Over-giving is often a sign of deprivation — a signal that a need isn’t being met, an emotion isn’t being expressed, or a void isn’t getting filled.” — Cheryl Richardson
I’m finally starting to shake the sense that I’ve been wandering through a dream this season. Managing my mother’s ever-changing healthcare needs — while gearing up for Nate’s late September wedding — felt surreal at times.
If I wasn’t driving Mom to the oral surgeon or the pacemaker clinic (or tracking down a pair of shoes she could wear to the wedding), I was reviewing menus for the rehearsal dinner or writing names on place cards in calligraphy.
Not that I’m complaining. The wedding was absolutely beautiful — and I’m still savoring memories of the highlights, including a dance to a favorite Roxy Music tune with Nate at the reception.
Most important of all, I’ve come to realize that guiding an elderly parent through her final years while helping a son launch a new life of his own are inevitable steps in the ongoing circle-dance of life. Needless to add, I’m blessed to have a freelance schedule that gives me the flexibility to step up when others need me.
But as Cheryl Richardson points out in her newest guide,Â The Art of Extreme Self-Care, it’s easy to lose oneself in the service of others. If you’re a caretaker, a professional caregiver, a people-pleaser, a mom with kids at home, or anyone else who puts the needs of others first, you know what Richardson is talking about. And I hope you’ll make time to read her book. It’s been a life changer (and a game changer) for me, and I’m very grateful that I stumbled on it while doing some research for a column on “caregiver burnout” earlier this summer.
Richardson used to be a woman who couldn’t say no. To anyone. She taught seminars and workshops, mentored clients, volunteered for organizations, and “supported needy friends who were struggling.” She was often exhausted and had little time left for her marriage. “I was a good girl. I was so used to playing the role of caretaker that it had become a normal way of life,” she writes.
Richardson’s life coach challenged her to make some changes. Encouraging her to “desensitize” her fear of stirring conflict and letting people down, he suggested that she practice “disappointing” someone every day. As soon as I read that, it made my palms sweat. Like Richardson, I’ve often said “yes” when I should have said “no” — even when I knew I didn’t have the time or my heart wasn’t in it. All because I hate to disappoint people.
It’s not easy to break out of this pattern. As Richardson notes, “One of the harsh realities about practicing Extreme Self-Care is that you must learn to manage the anxiety that arises when other people are disappointed, angry, or hurt. And they will be.”
When you stop worrying about what others think, you’re changing the “rules of the game,” she warns. Some of the folks who claim they canÂ alwaysÂ count on youÂ will play the guilt card when you dare to admit that you’re too tired to help, or that you can’t change your schedule to accommodate them.
Yesterday I finally visited Dr. Paul Ehrmann, my family doctor, for a complete physical. After driving my mother to every medical specialist in Oakland County on a monthly basis for the past four years, it felt a little odd to focus on my own healthcare, my own needs. It hit me, while the technician hooked me up for my EKG, that I knew less about the general state of my own health than I do about my mother’s. (I’ll get test results Monday.) And when Dr. Paul began my exam with the words, “Cindy, this time is about you — not about your mom or Nate’s wedding,” I nearly dissolved into tears.
“If you want to live a meaningful life that also makes a difference in the lives of others, you need to make a difference in your own life first,” Richardson reminds us. “When we care for ourselves deeply and deliberately, we naturally begin to care for others — our families, our friends, and the world — in a healthier, more effective way.”
So … what have you done for yourself lately, my friend? — CL
— Top illustration: A detail from “Renaissance Woman,” an altered book by Cindy La Ferle. Bottom photo: Cheryl Richardson (Hay House) —