Monday, February 10, 2014

A Valentine's Gift to Yourself ...

Spread love everywhere you go ...
Let no one ever come to you without
leaving better and happier.

Mother Teresa

Mother Teresa's ideal of spreading love everywhere we go is a noble one and, often, it is a motivation behind our desire to support and care for others. We learn through our pores, via art and literature, our caring relationships with family and friends, our faith traditions, and our professional trainings that our care and compassion can be a rich source of support and healing. We respond to this knowledge by wanting to share our care and compassion with the patients, clients, family and friends who are in need of our support.

But what if, one day, we reach inside to share loving kindness with others and find that our wells are verging on empty? What if there is no longer a well of caring within but, rather, a pool of irritation, exhaustion, reactivity, sorrow, pain, helplessness and discouragement? And what if underlying these painful feelings is a profound embarassment that we can no longer find a caring self within, a sense of shame that makes us isolate rather than reaching out for help? This is the experience of compassion fatigue

(During the years I worked in my trauma psychotherapy practice during the day and cared for my husband at home at night, I remember wandering around inside my own head looking for the caring person who used to live there. Where had she gone? What had happened to her? Why couldn't I find her? Would she ever come back?)

If you find yourself resonating with this experience, it's likely that you, too, have become secondarily traumatized by the wounds of the people for whom you care. You have empathized deeply and, as a result, have given more than you had to give. There is little or nothing left. 

The good news is this is not an irreversible situation, though it takes time, intention and effort to turn it around. We have to re-jig our learning to incorporate the wisdom of the Sufi's who say, 

Never give from the depths of your well, only from the overflow.

Once we become aware of our state of physical, emotional and spiritual depletion, we can begin to focus our loving care and attention on ourselves. This will probably feel very uncomfortable at first. All the messages we've ever heard about selfishness and putting others first will come ringing through our ears. However, it is our ethical responsibility to ignore these voices. We must care for ourselves first, and then, when our well is overflowing, we can choose to care for others again.

So, in this Valentine's week, please take the time to step back and assess the level in your well. Then, make a commitment to treating yourself with at least as much love and compassion as you would your best friend. Allow this commitment to fuel the choices that will begin to refill your well and your life.

It's important to begin the refilling process by gifting yourself with things that are small and manageable. Give yourself the gift of a Valentine's massage, take a couple of hours alone to do whatever you please, make a counselling appointment, eat a healthy meal, say no to overtime this week, ask for some respite care, write a love letter to yourself.

When you've done enough small things to build your energy a bit, consider giving yourself one regular and ongoing gift. Decide to go for a walk everyday. Spend 10 minutes meditating each morning and night. Arrange a regular visit with a supportive friend or a trauma therapist. Do something every day to enrich your spiritual life. The possibilities are endless...

If you listen to your body, it will tell you which gift will be most helpful to you right now. The "gift" that makes your body constrict with stress and that adds one more "should" to your to-do list is not the gift to choose, even if you know it would be good for you. The gift that makes your body relax and expand with pleasure is much more likely to be the best one for you this Valentines Day.

So, here's to self-compassion and self-love on Valentines Day 2014. Enjoy!


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