Help yourself: The importance of self care for caregivers

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Racing through life with a death grip on your to-do list isn’t good for anyone you’re trying to help. And Jesus wouldn’t approve, either.

"When I was in Germany in September of 2010,” says Robert Wicks, “I was giving a talk to chaplains who had been working with the military in Afghanistan and Iraq. Just when I was getting ready to give the presentation, one of the colonels came up to me and said, ‘Before you go up to speak, I just want to caution you that there are a lot of ghosts in this room; there’s nothing left inside them.’

“These were people who were blessing body parts. You’re dealing with people who are suffering PTSD right on site,” Wicks says. “There’s always this sense of emergency and pain.”

For more than three decades psychologist Wicks has counseled men and women whose work has taken them into the valley of the shadow: relief workers evacuated from the Rwandan genocide, professionals who helped the Khmer people in Cambodia after their years of torture, doctors and nurses who treat returning U.S. veterans with catastrophic injuries to body and mind.

Wicks’ work in the prevention of secondary stress—the pressures encountered in reaching out to others—thankfully applies to those in less traumatic situations, too. Resilience, for instance, depends on taking even “crumbs of time” each day to center oneself. The acid test, says Wicks, is, “How do people feel when they’re with you?” Because self-care, in the end, is not really just about you."

How do you blend psychology and spirituality in your work?

I see my profession as clinical psychology, my specialty as the prevention of secondary stress. The thing that I try to do best is the integration of psychology and spirituality in this prevention.

I work with helpers and healers pretty exclusively: physicians, nurses, relief workers, nongovernmental officials, priests and nuns and ministers, educators, people in the military. I’m constantly addressing themes of resilience, self-care, and prevention.

You’ve said that being constantly available is not always a good thing.

I don’t worry that people in the helping and healing professions don’t care enough. I worry that they care too much. We need to know which burdens we’re called to carry and which ones we’re not.

You need to be able to lean back. The opposite of detachment is not caring involvement. It’s seduction, being pulled in by the expectations of others—and ourselves—that are unrealistic. People in the helping professions often have a strong conscience, a strong desire to help.

With every gift comes a cross. Every signature strength that we have under certain situations becomes a defense. My job is getting people to recognize what they can do and what they can’t do. But it’s dangerous when you’re surrounded constantly with pain.

I do darkness for a living. What I try to help people to do is to regain perspective. It’s not the darkness in the world or in yourself that matters, it’s how you stand in the darkness.

You talk about knowing which cross to bear. How do you make that determination to say, “I’m not going to deal with this one”?

You don’t make the determination. You’re involved in a process of determining, in the sense that you do your best on the spot and see where it leads you. It’s the old metaphor for discernment: In a car at night, you don’t see your destination. You see a little and you drive a little, you see a little more and you drive a little more. It’s not so much thinking your way into a new kind of action, it’s acting your way into a new kind of living.

When I was leading a retreat for those ministering in southeast Asia, a priest from Bangladesh asked how many bodies should he step over before he picks one up, because there’s so much starvation, so many difficulties.

The reality is, you make a judgment on what to do and recognize that it may not be the right decision. But that decision gives you a greater sense of maturity when you face that kind of issue again.

For people of faith, that leads them to prayer. When you pray, you’re not praying alone. There are other people praying, so you’re connected. When you pray, it keys you into your own limitedness. There is no tried and true triage where you decide, “This is definitely the right thing to do.”

What do you tell people who have difficulty making those discernments? I’m thinking of my own aunt, who reacts so strongly to needs, many of which she’s not capable of responding well to. But the need to respond is just part of her Christian thinking.

Uh oh. You brought your aunt into it.

Christians generally suffer from a disease called “chronic niceness.” It’s tough because they have this feeling, “I want to do something.”

I bring in the pruning image. Pruning doesn’t mean you’re going to flower less, it means you’re going to flower more deeply.

It’s moving from quantity to quality. I think it was Frederick Buechner who said people may forget what you said but they’ll never forget how you made them feel. The whole sense of the atmosphere that you offer is very important. Otherwise, you wind up joining in with the anxiety and stress.

With people like your aunt, rather than saying, “Oh, you shouldn’t do too much,” I sit down and say, “This is wonderful. Now, let’s lean back and talk about how you can do this even better.”

The best helpers offer others a space of sanity. What I try to do is encourage people on how could they do that better,  moving to a sense of presence, of being with the person in difficulty and backing off from trying to fix something. It’s not easy.

