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Please Stop Neglecting Yourself: You’re Too Important To Ignore

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!

Read more:

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

  1. alex #

    A good reminder! Great post.

    November 26, 2013
    • Thanks Alex – I need to be constantly reminded of this myself!

      November 27, 2013
  2. I really needed to read this tonight – Thank You!

    November 26, 2013
  3. What a great post. I definitely learned this lesson the hard way after crashing and burning myself. But after some needed time off I’ve learned to at least try and balance everything. Accepting that “you can’t save the all” is really hard, but it’s the truth and I now find myself preaching this exact same message to others that are new to the game! Thanks for sharing!

    November 27, 2013
    • I think a lot of us wind up learning this lesson the hard way and sadly, lots of people just don’t come back after experiencing serious burnout or compassion fatigue. I’m hoping if we talk about this a little more, that it might spare a few people from crashing and burning and keep them in the game. I’m glad you were able to find some balance – Thank you for all that you do!

      November 27, 2013
  4. Eileen Fletcher #

    Yes, me too, the 25lbs – I am wondering if it is a mandatory right of passage 😦

    November 28, 2013
    • Sorry to hear that Eileen. Numbing out/filling up with food (or booze, pills, etc.) seems to be pretty pervasive. My hope is that one day self-care is considered to be a nonnegotiable part of the job training – from day one – so that what we’ve gone through won’t be so standard.

      November 29, 2013
  5. saydox #

    True for all caregivers, whether of animals or humans. We so want to do it all but, realistically, fall short & experience burnout in diff. ways (but still burnout & damaging). My hope is one day, all humans will be truly responsible for the lives placed in their care. Well written article.

    November 28, 2013
    • Absolutely, this is true for all caregivers. We all need to learn to take care of ourselves.

      November 29, 2013
  6. gp #

    As a shelter volunteer, at a city shelter that has very few volunteers, this is so true. I need to keep your article and reread it during those times I feel I so overwhelmed because I can’t help them all.

    November 29, 2013
    • Thank you for doing this difficult work. There aren’t that many people in the world who are willing to do what you do, so treat yourself well. We really do need you!

      December 2, 2013
  7. I love you.

    December 2, 2013
  8. Thank you for this post! It is always a struggle, but happy to report that even as a founder of a busy non profit, I find time for exercise, a mostly home cooked vegan diet, play music, and try to fit in other ways to recharge. Of course, I am not perfect but if I try to take a walk everyday it ends up being pretty often. We encourage our volunteers to do the same and have attempted to build self care into our culture from the beginning. We can DO this!!

    December 4, 2013
    • I am SO glad to hear this. Thank you for sharing how you’ve incorporated self care into your busy life. I’m especially excited to know that you’ve built this into the culture of your organization. When self care is valued and practiced by those in charge, it can be a game changer for the whole group. Rock on!

      December 6, 2013

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