Published on January 15th, 2014 | by Meredith Crislip

Save the Hero: Self Care for the Caregiver

I love to travel. I have been above 10,000 feet more times than I can count. I find a few consistencies on each flight. Every flight requires passengers to “turn off and stow any electronic devices” (slightly annoying). There is an odd, yet interesting, gadget magazine available for entertainment and random purchases (sort of fun). The flight attendants put on a show as they demonstrate the safety procedures, should an emergency occur (vital). Most notable (and relevant to my point) is the part of the safety presentation on oxygen mask protocol.

Every flight crew makes it blatantly clear that passengers are to secure their own oxygen masks before assisting others.

So, what does this have to do with self-care?

Too often we try to be “the hero”—the woman who neglects her own oxygen mask to help secure masks on others around her. She passes out after helping only a few.

Three Types of Heroes

The same happens when we sacrifice our own needs (nutrition, sleep, safety, and a plethora of other needs such as those defined by Maslow) in order to meet the needs of those around us. For some reason, Western society rewards this self-neglecting behavior. We hear about the virtues of people who never say no to someone in need. We see successful work-a-holics glorified. We watch professional helpers such as healthcare workers overextend themselves to squeeze in one more patient.

It is my experience that we fear rest, relaxation, renewal, and vacation because these things can be seen as lazy, selfish, unmotivated, and inconsiderate.

This perspective needs to change to create a healthier culture full of healthy people.

I have observed three main types of heroes in my personal, academic, and professional experience: the people-pleasing hero, the fairytale hero, and the praise-worthy hero. Here are my analyses of each hero and suggestions for each regarding self care for the caregiver.

self care for caregivers

People-Pleasing Hero

The people-pleaser believes: “I must make everyone happy to have value.”

There are two huge problems with this self-talk statement. First, this hero usually feels she is worthless unless she meets a condition (making others happy). This allows the people-pleaser to view herself in a general state of worthlessness and in a constant struggle to achieve a sense of value.

Second, this statement assumes one person can make another person happy. It is possible to be a positive influence on an environment or in a particular circumstance, but it is futile to claim control over another’s happiness. People-pleasing heroes should understand they are not responsible for anyone’s happiness but their own. Once this freeing truth is accepted, life and its demands become significantly less stressful.

Self Care Recommendations for the People-Pleasing Hero

People-pleasing heroes are in desperate need of self-care. These individuals are worn out trying to please bosses, co-workers, friends, and family members all at once. Healthy boundaries and the ability to say “No” will help these heroes.

People-pleasers should also be aware of co-dependence in relationships. The people-pleaser “needs” to make others happy in order to fulfill the previously mentioned self-talk statement. This can turn sour in a relationship with another person who is extremely controlling. The controlling individual could easily manipulate our hero simply because the hero is out to make everyone happy—even those who might take advantage of her heroic tendencies.

Fairytale Hero

The fairytale hero comes straight out of a story. Chaos abounds, unrest consumes a village, and there is a damsel in distress… that is, until the hero enters stage right and saves the day (once again… just like every other time before).

The fairytale hero believes: “I can (and should) save everyone to have value.”

This thinking is a disastrous recipe for disappointment and eventual burnout. Reality says not everyone can or will be “saved.” The fairytale hero can provide the necessary tools for healing, but the individual seeking help must utilize those tools toward healing and change. The hero should not feel at fault if a person (or client) does not choose a pathway toward recovery.

Self-Care Recommendations for the Fairytale Hero

Pastor Brian Phipps can easily relate to feelings of burnout. He explains a few key points to consider in self-care:

  1. Work will always be there. Priorities should be in place to avoid burnout. For example, family should not be pushed aside to attend to work-related issues. Reflect on what is most important to your life and to your happiness. Then, make those priorities in your self-care regimen.
  2. Beware of “VDP’s” (very dependent people). There will be people who constantly seek you for help. Again, create healthy boundaries, be aware of a possible co-dependency situation, and become comfortable saying “No” when necessary. Beware of “helping too much.” There may come a time when an individual is not simply seeking help to improve, but rather is seeking your support, attention, and so on to fulfill a particular need. A fairytale hero should be careful that the drive to help everyone does not foster blindness to an enabling scenario.
  3. Allow someone else to pour into your life. Take a step back and allow someone else to help you. Sometimes, as heroes, it is hard to ask for help or support. If you can learn to reach out to others, to allow others to return your “heroic service,” you will find yourself rejuvenated and refreshed.

Praise-Worthy Hero

The praise-worthy hero believes: “I need affirmation and praise from those around me to have value.”

The praise-worthy hero has an external locus of control. In other words, she relies on others to tell her she has value. This can cause her to attain awards, make perfect grades in school, attend the best university, and acquire a prestigious job only so she can gain praise and feel a sense of worth.

This hero typically struggles with self-awareness. She has spent so much time seeking those things that gain praise, while her actual desires fall to the wayside if not positively reinforced by others.

Self-Care Recommendations for the Praise-Worthy Hero

Praise-worthy heroes should ask themselves “Why” more often. These individuals should take time to understand why they make certain choices and choose to behave in particular ways. If they discover that their actions are reinforced by external praise rather than internal motivation, then perhaps another choice, one more aligned with internal desires, would be better.

This individual would benefit from self-exploration. Take time to get to know herself. What she likes; what she is passionate about; and what makes her tick.

A praise-worthy hero should also seek to develop a more internal locus of control. This would promote healthier choices that are in line with the individual desires rather than what others desire for her.

Helping the Hero

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. You are usually the one offering help; now it is okay to be on the other side of the table, accepting help from a caring individual who may be able to relate to where you are and what you’re experiencing . . . more than you know. Chances are good the one helping you has struggled in the past with putting on an oxygen mask of her own.

To find a counselor near you, one resource you can use is the American Counseling Association Website (United States only). In Australia, check out these resources for mental and emotional health support.

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