Does our concept of what it means to be a Christian sometimes work against what you’re describing? For example, people may think on one side is psychological health, and on the other is being a Christian, where you should give everything you have.

I think that’s a distortion, and it misses the secret from scripture. A long time ago it came to me that Jesus revealed an important secret in Matthew 22. He was asked the classic rabbinical question that all the rabbis were asked: “What is the greatest commandment?” How Jesus answered was fascinating.

First, he takes a heavy precept, one the Pharisees would recognize: “You must love God with your whole heart and your whole mind and your whole soul.” How are you going to disagree with that? They’re all nodding.

Then he reaches down and takes a light precept, and holds it up on the same level as the heavy precept. He says, “And you must love your neighbor as yourself.” In emphasizing the neighbor, of course, he’s following the murmurings of Exodus, where Moses is told by God that the Israelites must not just find God vertically in prayer, but horizontally through each other. Then he adds that beautiful circular feminine image, you must love your neighbor as yourself.

Here we have the three pieces. First, we have true compassion, this reaching out to others not out of guilt, not out of duty, but really out of a sense that the fullness of my life is going to come to fruition in compassion.

But that relies on the second piece, which is self-kindness. One of the greatest gifts we can share with others is the sense of our own peace. But you can’t share what you don’t have. What do I mean by self-kindness? I don’t just mean buying yourself something, though that’s fine. It’s self-care, it’s self-knowledge, and it’s self-love.
Then, the third element is deep prayer, the relationship with God. This is just taken for granted, but it’s a very dramatic process.

One spiritual master was asked by a young man, “If I join this spiritual community, how long will it take me to get some spiritual depth?” The master said, “I guess about 10 years.”

“Ten years? What if I try really hard?”

Then the master said, “Well, then it will be 20 years.”

In fact, balance leads to greater passion, greater involvement. Mother Teresa was not concerned about effectiveness or success, she was concerned about faithfulness. Success is secular; faithfulness is spiritual. When I work with helpers, if I can say to them, “Try to be personally and professionally as faithful as you can,” then they can see things differently.

Some people say that idea of Mother Teresa’s can excuse poor performance in the church, because we can drop the need to be successful and just be faithful.

Well, professional and personal faithfulness, I think, requires that we work hard. It’s just that we have to see what our motivation is for working hard. If the motivation is that this is worth doing, then that’s fine. If it’s to succeed, that’s not fine. Success is fun, but if you get caught in that, it’s a disaster.

Now, the other side of it is that people are lazy. In the church we come across lazy people all the time. I feel badly for them, because they think that that’s a good deal for them. But it’s not, really. They’re really missing the vibrancy of life, and life goes quickly.

Novelist Walker Percy said, “What if life is like a plane and I miss it?” That’s very easy to do, either if you’re lazy or if you’re so obsessively committed to something that you don’t recognize the balance that Jesus set out in Matthew 22. And that’s a shame.

One of the hardest things people hear from me is, “Enjoy your life.” And they say, “Well, how could I? There are so many needs.” And I say, “You’re misunderstanding me. It’s a great prayer to enjoy your life.” If you enjoy your life and share it with others—and both of those pieces have to be together—that’s a great prayer of gratitude to God.

On the way to taking God and their mission seriously, some people do a detour and take themselves too seriously. They become a pain in the neck to be with, too.

Are there separate paths toward happiness and holiness? Do they overlap?

If it’s deep gratefulness and happiness that’s really centered in an attitude of joy, why wouldn’t that be holiness? Why does holiness have to be simply pain? Who wants to join a pain group? It just doesn’t make any sense psychologically.

On the show 30 Rock, Tina Fey meets Oprah on a plane. She comes back and suddenly starts reading books and drinking water and taking lots of long walks. What’s the difference between this superficial approach to self-care and what you’re talking about?

The first risk is to be all that you can be, but a more profound risk is to be grateful for what already is in your life, which is scary for people in pop culture. It’s almost like if I’m grateful for what I have, then I won’t get any more. People say, “Oh, that person’s satisfied.”

The second is, self-care does not simply end with you. It’s based on the theory that we need to be compassionate. We know the fragility in life. It’s knowing you’re going to die. You don’t hear that on 30 Rock. By looking at those realities, we should enjoy life more.

