Thoughts On Being A Caregiver From A Caregiver And A Caregiver Of Caregivers…

”help” written out in dice-like letter blocks

Caregivers have a tough role. They make the intentional choice to place themselves in situations that requires them to oftentimes put the needs of others above their own. The altruistic bend that often draws people to the care giving professions and the part that is not taught in graduate school is that caregivers not only sign up to help others, but they also sign up to work on themselves their entire career and lives. Exploration, self-care, self-exploration, and activities contributing towards personal growth are non negotiable for those who want to be good and effective caregivers over the long term. In the absence of our own personal growth, we stagnate, become apathetic, lose our creativity, burnout, and eventually leave the career that we at one time in our lives dreamed about having. Throughout the course of my career one of my main points of focus in every organization I have worked for has been staff support. My role is both as a caregiver and a caregiver to caregivers and having worked in many different environments with many different types of organizations, I have made some observations regarding the needs of a caregiver. First, no one person is an island. I recall when I was younger and in the military that I always sought to be self sufficient and not rely on anyone. I hated the idea of feeling vulnerable. Now, over 20 years later, I see great value in the fact that we need each other in this world. While I spend a great deal of time caring for others, I also am intentional about having people that I can connect with that offer care to me as well. The second thing that I have learned about being a caregiver is that all of us have a deep desire to see change happen within our respective populations. Some populations are more resistant to change than others. Our envisioning of what success is needs to be well thought out and we need to set realistic expectations for what success looks like in our various environments. For an ICU nurse, success may be caring for a patient that goes from near death to walking out of the hospital at the time of their discharge. However, for someone working in a drug and alcohol recovery or in a psychiatric setting, success may be measured in small behavioral changes over a longer period of time. Some areas of care have higher levels of success than others, so ultimately, re-framing how we see success is very important for our own self-care and sense of personal and professional accomplishment. The third and final thing that I want to discuss in this essay is perhaps the most important observation of all. Nearly all caregivers have a sense of brokenness themselves. We have a keen understanding of the needs of others largely because we are aware of our own needs. Our efforts to reach out to others are driven consciously or unconsciously by the times in our lives when we were not helped or did not receive what we needed. Our response then becomes to try to give others what we so desperately needed at another point in our lives. Early on in my career, I worked with the homeless population in inner city New Orleans. It was a tough crowd, but I loved them. I sometimes worked 10 hours or more a day walking around downtown New Orleans and the French Quarter trying to meet the needs of the homeless population. I realize now that it was more than a desire to help that was driving me. My care to this population was almost compulsive. I simply felt like I had to reach out to them. There were many times when I neared burnout because of my approach to the work. I realized several years later after quite a bit of therapy what was truly driving my efforts with the homeless. I realized that in every homeless person’s eyes I could see my own. Coming from a history of physical and emotional abuse myself as well as experiencing times of abandonment and neglect, I knew the pain of marginalization. I knew subconsciously what I needed emotionally, but never got. As a result, I sought to give other marginalized people the attention, caring, and support that I never received. While this drove me to do good work, the dark side was the toll that it took on my physically, emotionally, and socially. It pushed me past appropriate boundaries as I found myself working out my personal issues with the clients I was working with. Had I never explored the cause of my compulsion to work with this group of people in therapy, I likely would have burned out and not made it long term as a care giver. Today, with the wisdom of a few more years, I see the needs for boundaries as I care for others. I still see the pain and struggle in the eyes of those I care for, and I still see myself in that pain and struggle, but I no longer am trying to work out my issues with those I am caring for. While some may feel that boundaries are counter intuitive and others may not necessarily understand what it means to have good boundaries as a care giver, I feel that this is perhaps the most important piece to work on and develop, because without healthy emotional boundaries we will succumb to the pressure of the work and fail to remain a viable caregiver throughout our entire career. All of this is a process though. None of us wake up one morning and are suddenly the “perfect caregiver.” I know that I am not. I still have much to learn in my own process. I make mistakes and have blind spots just like everyone else, but I do maintain a personal commitment to continue to work to improve myself personally and professionally for in doing this, I move closer to the best version of myself that I am capable of being while also becoming the high level clinician that patients and those I care for deserve. Never stop working on yourself. While growth is sometimes painful and uncomfortable, the rewards are well worth it.-

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