Balancing Self-Care With Helping Others

balancing self-care with helping others

By Jonathan Decker, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist

When I was young, my father and I bonded over archery. Dad taught me that I had to unstring the bow when I wasn’t using it, allowing the wood to straighten and the cord to dangle loose. If I didn’t allow the bow to rest, or in other words, if I left the cord tight and the wood bent, I’d ruin the bow. Over time, it’d no longer be taut. The wood would splinter and snap while the cord would fray. “If you don’t unstring the bow,” he explained, “it won’t be any good to anybody.

“You Have to Unstring the Bow”

A similar thing happens to us when we dedicate so much energy to the needs of others that we neglect ourselves. Burnout is a common result, as is a growing resentment towards the people to whom we give our time and energy. Like a bow that never gets unstrung, we begin to unravel and may snap. For our health, as well as our ability to serve others, we need to “unstring,” relax, and take care of ourselves.

In an airplane emergency, passengers are supposed to place the oxygen mask on themselves first, even if their inclination is to begin with those around them. Obviously, this is because a person who faints from oxygen deprivation is unable to help anyone. Likewise, we must engage in self-care and make sure we’re getting what we need, not because of selfishness, but because if we don’t we’ll eventually lose the energy and drive to help others.

Finding That Balance

People ask if I carry my clients’ problems with me because I deal with so much “heavy stuff.” They ask me if it’s hard to leave my work at the office. My response is that it’s generally easy to walk away from it all at the end of the day. I do care about my clients. Deeply, as a matter of fact. For that reason I leave their problems at work, so I can spend time with my family and recharge my batteries in order to return to the office refreshed, clear-headed, and ready to help. If I “brought my work home with me,” I’d wear myself out and have nothing left to offer.

Part of taking care of yourself is knowing that it’s okay to say “no.” If you have too much on your plate there’s no need to feel guilty for saying “I would if I could.” If you’ve got time set aside for yourself or with a loved one, it’s okay to make that a priority. Take some time for yourself every day, even if it’s brief. Read. Meditate. Exercise. Admire art and enjoy music. Connect with loved ones. Have a little fun, no matter how swamped you are. Relax and “unstring the bow” so that, when needed, you can be taut and focused instead of splintered and frayed.

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