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Perspectives on Grieving

Take Care: Thoughts on Self-Care and Caregiving

By Imagine Clinical Training Director, Connie Palmer, LCSW

"Take care!" We say that to others all the time. We want those who we care about to take good care of themselves. But do we, especially those of us who are caregivers, know how to "take" care? We are lifelong learners in caring for ourselves and others. As someone who struggles to know how to best take care of myself, I start workshops on self-care with the self-disclosure: we teach best what we most need to learn.

A theme that becomes clear whenever you discuss or read about self-care is that we are more comfortable in the role of caregiver than care-receiver. We struggle to receive care and we struggle to take care of ourselves. There are all sorts of good reasons why self-care is hard.

There are times in all our lives that demand a high level of caregiving: raising children, caring for a sick friend or family member, supporting someone who is grieving, being responsible for an aging parent. We are worn out from all the caring. And it may be very true that we have no time left over to care for ourselves. During times like this, well-intentioned people chide us for not taking better care of ourselves, but for any number of very good reasons, we just can't. Perhaps it's self-care to realize you are doing the best you can.

Yet it's crucial to keep considering how we can better "take care." Laura Van Dernoot Lipsy, author of Trauma Stewardship, says, "Our capacity to help others is greatest when we are willing, able and even determined to be helped ourselves." We know we need to take care, so what makes it so hard? It isn't a lack of knowledge of the importance of self-care, but that perhaps we need a deeper understanding of what makes receiving care from others or being intentional about our own self-care so difficult.

I think it's because receiving is a vulnerable act. To receive means to admit a need. It means being open to taking in what is offered by another. When we open ourselves up to receive care from others, it exposes the deepest truth of our humanity. We can't do it all on our own. We are strong, but we also need things from others.

This requires the vulnerability of taking the risk of being disappointed or hurt. Many of us have been wounded by those who disregarded our needs, shamed us for having needs or didn't have the ability to provide the care we needed. Giving care to others is hard work, but it doesn't expose us in the same way that it does when we open ourselves to receive.

I think many of us secretly wish others would take care of us without us having to take the risk of asking for what we need. Melody Beattie, in her book Codependent No More, says, "Self-care is an attitude that says I am responsible for myself." In other words, getting our needs met is our job. What will we do and how will we do it?

Taking care of ourselves also requires we get in touch with the part of us that has needs. An anonymous self-care quote says, "Taking care of yourself doesn't mean me first, it means me, too." Self-care begins by acknowledging 'me too.' This, too, is a vulnerable act.

The last thing I want to read when I am in need is a list of self-care ideas. I could make that list in my sleep. Sometimes self-care is as simple as a manicure or as complex as making a major life change.

So instead of ending this blog with a list of ideas, I will share the questions I ponder about how I "take care":

I wonder what makes self-care or receiving care hard for me?

I wonder what I need? How can I get that need met?

I wonder what my feelings, my behavior and my body are telling me about what I need?

I wonder who I can trust to ask for what I need?

I wonder how I can (or already do) care for myself in the course of a typical day?

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