We think of taking care of ourselves when something is going wrong in our own lives, but what about when we find ourselves surrounded by others going through difficult times?
Right now, a number of people I care about are dealing with challenging situations. My heart feels a little heavier with every call or text or email update. In some of the situations there are small things I can do to help, but for the most part all I can really do is let them know I care.
It may seem backwards to think of caring for myself right now as my problems and concerns are mundane and insignificant in comparison. But self-care isn’t about who has it the worst. It’s about giving ourselves what we need, not just to feel better in the moment, but to be able to show up in the long-term.
Knowing that people we care about are facing challenges can impact us in any number of ways. In some situations, we give our time, energy, and resources to offer tangible aid. In others, we might feel helpless that there’s little we can do. Relationships that are usually give and take may become more one-sided for a time. And it’s just plain old hard to see people hurting or afraid. Here are a few things that can help:
Feel what you feel
You might feel sadness or anger about the pain you see around you. Maybe you feel a little resentment about the attention or help another person needs. You might feel happy about how things are going in your own life…and then guilty for being happy when someone you love is not.
Whatever you are feeling is ok . Your emotions do not take away from someone else’s experience. What you are feeling can give you insight into how the situation is affecting you, but doesn’t indicate anything about your goodness.
Wishing you felt differently won’t change the reality of what you feel. When you let yourself acknowledge and feel what you are actually feeling, your emotions can move through you in a healthy way and you can choose how you will respond to the situation. If, however, you try to ignore your emotions, they’re likely to get stuck and try to make themselves known in unpredictable ways.
Prioritize your non-negotiables
It always surprises me how quick I am to set aside the practices that I know help me be my best self as soon as I think someone might need something from me. Those are the very times when I need my non-negotiables more than ever.
Taking time to do the things that restore our energy and calm isn’t a selfish luxury. Instead it is taking responsibility for providing ourselves with the resources we need to be able to keep showing up in our own lives and to support those around us.
Take action, but set boundaries
When we see someone we care about struggling, it’s natural to want to fix it. Often we can’t. I can get overwhelmed thinking about all the ways I could or should help. Deciding and following through on one action, even something as small as sending a text to let them know I’m thinking of them, can keep me from getting stuck trying to figure out a perfect plan or despairing that there’s nothing I can do.
It’s good to do what we can to help, but it’s also important to set boundaries. Particularly if I’m feeling helpless in a situation, I tend to offer more and more. This can lead to resentment and burnout if I keep offering more than I have to give. It can also get in the way of other people stepping in to help and takes away opportunities for the person struggling to create his or her own solutions.
Talk to someone (outside the situation)
Sometimes it can be really helpful to share with another person what is hard in our lives at the moment. Just because our problems are less prominent than someone else’s doesn’t mean our day-to-day struggles don’t matter. Just because we’re not the one most impacted by a situation doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect us at all.
Of course, it’s not helpful to dump our burdens on someone going through something difficult. They don’t need to hear why their struggles are hard for us. Even if someone is usually our go to person to talk to, there may be times when they can’t fill that role for us.
Telling someone outside the situation what is going on for me isn’t about them taking my burden or fixing anything for me. It is more about me acknowledging what is hard in my own life. Also, I can start to feel invisible when others around me have a lot going on. Sharing what is on my mind and heart with someone who has the space to hear it is a way to meet my own need to be seen.
Pray or meditate
Prayer and meditation can be ways to ground ourselves and remember that we’re not alone. They are ways to let go of the worries and burdens we’ve been clinging to and open space to listen.
The tonglen practice may be particularly helpful. (Thanks for the suggestion, Jess!) It is a method for connecting with suffering and awakening compassion—breathing in pain and breathing out relief. At the very least, it reminds me to breathe, which is always beneficial.
A journal is a safe space to explore feelings, sort through thoughts, and brainstorm possibilities. Often a few pages of stream-of-consciousness is just the thing to get everything swirling inside you out onto the page where you can see it, but there are a number of ways to use a journal to care for yourself when those around you are going through difficult times.
It might be cathartic or clarifying to write an unsent letter to one of the struggling people in your life or to a certain situation or to God. Dialogues are another option, particularly if you have a lot of questions.
Lists are a simple journaling technique to try. If you find yourself taking on burdens that aren’t yours to carry, try making lists to separate out what is yours and what is theirs or what you can control and what you can’t. If you’re overwhelmed or feeling alone, try making lists of things you’re grateful for, evidence that you are loved, or ways you are good enough.
Just because other people are going through a particularly difficult time doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t care for ourselves. Meeting our own needs and being kind to ourselves actually supports our ability to be there for the people around us.
There are lots of ways to take care of ourselves. These are a few that I’m finding particularly helpful right now. I’d love to know…what is the most helpful thing you do for yourself when the people you care about are facing big challenges?