This topic has been stewing on my mind for some time now. Throughout my years of providing psychotherapy at the Priory in London, with patients suffering from depression, stress and anxiety, I encountered a common theme. The sense of people pleasing, and putting others first was a dominant narrative.
This became even more prevalent when noticing rescuing behavioural traits, and could quite often be attributed to the sense of feeling their needs were side-lined through having a sibling who demanded greater emotional care. Another common theme was the reported surprised reaction (after years of masking their problems from others) when they finally told their families they were "not okay.” They reflected on the difficulty in this being acknowledged from others and even acknowledging it themselves, having considered it as a self-perceived weakness because of a ‘societal stigma’ (often not acknowledging their own stigmas in the process). It became clear, carers often neglect their own self-care.
As therapists and carers, self-care and self-compassion are things we encourage our clients to adopt, and yet I have noticed how difficult it is to develop and adopt some of the strategies that I prescribe to others. I've even struggled to identify what those strategies might be. I remember that in one job interview; I was asked how I use self-care strategies to deal with the stressful demands of work. I could not give a sufficient answer.
The truth is, that even as I write this, I feel guilty that it was something I barely considered until recently, and therefore, I feel a huge sense of hypocrisy. My priority for large parts of my life was getting things done, progressing, completing tasks, getting to the end of the day, working hard and caring for the needs of others. This all came at the expense of looking after myself, or considering myself as needing to be looked after.
I have sometimes unintentionally neglected my own physical health and was not able to find much time to engage in my own hobbies, passions and interests due to life constraints. I realise of course, through talking to friends and colleagues, that in this sense, I am not unique. I remember recently talking to a psychologist who said that she only began to consider her own needs at the age of fifty.
A research article recently published by the National Institute of Health looked at the importance of self-care amongst Frontline health workers and some of the systemic and individual barriers. The participants of the studies (which included nurses, doctors, allied healthcare professionals and other caregivers) all outlined the various strategies that they used, many of which were not as easily accessible in the pandemic e.g. ‘seeing family and friends.’ Many reported a deterioration in self-care, which was not helped by their work demands, uncertainty and isolation. Interestingly, when I think back to my own experience of working as a Frontline health worker during the pandemic, I often completely forgot about the risks to my own health.
All of the above raises interesting questions as to why people find themselves caring for others at the expense of their own needs.
Through working with those who have identified themselves as people pleasers and rescuers, I have often noticed that the act of caring for others can be a way of avoiding looking at one’s self.
When facilitating group therapy, I observed patients who would attempt to rescue others and problem-solve, as a way of avoiding sitting with their own painful feelings.
Similarly, I came to notice that children and young people who had siblings needing extra care (e.g. those with neurodiversity, learning disabilities or ill-health) sometimes had lower self-esteem and found it difficult to form meaningful friendships with peers. Going through years of my own personal therapy, I am not averse to developing self-insight, but I acknowledge the difficulty in applying self-care. I have realised that it is something that I need to actively adopt rather than waiting for it to naturally happen.
An article published on the Anna Freud website talks about basic self-care strategies that parents and caregivers can adopt - such as giving ourselves permission to find time to rest, introducing self-compassion and kindness as well as asking for help. None of these concepts are rocket science of course, and are all fairly obvious, but are not always easy to put into practise.
Just as on flights we are asked to put on our own oxygen masks before fitting masks for our loved ones, we must be able to model self-care to understand its benefits, before we can expect our clients to do so.
This may even mean carving out time that may be given to others for ourselves.
Arden Redgrave is a qualified psychotherapist for children, adolescents and adults at Vitus Wellbeing, a specialist private mental health clinic in London.
Vitus Wellbeing supports children, adolescents, adults, couples and families with their mental health and relationships. Our specialist team offer child and adult psychotherapy and parent coaching, both in person in Fulham, London, and online. Our practitioners are highly qualified and experienced, each with their own specialisms and approach. For more information or support, or to enquire about working with Arden, please contact us.