You begin to say, “I’m dying, and everyone else is dying.” So you lean back and say, “OK, how can I be compassionate?” That doesn’t mean excluding me. So how can I be compassionate to myself, but not solely myself? How can I be compassionate to others, but not solely others so that I run out of steam?

What about people who are just overwhelmed by the demands of daily life—so that it would be very difficult for them to hear anything you’ve said. People, say, with kids, jobs, and in-law drama. How would you invite them to find a little more enjoyment in their lives?

My classic two words are “Lean back.” Find the crumbs of alone time that are already in your schedule. People think, “I’m just so busy, there’s no time.” Excuse me. That’s not true. I think it was Stephen Covey who said, “Don’t just simply prioritize your schedule, schedule your priorities.”

The priority, for me, is some periods of silence, solitude, and being wrapped in gratitude to center ourselves so we’re not running through our lives and thinking that running is necessary. Where would you find the time? Get up a little earlier. Maybe it’s in the shower, maybe after the kids leave, maybe on your drive to work.

Rather than simply seeing these crumbs of time as interruptions or waiting time, take those moments. When we take those moments and we take a breath, we begin to see that life need not be just all this racing. I do a lot of things during the day, but I don’t feel myself racing. I feel myself active but not busy. That’s because I use those moments.

I also ask people to lean back and see the moments when they feel totally free. It could be when we’re having a cup of tea, doing a hobby, or flowing with something at work. You finish something and think, “Holy cow, look at the time.” Why? Because we were flowing with the activity.

Find the periods of silence and solitude, and find what you’re flowing with and what gives you joy, and recognize that your presence in all these things can make a big difference. People can then feel a sense of peace themselves.

Can you be more concrete?

I’ll give you an example. Archbishop Desmond Tutu was speaking at General Theological Seminary in New York City to Anglican and Episcopalian seminarians. Halfway through his talk, one of the seminarians in the audience nudged the dean and pointed up and said, “Desmond Tutu is a holy man.”

The dean said, “How do you know he’s holy?” The young man didn’t blink. He said, “I know that Desmond Tutu is holy because when I’m with Desmond Tutu, I feel holy.”
When I work with parents and teachers, I say, “The question I challenge you with is, ‘How do people feel when they’re with you?’ ” It’s not just about you. Do people feel your need to control, your need to be seen as attractive, as bright, as holy, as special, or do they feel this space where they can rest their burdens, their angers, their questions? Again, taking time for renewal and centering is not just about you. When I say that, you can see people get relieved.

Some of the most relaxed and happy people I’ve ever met are some of the people who have so much on their plates but their attitude’s different. That’s what can happen if we don’t step on graces.

Step on graces—what do you mean?

I think we’re given great opportunities every day and we just take them for granted. Let’s say you get sick. Nobody wants to get sick. But the grace is that it stops you and gives you a chance to take a breath and realize, “What am I doing? All I’m doing is activities. I’m doing the laundry and I’m rushing to work, I’m meeting a deadline. There has to be more to life than this.”

That’s an important grace to you, the threat of a serious illness that passes. You’re going to be OK; it wasn’t cancer, or it was cancer but it’s in remission. A woman I know was in this position and someone said to her, “Boy, now that it’s in remission, I guess you’re glad to get back to your routine.”

“No, no,” she said. “That’s what caused the cancer in the first place. That’s definitely not what I’m doing.” Why? Because she didn’t step on the grace.

If I ask people, “Do you think you’re grateful?” I don’t think anybody would say, “No, I’m not really.” But the thing is that we aren’t grateful. How do you know? You’d be happier. Look at your face in the mirror in the morning. Is that a happy face? We’re not grateful. The paradox is that grateful people get more because they always have eyes of gratitude and they see things.

That gratitude is a great grace. If you don’t have that grace, that’s what morning prayer does: It allows you to make friends with gratitude in the morning.

People think being grateful is like having a sign on your car, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” But no, it’s desert wisdom. Abba Poemen and Abba Pior were talking, and one of them was dying. The other says, “Can you give me a word or a lesson before you die?”

He says, “Yes, begin each day afresh.” That sounds corny. But if you really believe you’re saved and forgiven, if you let go of the anger you have toward other people, you’re free. Think about it: What would you do if you didn’t worry?

This article appeared in the April 2012 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 77, No. 4, pages 26-29).

Image: Photo of Robert Wicks by Meghan Murphy-Gill