When was the last time you put yourself first?
As women, we’re hard-wired to care for others — physically or emotionally or both. Whatever your role (mother, wife, daughter, sister, friend), your antennae are always out.
Is she happy? Is he fed? Are they safe? The emotional energy (and in the case of small children, physical energy) flows ever outward, enveloping those around us with love and caring.
But what happens when you’re the one who needs help? For instance, when you’re suddenly and desperately dealing with a cancer diagnosis. Your world is falling apart… and life goes on. The kids still need lunch, and tucking in at night. Or your elderly dad depends on you for everything from grocery shopping to paying his bills.
How can you take care of everyone around you, and still take care of yourself? Short answer: you can’t. Something has to give. Despite a woman’s limitless capacity for love (and the care that goes with it), there comes a time when she simply has to turn off that emotional spigot and replenish the well.
Breast cancer is that time.
But there’s an enormous roadblock to stepping back from the caretaker role, and turning that energy inward where it’s needed most. No, not your particularly needy 15-year-old, or your spouse struggling with his or her own issues.
The roadblock is you.
How do you move from “everyone’s mom” to being the recipient of care — and feel, if not great, at least OK? Here are some tips for transitioning from caretaker to care-receiver with grace.
Dealing with your emotions
Accept the fact that it’s OK to put yourself first. Reorder your priorities: for the near future, your health is job #1.
Believe that you’re just as deserving of care as those around you. You’ve been a good person for a long time. You’ve earned this down time from the caretaker role.
Understand that people can get along without you. They may not want to; but really, they can.
You’re not a failure if you step back for a while. Performance guilt? Give it a rest.
Look at the big picture. if you don’t take care of yourself right now, you may not be around to care for others later.
Practice saying “no” and “I can’t.” Soften the phrases with “not today” or “maybe later” if you must, but the bottom line is no.
Call in favors. Look at all your relationships, and identify those in which you’ve given more than you’ve received. It’s time to swing that pendulum back.
Divide and conquer. You’re the general in charge of this battle: plan what needs to be done. Then delegate responsibility to those around you, from friends taking over carpooling duties to kids stepping up their participation in household chores.
Learn to take care of yourself. Do you need quiet time alone? Shut the door to your bedroom, don headphones, and meditate or simply chill. Self-care is just as important as care provided by others.
This is all temporary. But you may learn some good lessons from this time. You can’t run the well dry; you really do have to care for yourself if you want to care for others.
Cancer is a kick in the gut. But it’s also a wakeup call: Have you been running your emotional self ragged way too long? Learning to love and care for yourself during cancer is a process worthy of embracing for the rest of your life.
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PJ Hamel is senior digital content editor and food writer at King Arthur Flour, and a James Beard award-winning author. A 16-year breast cancer survivor, her passion is helping women through this devastating disease. She manages a large and active online survivor support network based at her local hospital and shares her wisdom and experience with the greater community via HealthCentral.com.