I have long struggled with helping those around me without hurting myself in the process. Let me explain: I’m a fairly driven, productive person, and it’s possible for me to stretch my mental and emotional resources so I get my own tasks done on top of counseling friends, fixing meals for my fiancé, and taking out the trash—all by 10PM. (Note: this is not to say that I’m superwoman or a dutiful martyr by any stretch of the imagination! Keep reading.)
We’ve all experienced that familiar frustration—there are only so many hours in a day. As you can imagine, trying to help everyone—at work and at home—comes with a price. Eventually, after a few days of scrambling around doing what I think is good for everyone around me, I find myself crumpled on floor, crying, not really knowing why but feeling unmistakably rotten/lost. That’s not good for anyone.
A recent, ongoing example: For the past few years, my fiancé has been struggling to land a career in academia—a near impossible job market. His PhD collects dust as he sends out application after application into what seems like a countrywide abyss of English and HR departments. My first impulse is to help-help-help! But beyond proofreading his cover letters, there’s not any tangible way I can effectively address the situation (if only I could donate a building to Yale or get Obama involved somehow).
So I invent ways that will surely help. I bust my tail keeping the apartment clean (my fiancé appreciates my efforts but could otherwise care less about vacuumed carpets). I fix elaborate breakfasts. I help grade his students’ papers and quizzes (more time for job applications, right?!). But you guessed it—along the way I crash, and he ends up picking me up off the floor and trying to restore my faith in the world.
Although I’ve become more self aware about this cycle, it continues to repeat itself. (Deep down, I think I crave these tangible, “helpful” tasks, so I feel that we’re at least making a little progress—that I have some control over a situation that is so far beyond my reach.)
Of course, these little chores (though sometimes necessary) aren’t doing us any real good if they “require” I drop the whole taking-care-of-self bit. You see, I don’t forget about taking care of myself, but I choose to do everything else first while planning to focus on myself afterwards, when, you know, I have about 1.5% energy left. It’s easier to say than enact, but taking care of yourself first is the best thing you can do for everyone around you.
Although in moments of clarity I know this to be true, when I’m out of that calm headspace, putting myself first feels counter-intuitive and possibly selfish. Perhaps I’ve internalized these ideas courtesy of our business-obsessed culture, or maybe I’m still realizing how much time I need to myself doing my own Mary things to feel sane. Nevertheless, taking time for myself means I’m more capable of those ever-necessary intangible ways of helping others (i.e. inspiring them, raising morale, being emotionally supportive without draining my own energy…).
It’s certainly a work in progress. One thing that I want to start doing is planning (rather than assuming it will happen) a daily activity that nourishes me and doesn’t have to do with work, housekeeping, etc.—just me. It will be tough to stick to—maybe I’ll have to put in on my iCalendar with everything else—but totally worth it for me and my loved ones.
Related: 7 Inexpensive Ways to Treat Yourself
Photo: Mary Hood