In May, I completed a comprehensive course in Cognitive Behaviour Therapy; the first pilot session in Canada specifically designed for caregivers of mentally ill loved ones. Dr. Douglas Turkington and his staff from the UK designed the course to provide caregivers, practitioners, psychologists and psychiatrists with the tools to assist our loved ones with living their best. I discovered much of what is beneficial for treating the mentally ill is also good practice for all of us. As anyone working in a caring role can attest, self care of ourselves becomes a critical element to surviving and thriving. Not surprisingly, a sizeable portion of the course was dedicated to self-care of ourselves while we assist others.

Self care is a necessary practice to ensure we remain healthy and productive.

But what exactly is self-care?

Often we think of self-care as taking care of our outer selves: eating properly, getting enough rest, exercising and taking time to have fun and enjoy life; maybe even a shopping spree and buying something nice for ourselves. These are all great things but for many of us the very idea of self-care becomes just one more thing on our long exhaustive to-do list. For many the thought of working out or preparing healthy meals falls to the wayside as we concentrate our efforts on our loved ones who demand so much of our energy. When you are already exhausted, run down and depleted, any concept or idea of focusing on your own well-being becomes overwhelming.

When we are exhausted self care becomes just one more thing to do. So we often neglect the very things that we need and put ourselves and our personal betterment dead last. We forget to make time for ourselves and often neglect our own basic needs. The results can be irritability, fatigue, short-temperedness, inability to concentrate or plan effectively. The guilt and resentment builds and we have trouble remembering that the people we are looking after are the people we love. We lose empathy and compassion towards those that have no control over their own illness. Believe me when I say, they don’t want this illness any more than you do!

Long term neglect of our self-care can lead to depression and dysthmia; the inability to find enjoyment in our everyday lives. We walk around with a heaviness in our hearts and a dark cloud over our heads, while still doing all the necessary deeds we do for our loved ones. Therefore the concept of self-care becomes even more daunting and difficult. But yet we know that self-care is much more than a mere coping strategy and becomes integral to the long term health of ourselves and our loved ones.

Think of it this way:

There is a young child zooming down the street on his bicylce headed for a busy intersection. You look around and quickly assess the situation. You realize you are the only one around who can do anyting to help this child. Without another thought, you sprint to the end of the street just in time to stop the child from biking right into the intersection. You saved the kid, you changed situation; you averted a disaster. Now you can go back home and recover. It’s quick it’s done and it’s over.

Now let’s say that you are in charge of running along side this biking child. You are there to keep him out of harm’s way, steer him through the intersections and basically tend to his needs along the route. You can do that too.

Except now the route is a marathon.

It’s not a quick sprint down the street – it’s 42.2 km. Now the game changes. In order to accomplish that task, you would need to train for months and slowly build up your stamina towards the big event. Most importantly, you would require some rest time afterwards in order to recover from such a grooling, taxing demand of energy on your body.

That is self-care.

There are very few athletes that complete a marathon and continue on running. In fact, many of us would think it is riduculous to run a full marathon and continue jogging on past the finish line.

But that is exactly what we do when we don’t allow ourselves time to look after ourselves. Caring for a loved one is a long term commitment. It means you are in it for the long haul – it is a marathon! So why should you not allow yourself the time and space you require to replenish yourself? It just doesn’t make sense any other way.

Just as a long distance runner must pace themselves to be able to finish the marathon, so must we pace ourselves to be able to “go the distance”. Caring for our loved ones is often not balanced. They require a great deal of our time and energy and slowly deplete our “joy cup” one sip at a time. As our cups become depleted with increased caring commitments, we must find ways to replenish our cups so that we can renew our energy for the long marathon journey ahead.

A practice of self-care I aspire to that doesn’t require yet another commitment from you is the simple act of “saying no”. As a incurable pleaser, I know I must activate my self-compassion and say no to things that do not serve me. Sometimes I will say no to social engagements or family commitments in order to control my continual need to please everyone else and further emptying my already empty cup. Sometimes I must say no to those that demand a great deal of my time by ensuring that I have set myself some clear boundaries on what I am willing to do and what I am not willing to do and when I will do it. For example, I endeavor to go “electronics free” on weekends. I don’t answer emails and I try to avoid social media in order to devote more face time to my family and also to free up time for myself to be present, to read, to exercise and write. NO to electronics on weekends works for me.

I am aware of my need to please others and must ensure I respect my limits. I must be keenly aware of when my support turns to enabling – when I am doing for others what they can do on themselves. I must be aware of when my time is not respected but demanded. I must acknowledge and speak up when my own commitments and life choices are disregarded. I struggle with saying no because I truly like helping other people but I know that I must preserve myself at all cost. I lose respect for myself when I say yes when I really mean no.

I must say NO to relationships with people who do not appreciate me for who I am and what I have to offer. I have learned the hard way that these people are damaging to my self-esteem and drain my “joy cup” like a colander. Life is too short to spend time convincing people of my worth. To those, I simply say “no” and move on to surround myself with those that care for me and can help add a few splashes of joy to my cup.

Lastly and most importantly, I must say NO so that I can concentrate on nurturing myself. Self nurturing is different from self-care. Self care looks after my basic human needs but self nurturing renews my energy, re-builds myself esteem, my love for myself and refills my ”joy cup”. Self nurturing for me means spending time alone in reflection and often in nature where I can connect with my heart, mind and soul. I use the quietness to examine the emotions that are circling through me. I try to identify each of the many emotions and find peace with each one of them one by one. I ask each emotion “What is my lesson here?” to help me better understand myself from the inside out. Whether I have been hurt by someone’s comments or actions, or I am worried about something, I examine those feelings because if I don’t I know they will circle around and come back at me even stronger. In a culture of perpetual happiness, I tell myself it’s ok to feel sad, angry, annoyed, agitated, hurt and disappointment. It is in these feelings that, I practice self-forgiveness. I am only one person and while I do my best to please and help so many, I can only help those that want my help. I must be compassionate with myself and feel ok with not being able to help everyone. I must accept my own mistakes – apologize where I need to and move on. I am not perfect and I must accept myself as I accept others for their imperfection. Self nurturing to me is getting in touch with what makes me human – laughing, crying and feeling the myriad of feelings that I have. Self nurturing is feeling it all and not trying to make sense of of it or push it away. We are complicated being and not everything is going to make sense in the moment. Self nurturing is spending time with myself and enjoying my own company without feeling lonely. | can find peace in my aloneness without feeling lonely. I must stop apologizing for being who am to those that criticize me. It’s ok to be by myself, with myself and be myself.

When I have practiced self-forgiveness, I am self-nurturing. When I have nurtured myself, I have energy to practice good self-care.