Looking after others, versus looking after ourselves

I really struggle to look after myself when people around me aren’t at 100%. I’ve been like that for as long as I can remember, quite possibly due to the idea of ‘considering others before yourself’ being instilled in me front-and-centre from a young age. And I think it’s a very good principle to live by. Imagine if more of us focussed on looking outward, before looking at our own needs.

In countries like Australia, most of us have more than enough in just about every area of our lives. Not all areas for sure, especially when it comes to mental, emotional and spiritual health, but certainly in most. Yet so often, we keep focusing on looking after ourselves alone, in the pursuit of what I think is us trying to make ourselves happier. But I honestly don’t think it’s working. Statistically, more of us have mental health issues than ever before; the ABS estimates that 20% of Australians currently have a mental or behavioural condition, with 45% having experienced a mental disorder in their lifetime (Mental health in Australia: a quick guide). In terms of happiness (recognising that the measure of happiness is primarily subjective), I don’t think Australians as a whole would say they’re happier than ever. Tim Costello’s latest reflections have summarised our situation quite well; we have forgotten ‘how blessed we are to enjoy good-quality services such as health and education’, and that there is ‘sometimes in the upper-middle class a sense of…we are doing it hard.’ Compare Australia to many, many countries overseas, including situations I have seen and worked in first-hand myself, and most of us could do with a reality check and a broader perspective on life.

Yet at the same time, I’m starting to learn that my personal default position of not looking after myself at all when others are struggling isn’t the right answer either. I go through such an internal battle when I finally realise I need to do some kind of self-care; usually when my body decides enough is enough.

When our HeartKid hit his first plateau at about the age of two (the first time he hadn’t gone downhill in between appointments) I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia. It was like my body had held it together during the years of high stress, then decided to take a break when given the first opportunity. Thankfully, I got my symptoms under control relatively quickly and soon learned what my triggers would be. When symptoms start to flare now, I know what I need to do to make them subside again. I’m one of the lucky ones - it doesn’t take over my life day in, day out.

But even now, when the going gets tough, I almost always stop doing the things that keep my stress levels down. I focus so hard on peddling relentlessly to try and keep everyone and everything afloat, that there is no energy left to do those things I enjoy. I realise I have written multiple posts about the importance of doing things you love and keeping the fun in life, but I’m so far from being an expert on it. I am well and truly guilty of being the first person to stop riding my bike, baking, playing the piano, walking, or writing this blog when the pressure starts to build.

However the input I have from some really great friends is worth gold and a great perspective check for me. They’re the ones who help me realise that there is a healthy balance in looking after others and still taking care of myself. Like the friend who told me to try a float tank, “If you don’t go within three weeks I’m taking you with me…so you should go yourself because we probably don’t need to see each other naked!” So I went. Or the friends who have told me I should go and see a psychologist to debrief trauma from the early days with our HeartKid, and learn some long term coping skills for the years of surgery ahead.

I think ultimately, in this era of self-care, there is a balance to be found when it comes to considering others first versus looking after ourselves. And maybe it’s not even one versus the other. Maybe they actually go hand in hand. Maybe, that’s where the ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ verse from the Bible strikes the balance exactly right? It’s not ‘love your neighbour before yourself’, or ‘love yourself before your neighbour’, but rather ‘love your neighbour AS yourself’. There’s an assumption that we look after ourselves, as well as looking after others. They’re not seperate instructions offered to different people, but rather one instruction told to the same people.

It’s the giving in and giving out that I’m starting to think go hand in hand. If we focus on others alone, we can burn out and struggle ourselves both physically and mentally. Yet if we focus on ourselves alone, we’re missing the opportunity to gain perspective and see the good in our situation.

Giving in and giving out, it’s the balance of the two we need.