Very few people want to see someone they love drowning. Sometimes in a bid to save them, you give up your life jacket and end up drowning yourself. This is something you may relate with if you support a loved one who struggles with mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder or anything else that makes day-to-day living difficult. In the United States, nearly one in five adults lives with a mental illness according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
If you are someone offering your support, prioritizing yourself may feel selfish, but it’s actually a way to better care for your loved one. You are allowed to have boundaries, say no, and do things that exclusively make you happy.
How can you go about doing this, especially when you struggle to put yourself first? Weena Cullins, licensed clinical and marriage therapist and owner of Weena Cullins and Associates says start by managing your expectations when caring for a loved one with a mental illness.
“Depending on the condition, when your loved one has an episode, it’s important to remember that they’re really not themselves, so to [expect] them to speak, think or behave like they might on a day when their symptoms are not present, may not be realistic or healthy for you,” she says.
For example, if your loved one is usually kind and thoughtful, don’t expect them to always be that way. By doing this on days when they’re cold and dismissive, you may take it less personally.
Cullins also suggests building a community of people who have shared experiences with you. Connecting with others in similar circumstances can provide you with the support you need to face the highs and lows of being there for your loved one.
“Once you’ve learned that your loved one has the mental illness, that support is invaluable to helping you know what to expect and to being a safe space for you to vent, to get tips, and plot out your next steps so that you can maintain some level of control over your life while you assist your loved one,” she says.
If you’re wondering where you can find such communities, Facebook can be a good place to start. There are mental health caregiver support groups and more generalized caregiver communities as well. The National Alliance on Mental Illness is another resource that provides a network of family support groups. You can use their website to find one close to you.
Aside from building a community of people who can relate to your experiences, Cullins says you should build another circle of people that has nothing to do with mental illness and caregiving.
“When at all possible, you need to be able to take off that caregiver hat and put some really healthy boundaries between that role and you, so that you have some level of balance and respite from what could be a very intense and ongoing job,” she says.
The first boundary you should set is with yourself, especially if you have what she calls a “savior complex“—when you feel the need to save others and sacrifice your own needs in the process.
“It’s not something that comes easily for a lot of people, depending on their upbringing, background, or their experiences,” she says. “But caregivers who wholeheartedly take to the task and don’t make space for themselves have to unlearn that role.”
The approach to learning to put yourself first is two-fold: one includes prioritizing doing everyday things that cater to your likes and needs and the other requires doing internal work. Examples of the former include indulging in mundane things like binge-watching TV, sleeping, or eating your favorite foods, according to Cullins.
The internal aspect requires you to accept your limitations without being critical towards yourself.
“I think it really revolves around knowing that you’re enough, typically in that moment, and when you’re not enough, giving yourself that grace and allowing yourself to not be okay when it becomes overwhelming,” she advises.
In instances when you are overwhelmed, at the end of your rope, or feel like the relationship with your loved one is becoming toxic, Cullins recommends seeking professional help, whether from a clergy member or therapist.
“When you’re too far into the eye of the storm, it’s really important,” she says. “When you’re dealing with a person who has a mental illness for a long period of time, sometimes you may not even be able to see when the lines are becoming blurred.”
Finally, she reminds caregivers to remember that your loved one’s care and livelihood doesn’t begin and end with you.
“It’s not humanly possible to be everything for another person,” Cullins says. “And it’s very tempting at times to try to be, especially if you care deeply for the person.”
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