If you’re a caretaker, you don’t have to serve yourself up 100% all the time. The person you’re taking care of needs more than you (or any single person) can provide. We’ve already talked about how you can recognize if you are approaching burnout, how you can recharge your batteries, and how you can find other “ingredients” for the stew pot of caretaking.
One unpopular way to get out of the stew pot is to compartmentalize.
We like to say that compartmentalization is bad. Life should be approached holistically. Health and wellness are more than just physical issues. We can’t correct social justice issues without looking at economic issues and governmental policy issues. Sure, that’s all true. But one important part of mental health is the ability to compartmentalize.
When I was in my 20s, I volunteered with a sexual assault hotline. After a few months, I was having trouble enjoying my life. How could I enjoy my life when there were women suffering so intensely? How could I sing praise songs to God when I heard stories of childhood molestation? How could I laugh at trivial TV shows when some women were using extreme methods to cope with their painful memories? I talked to the social worker who worked with the hotline, and she helped me understand the need to compartmentalize my life.
Caretakers has empathy. It’s a job requirement. But we need to be able to turn that empathy off if we’re going to avoid burnout. After all, there’s no use in going on vacation if you’re going to spend the entire trip worrying.
I call this “getting out of the kitchen” to emphasize that this is not a total blocking of our emotions. Think about an open plan house. The kitchen, living room, and dining area all flow together in one large “great room.” That’s great, but there are advantages to more traditional floor plans as well.
A separate kitchen can be closed off so bad smells don’t get into the whole house (anyone like the smell of burned popcorn?). A separate kitchen can be closed off when company comes so no one sees the mess you made fixing guacamole. Yet a separate kitchen is still part of the house. There is flow back and forth between the rooms.
This is the kind of “compartmentalization” I’m talking about. Partial, not complete.
OK, that’s all well and good, but how can you do that? How can you re-arrange your mental floor plan to create a separate kitchen?
- Create Boundaries. Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries. Read this book to get started. Boundaries are the interior walls in your mental house.
- Get a life. Cultivate interests and friendships outside of your caretaking. If you’re a mom, keep some friendships with non-moms. If you’re working with an oppressed population, find a hobby or a community that isn’t involved with that group. This is how you decorate your mental living room and get out of the kitchen.
- Remember that you can only do so much. At the end of the work day, go home and give yourself approval for what you did. Then give yourself forgiveness for what you didn’t do.
- Take time to notice the neighborhood. Continuing our mental house metaphor, notice that any house is contained within a neighborhood. You are not the only person taking care of others. You are part of a larger community. If you are a caretaker for just one person, remember that other people are in similar care taking relationships just like you! If you care for a group, remember that there are many others who care for those people too.
So, to get out of the stew pot, remember to leave the kitchen!