Overcoming your barriers to self-care when you care for others

When I first thought about writing a self-care article for carers, my mind went to the usual suspects: tips for looking after yourself, using the aeroplane oxygen mask analogy, reeling off the mental health benefits of self-care… but then I stopped.

The thing is, if you’re a carer, chances are you know full well what ‘self-care’ means. You know you should be looking after yourself, that taking breaks and tending to your own health is important. It’s not a lack of knowledge stopping you. I doubt you’ve ever thought, “Well I would love to do more self-care, but please can someone tell me what self-care involves?”.

When you see these self-care articles and tips, you’re (perhaps) more likely to be rolling your eyes, thinking “Yes, I know self-care is important and I know having a break will be beneficial, but I can’t because ….” and then you’ll reel off a long list of reasons.

I’m not here to tell you those reasons aren’t valid. We’re all living different lives, full of barriers and obstacles. What’s interesting however is that, in some cases, these barriers are self-imposed. They’re made up of negative self-talk, limiting beliefs and cloudy communication.

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There are so many things in life we have no control over, but these self-imposed barriers, these we can control, change and overcome. Here are some pointers to help you do just that.

What are your barriers?

Getting clear on exactly what your barriers are is an important first step. Get yourself a pen and paper and write down all the reasons you feel you can’t take time out for yourself. These will be different for everyone, so make sure you write these down in your own words. Some will be practical things, like lack of time, others will be more theoretical, like feeling selfish for looking after yourself.

Take a look at what you’ve written and try to pick out which are facts, and which are beliefs, attitudes or even misconceptions. Question yourself here.

Overcoming your barriers

Once you have identified what it is that’s holding you back you can start to make changes. Look back at your list and notice any limiting beliefs and negative self-talk. For example, “I am the only one who can look after him.” or “I don’t deserve self-care”. Pick these statements out and examine them. Where have they come from? Are they really true?

Try to challenge these thoughts and come up with counter-arguments. For example, “I am the only one who can look after him” becomes “I can accept help from others to provide care for him” and “I don’t deserve self-care” becomes “I deserve to look after myself”.

This may feel easier said than done at first, but challenging and questioning your thoughts and beliefs is the first step to changing them.

Next, have a think about what self-care looks like to you. Think about what you would benefit from including in your life, whether that’s more breaks, an afternoon walk or even a weekly coffee and chat with a friend. Write down all the different things you would like to make room for.

Setting self-care goals and asking for help

Before you start setting small goals, think about your motivations for self-care. Overcoming your personal barriers is one thing, but if you don’t have clear motivations in mind, your mindset can easily slip back to not prioritising your needs.

Write down as many benefits of self-care and motivations for looking after yourself as you can. These might include:

  • To ensure you’re mentally and physically well enough to care for others
  • To reduce stress
  • To help increase energy levels and avoid burnout

Caring for others is an incredibly admirable task, but looking after yourself is just as important.

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Once you have your motivations in your mind, think about small self-care goals you can set yourself. For example, let’s say your goal is to have a weekly cup of coffee with a friend. Consider what you’ll need to make this happen. Will you need to ask someone to come and fill in for you? Can you access professional services? How much time will you spend at the cafe?

Asking for help from others can be a big barrier for many. Consider who you can ask and when is a good time to ask them. Think about their strengths and what they are best suited to help with (for example if you have a friend who loves driving, why not see if they can help out with driving to appointments?).

When asking for help, be specific and clear about what you need. Rather than “Just a thought, but are you free Saturday afternoon?” say “Could you please help look after X for an hour on Saturday at midday?”.

If it becomes too much

There are times for all of us that life seems too much like hard work, but when you’re caring for others and struggling to find time for yourself, you may find you hit your limit quicker. Surrounding yourself with a support network (this could include friends, family, professionals and support groups) helps as does taking the steps above to introduce more self-care.

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If, however, things do begin to feel too much, please don’t hesitate to seek professional support. Having someone like a counsellor to speak to can help you process the complicated emotions that often come with a caring role and allow you the headspace you need to keep going.

Many counsellors are flexible with their times and some even work online, allowing you to speak to someone without leaving home. To find a counsellor in your area, you can use counselling-directory.org.uk.