So, real talk, I’m a bit of an archetype.
On average, I get at between 3-5 phone calls/emails/instant messages a day from people who need to vent. Once a week, a stranger, unprompted, tells me something difficult going on in their life. In my 11 person group house, I am the designated “mom.” In college, was that person who took care of my sick one-night-stand and his hung over roommate the next morning. Working in a social services-adjacent field, I am what’s called a “helping professional.” Even in my office of helping professionals, my coworkers say I put metaphorical flowers on the acerbic, get-a-grip quips the rest of the team wishes they could say.
I am a caretaker through and through. It’s simultaneously what gets me up out of bed each morning and what occasionally keeps me riddled with anxiety at night. Over the past 10 years, I’ve put a lot of thought, learning, and intentionality into becoming a better caretaker. There are many ways to do it, but here are the five essential ways I work to maintain a healthy relationship with myself while I help others:
1. Being a caretaker doesn’t mean you don’t need support. On the contrary, it means you need more help than you’re willing to admit. When I was younger, I ignored my problems in favor of helping my friends, feeling guilty if I needed to lean on my friends. Obviously, this took a toll on my mental health. A lot of that changed when I was selected for my high school’s chapter of the Natural Helpers Program, a peer-to-peer helping program dedicated to helping youth get the skills they need to better help their friends and create safer environments in schools. There, I found a support network of people in similar helping roles. We met weekly with advisers who gave us a safe space to talk, hang out, and relax, without needing to deal with anyone else’s issues. By the time I graduated high school and moved away, I was better equipped to seek out support when I needed it — without any of the guilt I had previously attached to it.
2. Boundaries are important. My supervisor at my first community health job told me emphatically: “be very protective over whom you give your personal contact numbers. If clients call you 24/7, you’ll burn out.” Even in your personal life, you can’t be everyone’s personal rock. There is a finite number of people with whom you can keep up that level of emotional intensity. I have struggled with this in my personal life — I used to devote so much energy to supporting acquaintances that I don’t have the energy to be around to support the people closest to me. I’ve gotten better at keeping a balance, but I’m far from perfect.
3. Be willing to acknowledge when something is over your head. Being part of Natural Helpers, I gained many skills that made me a better caretaker, but none were more important than learning when to seek help or to refer out to a professional. My friends growing up were dealing with everything from sexual orientation confusion to eating disorders to self-mutilation and suicidality — all of which are way too much for a 14-year-old to handle on their own. Learning which resources were out there for eating disorders, coming out, suicide, dating violence, and sexual assault, was crucial to my (healthy!) development as a caretaker.
4. Be empathetic and invested, but only to an extent. Though it may sound calloused at face value, there’s two reasons why this matters. First and foremost, do not pretend to understand an experience if you don’t. By all means, tap into your own experiences if it helps you be more empathetic (think: I have never been sexually assaulted, but I have experienced boundary violations), but don’t create false equivalencies. It sounds insincere and you might do more harm than good. Second, being too empathetic and too invested can lead to vicarious trauma, or the “emotional residue of exposure to… the pain, fear, and terror that trauma survivors have endured.”
5. PRACTICE SELF-CARE. If you only take one thing away from this piece, let it be this: if you neglect your individual needs, you’re going to be pretty terrible at taking care of other people. It’s okay, even preferrable, that you tell someone “I would love to support you, but I’m not in a place to be of use. Can we talk later?” If you have an awesome mutual friend, suggest they talk to that friend instead. In the meantime, take the time you need to disconnect, relax, and spend time doing things that make you feel good. For more suggestions, you can check out our open thread about the different ways our readers and writers practice self-care. Trust me, you will be infinitely more helpful to others when you’ve had the opportunity to recharge.