This post is the third in a series on self-care for care-givers. Physicians, nurses, mommas, pastors, teachers and unsung care-givers of every stripe I hope you find something restorative here. Post 1, Caregiver, Love Thyself, Post 2, Thick Line in the Sand, Part 1.
When we left off, you were supposed to breathe, express gratitude for your big heart, and love yourself by indulging in a pleasure. I hope you took the time to do those things. It's the hardest advice I give to caregivers.
It's also a part of learning to set boundaries. For us "Other Specialists," finding a sense of self, and self's desires, pleasures, expressions, helps us differentiate who we are from others.
If you're serious about this boundary setting, let me start with recommending a book, cleverly titled Boundaries
by Henry Cloud and John Townsend that helped me immensely. It's pretty
cheap, and certainly worth the investment
into yourself and your future.
But here, I'll share my journey learning boundaries.
I started seeing a counselor in seminary. I had panic attacks in the kitchen (I still haven't figured out -- why the kitchen?). Mondays I worked as a nurse, Tuesday through Thursday I went to school in the morning, and counseled clients with issues ranging from suicide to boyfriend trouble in the evening. Friday, I went to another 12 hour shift as a nurse.
The school I attended held boundaries in little regard. Administrators meshed into students, and tried to mesh the students into students as well. To top it off, the environment was particularly uncomfortable for me as a woman.
I went in with few boundaries, and by the time I started seeing the counselor, I felt completely exposed all the time. Exposed to my patients. Exposed to my clients. Exposed to the school I was so often at odds with. I felt no control over my own choices and life. That's when the panic attacks started.
My counselor started reviewing my family history, and I saw how, even as a child, I believed my family's success depended on my ability to make each individual happy, and my capacity to worry through our family problems. As I mentioned in Part 1, I felt like the glue. I carried that sense of over-responsibility into my personal and professional relationships.
We started by identifying boundaries -- these emotional limits that help establish my identity. In my mind, my being roams over and expresses itself as a large pasture. I have a wooded area, a pond, and some rolling hills, but I'm not infinite, and I don't have every type of ecosystem. When my boundaries are clearly drawn, I don't tend to others' pastures the way I tend to mine. Prior to counseling, I lived without any fence -- leaving all my being exposed to the needs of others, and wandering too far into the worlds of others.
Boundaries are multi-layered, encapsulating your identity, capacity, responsibility, and desires.
My problem flipped on its ear though, when I started mending the fences around my pasture. I started building a fortress. I wanted to become impermeable to other people as a reaction to my over-engagement. I wanted to close and barricade the gates to lose that feeling of exposure. Particularly with my dad, I didn't know how to build healthy fences with clearly marked gates, so I got into an uncomfortable pattern of building a fortress, tearing it down, rebuilding, tearing... poor Dad -- it was a confusing time for both of us.
Ideally, the boundaries you create still allow others access to your heart. With caveats. No one gets unlimited access. No one else is responsible for your heart. You're not responsible for theirs. Because we can't grow without human relationship, we need a boundary that can be permeated in healthy ways, and allow our hearts to reach out into others. So, fortresses, barbed-wire, and land mines are out.
Where I am now, I try to keep the gates into my life clear and operational. I don't want someone to be damaged just trying to share life with me. But, I also don't jump to every need without searching myself to ascertain my capacity, responsibility, and desire.
I have to reinforce, reinforce, reinforce my boundaries. Since my default is to live enmeshed and over-engaged I fall back into that pattern easily -- even after years of learning to better tend to myself.
This became especially true when Valentine was born. My sense of self is biologically and emotionally linked to her now, as she is to me, but that sense of responsibility for her being, emotions, entertainment, grew entirely out of proportion. If Valentine felt it, I felt it. I suffered post-partum depression and anxiety, and this inability to define me and define Valentine complicated that (and vice versa). Understandably the boundaries between parent and child are different, but no less important than any other relationship.
The latest boundary I've been working on is my desire. Having specialized in others' wants for so long, it took me yet another round of therapy to start learning my own desires, and the things that bring me healthy pleasure. Now, my boundaries don't only keep me safe, they help me enjoy myself and my life.
Analogies always fall apart at some point. And this one comes from a fairly westernized viewpoint -- with strong emphasis on individualism. When we start talking about shared lives and communities this conversation is much more nuanced. However, I must know myself before I can safely and effectively live well with and help others. I came to understand that I can't be all things to all people at all times. (And don't try to quote the Apostle Paul to me on that one -- we just might address that in the next post on religion and self-care.)
My fellow people specialists: return to that breathing, gratitude, and indulgence. Watch for the signs you've taken on too much in your relationships -- if at any point you feel responsible for another's well-being or emotional state, step back. Identify who you are, who they are, and firmly line out where your responsibility stops, and theirs starts. The bounty that comes of a well-defined, cared for, enjoyed identity sets you up to better care for others.