We've all heard that in order to love others we first have to love ourselves, yet many of us have also grown up with the idea that to feel good about ourselves is selfish or conceited.
How do we balance these confusing messages, let alone cope with our seemingly intrinsic caregiver guilt?
We know that we make mistakes as people, but as caregivers, we seem to expect a kind of perfection that simply isn't possible. This unrealistic view can leave us wallowing in guilt and even self-loathing.
There's no magic route to finding our way through all of the brambles of life itself, let alone life as a caregiver. However, we can work on our opinion of our imperfect selves enough that eventually—sometimes with the aid of professional counseling—we can learn to love ourselves, even with all of our human imperfection. This change is bound to circle around to make us better caregivers, so learning to love ourselves is a win/win challenge.
How do we start?
First, some don'ts
- Don't compare yourself to others. No one lives a perfect life. Even though some people appear to live in a way that seems charmed, they too, make mistakes. The surest way toward self-loathing is to compare ourselves to other people. That includes other caregivers.
- Don't accept unearned guilt. Caregivers are prone to guilt because the vulnerable people they care for often cannot communicate their needs. These same loved ones are often on the final journey of their lives and we, the caregivers, can't stop that decline. In our heads we know this as the truth, but our hearts often tell us that if we were doing our jobs right—whatever that is—our loved ones would be happy and could maybe even live longer. Let it go. We can't stop the inevitable cycle of life and death.
- Don't buy into the myth that every disease can be cured. Alzheimer's is a prime example. There is no cure and likely won't be for a decade or more. Do your best to provide comfort and care, but understand that often a few moments of contentment may be all we can offer our care receivers. Revel in those few minutes and give yourself credit when such things happen.
- Don't believe everything you read or hear. Even the best intended advice we read or hear—including this article—is not for everyone. Every situation is different. We live in different states with different services. We live in different economic situations. We live in different family situations. We have different personalities. This concept goes back to comparing ourselves to others. Sift through information to see what truly applies to your unique situation and let the rest go.
- Don't allow pessimism or depression to rule your life. If you are clinically depressed, and many caregivers are, seek help for yourself. Taking care of your own health will, in the end, help your care receiver. If your personality is naturally pessimistic, counseling can also help you take a more realistic, if not optimistic, view of life. Studies have shown the optimistic people live longer and in many cases healthier lives, so some effort in that direction is generally time well spent.
Now, some dos
- Accept your flaws as part of your humanity. There may be things that could use some work, but remember that imperfection is human. Accept that and you'll already feel better about yourself.
- Meditate. Meditation can take countless forms. Some people simply enjoy time alone letting their minds wander without direction. Others prefer guided meditation with soothing music and/or a soft voice coaching them to relax. Others prefer prayer and spiritual meditation or going for a run out in a natural setting. The list goes on. Many studies have shown that meditation of any form can lower blood pressure, decrease stress and increase our feeling of wellbeing.
- Exercise. Eat well. Taking care of your body is an affirmation that you are loveable. One caveat. Don't shame yourself if you don't succeed in your goals or you will defeat your purpose. Just aim to do better next time.
- Do something nice for another person without telling anyone what you did. Don't do it for appreciation or thanks. Don't do it for admiration from on-lookers. Do it for yourself. You'll feel good in your heart and that will lift your spirits, at least temporarily. This type of activity can also help you love yourself for who you are, not for what other's think of you.
- Forgive others. Many people have had horrendous experiences brought on by abuse from someone else. Forgiveness doesn't mean that you forget. Forgiveness means that you stop letting these negative or even horrible events and people use up space in your head and heart.
- Forgive yourself. In order to love yourself you have to forgive yourself. Most of what you hold against yourself probably isn't that bad, anyway. Even if you have done something that disgusts you now, forgiving yourself can help ensure that you won't make the same mistake again.
- Choose your friends wisely. Sometimes support groups can guide you. These groups can be for caregivers or people who've been abused or whatever issue you feel weighs you down the most. People there can hear your stories and love you, even after you've told them about what you feel are your failures. Absorbing their caring and love can help you accept your humanity. Choose other friends with the same goal in mind.
If you can't genuinely acknowledge to yourself that you are worth other people's time, your share of available resources and having your own needs met, seek professional counseling.
Learning to genuinely love ourselves is not easy, especially with the messages we've been given throughout life. Finding a balance between giving to others and respecting ourselves is ideal. You don't have to apologize for who you are. You are worthy of love. Stay on the path of internalizing this truth.