How To Prevent 'Emotional Caretaking' from Impacting Your Mental Health
It's human if you find yourself tending to everyone else's emotions and needs right now.
We’re all going through the ups and downs of dealing with a global pandemic—and all the ways it's changed our world—and practicing care for your community is so important.
But one aspect of community care that we don’t discuss enough is falling into the role of emotional caretaking.
There’s a big difference between caring for others and being an "emotional caretaker"—which can include many things, but according to therapist Dawn Wiggins, L.M.F.T., can be identified “when you act on the urge to soothe someone else's feelings instead of soothing your own.”
Emotional caretaking looks like constantly caring for and supporting the emotions of other—and feels like your own emotions are left untended.
To understand how to best protect your energy and why it’s important to prioritize your own needs first, we chatted with New York-based therapist Naiylah Warren, L.M.F.T., about steps you can take to shake any emotional caretaking tendencies you might have.
Set—And Honor—Your Boundaries
If you’ve always filled a caretaking role for others, setting boundaries is key to protecting your energy and caring for your mental health.
But setting those boundaries is easier said than done. Warren emphasizes that “it’s so important for us to honor what I call our ‘silent no.'”
That "silent no" is the result of taking time to honor and understand exactly what our boundaries might look like. Once you’re clear with what your needs are, you’ll be able to clearly ask for others to respect the boundaries you ultimately set.
Remember, boundaries look different for everyone. It’s OK if yours doesn’t look like someone else. It’s important to first find what is comfortable for you and adjust from there.
Have A Plan of Action
“Oftentimes when someone attempts to cross our boundaries, we can feel it,” Warren says. “It can present itself in many such many ways."
That might look like visceral agitation, anger, or ambivalence. Preparing for what might happen if your boundaries are crossed is an important part of shaking that emotional caretaking’ role.
“A good question to ask yourself is: What happens when you feel your boundaries have been crossed?" Warren says. Asking yourself that can help you mentally and emotionally prepare for what your response might be.
Rehearsing that can come in handy in other ways, too. Warren suggests practicing the many ways you can say "no" to others who might dismiss what you’ve set. “This will help to build a script to help you become more comfortable with setting a boundary.”
Shake Any Guilt
If you find yourself on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic or directly caring for people in vulnerable positions because of COVID-19, you might feel guilty about taking time to prioritize your needs at this time.
It can be hard to shake that guilt, and that very guilt “often implies that we feel that we are doing something wrong,” Warren explains. “In this case, feeling bad for wanting to meet your own needs can sometimes lead us to 'over care' for others to alleviate those feelings of guilt.”
But it’s important to remember: Self-care isn’t selfish. “Caring for ourselves is not a luxury, it's a responsibility,” Warren says. “It is totally normal to prioritize your needs and attempt to have those needs met.”
Saying "no" to protect your energy can be harder now than ever, but asserting yourself in effective ways is crucial to preventing burnout in the long run.
Because the truth is: Even if we're caring for others during this time, we can't forget to care for ourselves. We're all coping and enduring this pandemic at the same time.
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