I just opened up this month’s issue of O Magazine. That’s right, I love me some Oprah.
They did a lovely feature where they gave makeovers to women who work as founders and program managers of nonprofits. They’re all caregivers in one way or another. I was stoked to see that Sara Alize Cross, founder of Badass Brooklyn Animal Rescue was one of the recipients and that her work on behalf of homeless pets was featured right along side those who run human-focused programs.
Her rescue, founded just two years ago, has saved more than 1,000 dogs. Pretty amazing. I was feeling happy, until I read this part of her interview:
The stress has taken it’s toll. “I’ve gained 25 pounds and have thousands of dollars in credit card debt”, she says. But she has no regrets,”Being able to alleviate suffering is incredibly empowering.”
That broke my heart. Then I read this:
“…I’m really going to try to take care of myself again.”
I felt a wee bit better when Sara acknowledged that she has to make her own needs a priority again. Because the truth is: if helping others is your jam, your own needs have to come first. Not in a selfish, narcissistic way, but in a Put-Your-Own-Oxygen-Mask-On-First sort of way. Self-care is critical to the work of caring for others.
I’ve written about this before. I’m writing about it again because I feel like this notion of self care bucks up against some deeply entrenched ideas we all have about what giving and caring for others is supposed to feel like.
In general, our culture promotes exhaustion, over-extension, and lack of self care as stuff that goes hand-in-hand with helping others. So we wind up wearing our lack of self care as a badge of honor. Proof that we’re doing good work. As if what we do doesn’t count unless we suffer.
Sometimes I wonder: Do we think that it somehow proves - to ourselves or to others – that we care the most about the animals, if we don’t care about ourselves at all?
So I’m writing this, not as a criticism of Sara or to point a finger at her in any way, but because her story resonated so deeply with me. Just like her, I gained 25 pounds and compromised my financial health when I was working at an animal shelter (and later volunteering with an animal welfare group). I too felt empowered by my work, but eventually I became totally depleted. I kept putting off my own self care. It was as if I believed there was some magic, perfect day in the future where I’d suddenly have free time and everyone else’s needs were totally taken care of and then I could handle my own stuff. Only that’s a day that never comes – for anyone. Not me and not you either.
Since I didn’t stop to take care of myself, I burned out. And I can’t stand to see others on the same path I was on.
This Thanksgiving, I’m thankful – as always – for all of you who are on the front lines, taking care of the animals. So, I’m asking that you please please please take care of yourselves. The work you do is so important. You are important. We need you to stick around.
Make yourself a priority. Set boundaries. Say no sometimes. That means sometimes you won’t be able to help an animal or person in need right now. But it will mean that, down the road, you’ll still be around and can help someone else. Try to take the long view.
Know this: You can’t save them all. Or do it alone. Or do it all right now. No one can.
Neglecting your own needs in order to take care of others isn’t a sustainable plan. You need to fill up your own tank – every day and in healthy ways – in order to give to others day after day.
If you don’t take care of your own needs, you might be a hero, but for only for a very short time. Find ways to take back some of your energy for you, so that you can do great things for a long, long time to come.
You know what I would love to read in O Magazine one day? A founder of an animal rescue who says this:
“I realized that in order to continue doing this important work, I needed to set boundaries and take care of myself first. I exercise, eat right, stay within my budget, and take regular time off to restore myself. I may not be able to help as many animals as I’d like to this way, but because I’m taking care of myself I’m going to be able to keep giving for a long, long time.”
I’d love to see caregivers celebrated – not just for the amazing work they do – but also because they model a healthy balance between giving to others and giving to themselves. I hope one day our culture promotes physical, mental, and spiritual health as something that goes hand-in-hand with caregiving. When working to alleviate the suffering of others and ourselves is considered of equal importance.
P.S. Sara, if you’re reading this: you looked smoking hot in both photos! Go on with your bad self!
How to avoid burnout or a breakdown from UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center
My own story of burnout and leaving the animal shelter
What is Compassion Fatigue?
Simple Self-Care Tips for Caregivers
Books that might be helpful