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I took a sip of my coffee and smiled as my friend and I caught up on our lives.
It had been months since we had met in a coffee shop, and I was enjoying the sounds of music, laughter, and conversation that surrounded us.
Then our focus shifted. We talked about the number of people in our lives who are requiring support right now. There are those who are physically suffering and the ones who are heartbroken after the death of a loved one. There are families that are overwhelmed with the demands of work, school, and financial burdens. Anxiety seems to affect people of all ages, and it is discouraging to hear about its impact.
We both admitted that our empathy causes us to feel overwhelming heaviness. How can we manage our own energy in light of the suffering around us?
One phrase from that conversation has stuck with me. As we brainstormed and reflected together, my friend wisely said, “Caring for someone doesn’t mean carrying their burden.”
What does this actually mean? How might it make a difference for me as I relate to people in my life who I care about?
This is what usually happens when I hear about a problem or see my loved ones suffering. I want to help and yet I am often at a loss with what to do. I feel guilty because I think I am not doing enough. I may reach out with an offer of assistance, and they do not want my help. Now what? I see myself as a helper, and if my help is refused, then who am I? Sometimes I say yes to helping even though I don’t really want to and I end up feeling resentful and exhausted. None of these responses are life-giving for me or the people I want to care for.
The question comes to me, “What am I carrying that is not mine to carry? What burden am I able to put down?”
I think about my love of hiking. Trekking through a forest trail or climbing a steep mountain path to a spectacular view are some of my favourite activities. When I first started hiking, I would stuff a multitude of things I might need into my backpack. As the trail got steeper, I wondered why I had packed so much. The extra weight slowed me down and caused stress on my body. I was not having fun at all! Now I do things differently. When I prepare for a hike, I pack my backpack with only the essentials and I enjoy increased energy and stamina.
How does this relate to caring?
It seems I have always been a “helper.” I am the oldest of six children, a female, and I trained to be a nurse. Each role is associated with service to others. Unconsciously, I carried what I call a “helper backpack,” an arsenal of attributes and beliefs that I thought were necessary for me to fulfill my role in caring for others. As the years went by, I kept adding items to my already overflowing backpack. I wanted to be the best I could in helping others. My focus was on what I could give to others and I rarely thought about what I wanted. This way of living my life worked for many years.
Until my body finally got my attention.
After years of caring for others and neglecting my own needs, I was exhausted. I would feel blue and start crying for no apparent reason. I tried without success to get in shape and lose weight. My metabolism was sluggish and I had no interest in nurturing my relationships with friends or family. I saw myself as a failure.
It knew it was time for me to get help. I saw my doctor and was diagnosed with an under-functioning thyroid. I was given medication and was encouraged to slow down and to stop constantly thinking of caring for others. I felt stuck. How could I change the patterns of a lifetime? Once more, I asked for help and found a life coach to work with. I described the heaviness of responsibility in my role as helper. She asked a question that shifted my view of myself as a caregiver.
What if I could lighten my load?
Together my coach and I explored what that meant. I talked about the metaphor of my “helper backpack” and how heavy it felt. Did I really need all the items I had been carrying around? I struggled with letting go of the values I had embraced for so long. And, I knew that I could not keep going the way things were. I decided to let go of beliefs that were weighing me down.
The first thing to go was my identity as a helper. If I see myself as unworthy unless I am helping, then I need to ask this question: am I truly helping because I want to be a support or is it to build up my ego? If someone says no to my offer, this doesn’t affect my worthiness. I am a woman of many abilities and gifts. Being a caregiver is only one aspect of who I am.
Next, I released the concept that I must always put others first. I used to say yes without a moment’s hesitation when asked for help. Then I would get overly booked with visits and errands for others, becoming resentful and exhausted. I am learning to give myself time to answer a request for help. I say yes only if it is a “full-body” yes. By this, I mean that I have the time and energy to joyfully respond to their request. I am finding it easier to say no as well. My friends and family have told me that they appreciate me being true to myself. They do not need to question my motives or wonder if I am being honest with them when they ask for support from me.
Another belief that I discarded is that others are helpless without me. Instead of seeing them as victims, I trust that they are able to manage their situation and ask for the help they need. They are the only ones who truly know what is best for them. Most people have others who are eager to be there for them and I have learned that I am not indispensable. There is no need for me to overwhelm them with offers of help and I can be available if they choose to call on me.
I now have a better understanding of my friend’s comment. Caring for someone doesn’t mean carrying their burdens. In fact, just the opposite is true. When I truly care, I let go of being responsible for them. I am available to care in ways that match their needs and my energy. Now that’s what I call caring!