Why putting yourself first is a necessity, not selfish!

As featured in CancerAid, December 2018

If you’ve ever been on an airplane, you would have sat through the safety demonstration where in the unlikely even of an emergency, the crew instructs you to first fit your own oxygen mask before you help others. It’s quite a simple concept, isn’t it? If you don’t look after yourself, you won’t have the capacity to help others and while many of us logically understand and accept this, putting it in to daily practice can bring a whole host of challenges, especially when the ‘other’ is someone we love so dearly.


Research shows that many cancer caregivers don’t usually realise they have taken on this role until they are well and truly into the swing of things. As part of my research talking to caregivers about possible changes in their dietary behaviours, many of them shared that they never really saw themselves as a ‘caregiver’. They instead identified as ‘just a wife looking after my husband’ or providing care ‘because we’ve always been a team’ or ‘just doing the mum-thing’ when they cared for a sick child.


It can be incredibly challenging to see someone we love sick and unable to do the things they used to do, so one of the ways caregivers often try to rebalance this, is by ‘doing as much as they can’. And not that there is anything wrong with this – the power of love can move us to achieve super-human feats! But as we enter into some of the more turbulent stages of life and the oxygen masks drop down, we can get so fixated on ‘doing as much as we can’ that we forget the golden rule of securing our own oxygen mask first. Here are my top tips to help empower you to remember to strap your own mask on first and why it’s so important.


Cut yourself some slack

Sometimes, near enough is good enough and while it can sometimes be a tricky for you to wrap your head around not doing it ‘perfectly’, trust in the fact that you doing something, is better than doing nothing (rather than not doing anything because you’re so worried about getting things ‘right’). For many caregivers, they have never been in this situation before so it’s perfectly normal to have no idea what or how things are ‘meant’ to be. Imagine you had a close friend who had just started a new job – talk to yourself with the same amount of kindness and encouragement as you would that friend.


Your health matters too!

Many caregivers I talk to express a desire to improve their health ‘so they can be a better caregiver’. I understand where they are coming from, but my question to them is always ‘why can’t we just look to improve your health for YOU?’ Research shows us that many caregivers downplay or disregard their own health concerns because they constantly compare them to that of the patient. And sure, they might not seem as ‘bad’ but that doesn’t mean that they don’t matter. Learning how to see your health as equal to the other persons is NOT selfish; it’s a necessity. One analogy I like to use with caregivers is seeing each of your health status like children and it’s important to love each of those children equally. Sure, there might be times when one ‘child’ needs a bit more attention than the other, but at the end of the day, we need to ensure we take care of both so that both of them are able to thrive.


Accepting help is a sign of strength, not of weakness

Many caregivers go through or have been through the ‘I can do it myself’ phase, but as I’m sure you’re aware, there are limited hours in the day and sometimes it’s just not possible to get everything you want done in the way you want it. In this instance, it can be time to raise your hand, admit you’re fumbling with your mask and get someone whose already got theirs on to help you. This might mean getting a friend to come and sit with your loved one so you can go to an appointment or ordering a week of ready made meals even though you had decided you wanted to make everything from scratch. Sometimes it’s about learning how to prioritise where your energy goes and if there is someone out there who can do it better, faster or more efficiently, that doesn’t make you ‘weak’, it makes you smart. It’s called outsourcing. Businesses do it all the time.


You can’t pour from an empty cup.

This is one of my favourite sayings and a key foundational underpinning of Health for Help, a dedicated caregiver organisation I have set up to provide holistic support and guidance for cancer caregivers. It’s very common for caregivers to ‘give’ so much and they can sometimes mistaken ‘topping up’ with ‘taking away’ or ‘taking from’ their loved one. Filling our cup is absolutely vital not just for your health and wellbeing, but also for who you are as a human being.


It’s very common for caregivers to lose themselves when they take on the caregiver role. They can focus so much on bringing joy and happiness to those around them, that in the process, they forget to do the things that make their heart sing and the things that remind them of who they are. Some times this is out of guilt, fear or sadness. Perhaps you’ve even had the thought of ‘how can I be having such a good time when my loved one is so unwell? It just doesn’t seem right.’


Being a caregiver can be extremely challenging, but actively choosing to incorporate little things that top up your cup can help provide a buffer zone to keep you well and keep you, YOU. Maybe it’s just taking 5 minutes out of your day to sit and have a cup of tea in peace, actually making time to go to that exercise class or sitting down to eat your lunch rather than eating on the run. If even the thought of this seems too much, just start with one thing. Make a commitment to do that every day and once that is a habit, you can move on to the next one.


Let’s be frank: being a caregiver can be really challenging on so many different levels. Looking after you through the process is not (I repeat NOT) selfish; it’s a necessity and I invite you to start now if you haven’t already.