So many of us focus so much on caring for others that we forget all about caring for ourselves. But when we don’t take the time to care for ourselves it can be extremely damaging to our health. It is often instilled into us as we grow up, we are conditioned, that we should care for others first and ourselves last and that it is selfish to think of yourself. But I think this belief is wrong and it is not selfish to look after ourselves first, it is absolutely vital.
Giving too much can hurt us. It is important that we learn to care for ourselves too. It doesn’t make us unkind or selfish. We’re not caring less for those who depend upon us. We’re not saying, “I matter more than you.’ We are simply caring for our own needs too, looking after our own health, so that we have more to give in future.
There is a story that really hits home with me and affects me every time I read it, and it says that a mother was taking a flight on a plane with her twin daughters who were aged 5. There was an emergency and the oxygen masks came down and the mother, although she had listened to the safety announcements and knew what to do with her mask did not put her mask on first. Instead she tried to get masks on her twin daughters to no avail. Because she had not put her mask on she soon could not breathe, became unconscious and couldn’t help herself or her daughters. All of them died. Now, if she had put her mask on first she would have been able to calmly fit the masks on her daughters and they would probably all have survived. So no, it is not selfish to look after yourself first, it is vital.
A study of carers carried out in 2004 highlighted how caring for others too much can hurt us. Examining a group of carers who looked after chronically ill children, scientists at the University of California in San Francisco analysed samples of the carers’ DNA.They measured the length of their ‘telomeres’, which are essentially the end caps on DNA, the nearest I can come to describing these is something like the plastic end caps on shoelaces. As we age, our telomeres gradually shorten just like the end caps on shoelaces get worn away. Interestingly measuring the length of telomeres is one of the most accurate ways of measuring the age of the body.
Studying the telomeres of 39 women who cared for chronically ill children and 19 women who were mothers to healthy children, they found that the telomeres of the most stressed carers were 15% shorter than those of the least stressed women. The scientists concluded that this degree of shortening was equivalent to at least ten years of extra aging.
In 2007 a study of carers of Alzheimer’s patients found something similar. University of Ohio scientists studied the telomeres of 41 caregivers of Alzheimer’s patients and compared them with the telomeres of non-caregivers, once again finding that the caregivers had much shorter telomeres.
For people who give too much and are feeling tired and/or stressed, the question I always ask is, ‘If it was a friend or loved one who was in your position, what would you advise them?’ We know what to do but how often do we do what we know?
One way to think of it is like blowing up a balloon. We give a full breath and the balloon begins to inflate. But what do we do next? We take in a large breath to enable us to put more air in the balloon. Kindness to ourselves is like taking a breath. It replenishes us so that we can give even more. If we forget to take a breath we eventually have nothing more to give, and the balloon is left to deflate.
We help others more when we also care for ourselves. Kindness can make the world a better place. But we must not forget to add ourselves to the list of those who need kindness, and make sure we give ourselves the kindness we deserve.
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