What gets in the way of us looking after ourselves?

It’s great that there have been so many messages in response to my first blog but there is a clear message – it is very difficult to make sure that we look after ourselves!

Why is that I wonder? There are probably lots of reasons – lack of time comes up again and again when I speak to carers, then there is habit and how we all have familiar ways of doing things, and then of course there is what we like doing and what we are used to doing. That might be liking to fix things, it might be about liking to have things orderly and tidy, it might be about being in control so that we don’t have to deal with the unexpected.

So, we might know in our heads that we should look after ourselves but there are all sorts of things that stop us from doing what we know might be good to do! In some ways the list above isn’t the whole answer though. For many of the carers I have worked with there is something much more important and more difficult to change which underpins things and makes it difficult to change the choices we make.

It is about believing you are worth taking care of, believing you are important enough to look after your own needs, believing that sometimes it is OK to put yourself first. And that can be why it is difficult to change. Yes, you might know that when you don’t take care of yourself you are less resilient, in other words less able to cope with things that come up unexpectedly or things that don’t go according to plan. But how on earth to make the change?

It takes a lot of effort and energy to change but it does become easier if we believe that things that matter to us will improve once we have changed. Sorry that might be a bit complicated but, in a nutshell, we have to believe that by putting in the effort to change, we will make things better for ourselves and the person we care for. Other people (like me!) saying that you ought to change doesn’t work. You have to believe it for yourself.

Back to my first blog, running on empty isn’t good for us and its often not good for the person we care for. How many times have you been irritable or snapped or wished you hadn’t been so quick to judge, even angry and then beaten yourself up and felt guilty? How often have you wondered why on some days you can cope with anything that gets thrown at you yet there are other days when the tiniest thing blows you right off course?

If any of that sounds familiar be reassured you are not alone and you are not a bad person or a bad carer – you are just human and doing your best can be very difficult! There are no easy answers to any of this but we will explore it and maybe that will help.

Why write a blog for carers?

During the almost 10 years that I have been working with carers I have reached the conclusion that while the situation and experience of every carer is unique there are a number of challenges which exist in the day to day experience of many if not all carers.

Already as I write this, I realise that the language I use may attract some readers and make it possible for them to identify with the topics I will write about. However, on the other hand, the same language may alienate some readers. I will do my best to recognise when this is a particular risk and will make sure I offer alternatives or an explanation.

The first, possibly most important example of this is the use of the word “carer”. For several years now the word carer has appeared frequently – in the media, in academic papers, in strategies produced by NHS bodies and government agencies both local and national and in discussions and conversations among clinical professionals. And these are only some of the appearances of the word “carer”!

And yet, many of the people I have worked with who care for or support someone would not dream of describing themselves as a carer. It is just what you do they have told me. They are simply being a good wife, husband, mother, father, brother or sister, daughter, son, neighbour or friend. It is often only when others, frequently professionals, describe them as a carer that they begin to consider that label might be appropriate.

I hold myself responsible and guilty for seeking an umbrella term which works for us as professionals but is less welcome to the people we are trying to describe. So as a reader, will you forgive me, or at least tolerate my use of the word carer?

I will be using it in its literal sense – someone who provides what is necessary for the health, welfare, maintenance and protection of someone. The particular situation where this becomes relevant is when someone is unable to attend to all these needs themselves. So these situations may range from a child with a long term chronic condition or disability, an adult with an illness either long term or short term, a relative with a life limiting condition – the list is very long!

Back to what I have discovered in my work with people who “care” for someone, who I will call carers.

The risk of failing to look after yourself while looking after someone else is huge as are the consequences – you can’t pour from an empty cup! If our own resources are depleted then we are less able to care for others since caring uses up our resources. It sometimes seems easier, more legitimate perhaps, to pay attention to ourselves physically (making sure we sleep, take food and exercise) but we very easily neglect our emotional resources which are critical.

Many years ago, when I began to drive, my dad insisted that I avoid running the car on the bottom quarter of a tank of petrol – I would damage the car and worse still probably grind to a halt in an unexpected and perhaps dangerous situation.

Well we are all a bit like a car in that we need to keep our resources topped up but we are different in that we can keep running on empty or very nearly empty. But its not good for us or the people we are looking after!

So that is what I am going to be talking about in my blog – how to take care of ourselves so we are more able to take care of others. And a few other connected things on the way.