work, I would like to invite us all to look at what’s on our plate at the moment, perhaps in the coming two months. Is there something that you have already agreed to do (personally and/or professionally) that you could say no to? What would the consequences be, of saying no? Will someone be disappointed? Is that the fear? And then what? What if, in fact, we DO need to disappoint sometimes? Are we afraid of losing love, respect, friendships? Do we exist if we are not the “go-to” at all times?
These are profound questions. I will admit. Things that I grapple with almost daily.
I had to disappoint people that I deeply care about recently. At first, I resisted. I felt so guilty, I was going to upset them, without a doubt. But something had to give. I was completely stretched at work and at home and I was totally overwhelmed. So, I did what I always do when I feel like my head is going to burst: first, I went for a long walk. Then, the next time I had an hour to myself, I went to yoga. Then I got a full night’s sleep. Finally, I went to talk to a trusted advisor.
A trusted advisor can be a dear friend, a coach, therapist or a spiritual counsellor. In my case, I am very lucky to have several wise women in my life who know me well and aren’t afraid to challenge me. They know my patterns and can also call me on my bullshit. I went to see one of them and I probably talked for 45 minutes uninterrupted, unloading my dilemmas and multitude items on my to do list. Finally my friend said “it just can’t all be done. You are going to have to disappoint some people, but also recognise that you have set a pattern over years of always saying yes and, therefore, their reaction will likely not be very good. So be prepared for that. But also, be honest, tell them what’s going on, and why you are saying no.”
So I did. I went off and disappointed a whole bunch of people.
And although I felt badly about it, I also felt tremendous relief. I carved out some space to breathe, and the need for me to reassess how much capacity I claim to have, to take on more than I can handle. To be the fixer, the reliable one at all times.
I truly believe that in order to maintain integrity and compassion in the very challenging work that we do, we must be honest about our limits, and to above all else, to be able to show ourselves compassion first before we can truly care for others.