When helping others can become harmful

'Humans can survive and function with a lack of self-care... until they can't'

When helping others can become harmful
Kinga Burjan

Many people put themselves last to make sure their loved ones are taken care of. Although considered a noble act and at times a necessity, neglecting your personal needs over a long period of time to please others can lead to resentment, overwhelm, burnout and even depression. 

So, how does someone know whether they are giving too much to others and not enough to themselves? Remember the instructions given on an airplane? “Put your oxygen mask on before putting it on your child(ren) or dependents”. On first impression, this may sound selfish, heartless, or even cruel; but taking a step back, we can see that without you being alive and able to breathe, there is no chance of you fully being there for the other person you are taking care of. This is the same concept as self-care. Unlike oxygen, however, humans can still survive and function with a lack of self-care...until they can’t. 

When there is an imbalance over time of our needs being unmet, it can have unpleasant effects that we may not necessarily attribute to a lack of self-care. There may be some obvious signs of not properly taking care of yourself such as feeling burnt out and becoming overweight (but not always the case). However, there are other more subtle signs of neglecting your own care such as losing motivation, feeling overwhelmed, neglecting our appearance, unexplained physical issues, suppressing our feelings, experiencing feelings of guilt or worthlessness, increased irritation, symptoms of depression, and even addiction.

The idea of self-care is not just indulging in massages and facials or spending a week at a wellness retreat (although all of these are nice!); it goes beyond just lavish services we can buy, but rather how we can genuinely care for our well-being at a fundamental level.

Currently, with so many responsibilities, deadlines, increasing bills, and external pressures, how does a person make time for their well-being? How can we even afford to take care of ourselves with the increased prices of daily necessities?

Wellbeing not only encompasses our physical health and isn’t only based on relaxation services, but also our mental, emotional, and spiritual health. Many forms of self-care have no cost other than making some time for them. This may be as simple as turning off music while driving home to have some quiet time with yourself, or the opposite such as enjoying your favourite music to help shift your mood.

Another example is practicing deep breathing for a few minutes throughout the day to help calm your nervous system. Self-care may be going for a walk, drinking more water or tea throughout the day, going to bed earlier rather than staying up and watching a mindless show, choosing a healthy snack rather than a processed one, eating dinner while being present with your loved ones rather than eating in front of the television or with a smart phone in hand, taking time to journal, draw or read, taking time to meditate, pray, or learn something that will uplift you whether that’s through a religious or spiritual practice, or an inspirational story or motivational speech.

Did you know that saying “no” can be a major form of self-care? Some people have been taught or conditioned growing up that to be a “good” person, you must constantly be giving to others. Let me be clear, there is nothing innately wrong in giving to or helping others – it is a beautiful act. Where the imbalance happens is when a person isn’t able to say “no” and they end up harming themselves by draining their own resources (i.e. emotional, mental, physical, financial). If someone’s metaphorical ‘cup’ is drained, what do they have left to give to others? Self-care is like filling up your own cup so that you aren’t constantly in a deficit when giving to others. 

Saying “no” creates boundaries for your limitations which helps in preventing you from draining your cup and creating clarity on what is and isn’t acceptable to you. Being able to say ‘no’ creates boundaries and assists in the development of a healthy self-identity. On the other hand, it is still okay to say “yes” if you are not constantly sacrificing your needs and wellbeing for someone else's. We are human and to completely deny other’s needs is out of balance too, so part of self-care is learning to find that balance of helping others while remembering the importance of taking care of ourselves as well.

What if you are the sole caretaker and you must be there for your loved one? It’s okay to ask a trusted friend or loved one to step-in for you for a few hours so that you get a well-needed break. In addition, the government of Ontario offers respite care services if you need more support: https://www.ontario.ca/page/respite-care

What part of your wellbeing (physical, mental, emotional, spiritual) could be improved by some self-care practices? What are some things you could do at no extra financial cost? What would your perfect day look like implementing one or more of your chosen self-care practices? How could your life benefit from applying just one self-practice into your daily routine? Take time to reflect on how a commitment to a small positive change to your wellbeing could positively affect your life and those around you.