All too often, people—in my experience, mostly women—experience the fatigue of trying to “have it all.” In addition to family and home responsibilities, more and more women work a full-time job, leaving little, if any, time for them. Likewise, many of us in the helping professions struggle or have struggled with the balance of giving so much emotionally—not only to clients, but also to family and friends—and finding ourselves depleted. In both cases, it is very easy to face burnout.
We often hear the term “job burnout,” but what about burnout in other responsibilities, like being a parent, spouse, or caregiver? We talk about feeling stress and pressure, having too much on our plates, and at the same time feeling powerless about what to do. Regardless of our roles in life, there is only so much we can give—yet so many of us continue to give to everyone but ourselves.
Taking time for ourselves to engage in nourishing activities is so important. When I talk about this with clients, I often use the example of an oxygen mask on an airplane. The extent of a client’s lack of self-care often quickly becomes clear when I ask them to tell me about the instructions given when oxygen masks drop in an emergency. In reality, we are told to put on our own masks first. But many clients who engage in patterns of extreme lack of self-care, and of giving to others to their own detriment, answer that they are supposed put on the other person’s mask before their own.
This becomes a powerful example: we need to remember put on our own proverbial oxygen masks. We need to engage in the kind of self-care that enables us to maintain balance in our lives—both for our own benefit, and to maintain the emotional resources we need in order to help others.
Failing to engage in self-care can be harmful to us over time. Facing burnout, we find ourselves exhausted. A continued pattern of having too much responsibility, inadequate support, and imbalance in our lives can easily lead to chronic stress, anxiety, and depression—and those in turn can lead to an increased risk of illness, muscle tension, headaches, heart problems, and even death. Helping people recognize the serious nature of this issue is a great first step in gaining balance.
To begin to understand the magnitude of this issue, look at your life as a pie chart. Assign percentage values to every aspect of your waking life that demands your time, attention, and energy. Draw a picture to get a good visual. What do you notice? Nearly every time I go through this activity, it becomes evident that my clients dedicate all of their time to everyone and everything but themselves. They begin to identify how little they do for themselves, even on an infrequent basis, and it is an eye-opening experience.
So, what does it mean to “put on your oxygen mask?” Look at your pie chart to identify what it would mean to create balance in your life. What would you need to change? Identify your physical, emotional, mental, social, spiritual, and recreational needs. Focus in particular on physical needs like sleep, exercise, and healthy eating, as well as emotional support, social activities, and taking time for fun, because they tend to be the first sacrificed.
A great way to start this process is by breaking these changes down into smaller pieces in order to make small—sometimes very small—goals that will help get you even one step closer to achieving your “ideal pie chart.” The most important thing to recognize is that no one can do this for us. We need to be our own advocate. We need to, at least in some ways, put ourselves first, because only then will we truly be of service to others.
© Copyright 2012 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Michelle Lewis, LCSW
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