You hear the phrase on airplanes all the time: “Put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others.” The gist? We can’t help other people until we’ve helped ourselves.
It’s a great life lesson. When you’re in caretaking mode, though, it’s easy to put your own needs last. You spend so much energy supporting others that you become tired, stressed, and resentful of the people and chores that chip away at your time. Eventually, you’ll burnout, which hurts you and those you’re trying to help—whether it’s an elderly relative, new baby, or a busy teenager.
“But I’m overscheduled already,” you might be thinking. “I don’t have time for a spa day or a vacation!”
This isn’t about taking a break from day-to-day life (though that’s important, too!). Resilience is much simpler: It’s about finding daily balance. In order to be a resilient caretaker, you need to mediate the bad while also mixing in the good.
We call this building the Four Corners of Balance. Here’s how to do it:
1. Ditch the drudgery. Ferrying your teenager and pals to school. Taking dad to the bank. These tasks are part of life, but they can also be a drag. You could be reading a book, exercising, learning a new language—doing something that actually enriches you.
First things first: Make a list of your daily to-dos and determine which ones you can delegate. Maybe your spouse or a neighbor can pick up a few carpools. Maybe a sibling can chip in with medical appointments. For things that can’t be delegated, proceed to step two.
2. Reframe the required. There are some tasks you just can’t avoid. You need to do your laundry, go to the market to buy food for your family, and schlep your kids to practice.
Instead of letting these essentials wear you down, infuse them with new meaning. Take grocery shopping: Sure, standing in those lines is brutal. But next time you walk into the market, think, “I’m here because I want to provide nutritious food for my family.” Next time you’re late to soccer practice, think, “I’m driving here because I want to help my child develop athletic and teamwork skills that will serve her well as she matures.”
If you make it a habit, this small mental shift takes the drain out of doing.
3. Add in the good stuff. Resilient people consciously build happiness into their days. Re-examine your to-do list and highlight the tasks that give you a little lift, even if they’re as simple as tucking your kids into bed or taking your morning yoga class.
Going forward, make sure to schedule at least three of these events into your day, no matter how small. Literally put them on your calendar if that’s what it takes! Can’t fit in three per day? Go for three per week.
4. Do active accounting. It takes work to fill your day with positive boosts. To stay focused, spend a few minutes reflecting on everything challenging that happened to you each day. Maybe you argued with your husband about carpool scheduling. Maybe you squabbled with a sibling over whose turn it was to bring mom to the doctor. For each of these, formulate a plan to offset it next time. For example:
Challenge: My sister and I argued over whose turn it was to bring mom to the doctor.
Plan for Next Time: Send her a note saying how much I appreciate her and suggesting that we create a shared calendar to keep track of appointments.
Turning these negatives into positives will make you better able to care for others, because you’re also taking care of yourself.
Kara Baskin is a Boston-based journalist who writes about food, health, well-being, and lifestyle for The Boston Globe, Boston Magazine, Women’s Health, and AARP’s Life Reimagined. She’s also the author of “Size Matters: The Hard Facts About Male Sexuality That Every Woman Should Know” (Random House). Find her on Twitter @kcbaskin