Here’s the thing: The world is constantly on the verge of burning down. Climate change is out of control. The president doesn’t seem to know how to log off of Twitter. Women’s bodies are still being policed by men almost a century after the Suffrage Movement. And just about everyone you know is preparing to face some large, life-changing catastrophe.
Of course, you want to be a hero and help out everyone in need. But before you can do that — you’re gonna need to save yourself first.
I’ve had my fair share of traumatic events. MORE than my fair share, some would say. My fiancé died. My daughter was adopted. I was arrested. Mental and health issues have abounded. During the hardest time in my life, I had to depend on my friends and family for emotional and physical support.
I knew I was supposed to talk to someone about how I was feeling and what I was going through, but I got heavy handed. I got in the habit of talking to anyone and everyone who would listen. It became my crutch — leaning on others to help me get through the pain.
After a while, I realized that my friends were telling me the same things over and over. They were trying to help me deal with my grief, but I was becoming a broken record. Worst of all, I was not returning the favor. I was so focused on my life, I was not thinking of anyone else. I was not checking in on them to see how they were doing — it was always about me. I wasn’t being a good friend — I was being selfish.
When people stopped calling in to check on me or stopped wanting to hang out, I didn’t take it personally. I realized that they were practicing something extremely crucial. They were practicing radical self-care. My relationships had become one-sided establishments where I was the taker and they were the givers.
This experience taught me a valuable lesson about self-care that has transformed the way I approach life. They were learning to set up dynamic boundaries for themselves.
It wasn’t that they didn’t care about me or what I was going through, they had just learned that they needed to make sure they took care of themselves first — before sacrificing any more energy for me.
Now that I am more stable, I practice this self-care routine myself when it comes to how I interact with others who are going through traumatic events and need my support.
If you’ve ever taken a flight anywhere, you’ve probably heard your flight attendant explain the process before. “Please place your oxygen mask on yourself first, before placing one on your child.”
I always wondered about that procedure. Who decided it was better to take care of the adult first and then the child? The child is way more vulnerable than the adult. Why wouldn’t you place the face mask on the child first?
It’s a simple practice that works as a prime example of real life. The child is vulnerable — but so is the adult. And the adult has the ability to help both themselves AND the child, so they should definitely make sure they can breathe no matter what.
If the adult is alive, it’s possible they could save themselves, the baby, and any other number of people.
It’s the same thing when it comes to friendships. If the first person is going through a rough patch and the second person has the ability to help, of course, the second person who can help should make sure they take care of themselves first. They can do a better job of helping others if they are in a great place themselves.
One of my friends recently went through a hectic divorce that involved kids, property and domestic violence. Another one of my friends was diagnosed with a terminal illness. Their lives have taken dramatic turns and left them needing someone to lean on.
I call to check in on them, but not very often. I let them know that I will always be there when they absolutely need me — but that I cannot be there every day or all the time. I set very clear boundaries with my time and prepare myself mentally and emotionally before interacting with them. I am very careful about how much energy I give to others because, in reality, I am still healing myself.
When dealing with people who are going through such important events, it is important that you set aside some time to consider what you will be able to give someone in terms of support. Consider how much time or money you can realistically dedicate to supporting someone else. Consider your own trauma.
Are you emotionally prepared to take on someone else’s story if you might be triggered yourself or can you recommend that person to a professional who is better equipped to help?
Will you really be able to meet up with them daily for coffee and a crying session or is it better to meet up once a month for dinner and a talk?
Are you really the best person to talk to them about their financial problems or can you better commit to sending a link to financial support resources once a week?
By evaluating your level of commitment before your interactions with your friend or acquaintance, you will better serve them and better protect your own mental and emotional health in the long run.
And of course, there are extreme circumstances that happen before you ever have any time to consider the lasting consequences of your involvement. That’s why I call it a dynamic boundary. It’s flexible. You can adjust your levels of commitment to others based off of your comfort level or your mental and emotional health.
I think it’s important that you don’t let guilt be the reason you overextend yourself in relationships with others. If your friends are your friends, they will understand that you also need to take care of yourself. If you’re both drowning in stress and depressed, no one wins.
So be honest and be wise. Let them know you care and that you want to help, but that you also have to make sure you take care of you.
There is nothing wrong with stepping away when you feel overwhelmed with someone else’s circumstances. Just be clear about what’s going on with you. Let them know that you hear and see them. Let them know that you want to be there, but that you can’t be there the way you would like to be if you don’t take care of you first.
I am so grateful for the people in my life who gave me so much of their time and strength and support. I can only hope that when they need me one day, I can really be there for them — as best as I can.