Extra-helpful people need extra-big self-care

If you’re going to watch over others, make sure the platform you watch over them from is well looked after.  Photo by Alona B on Unsplash

Imagine you are a paramedic and ambulance driver, in sole charge of the vehicle that will take you to and from emergencies.

Imagine that, from time to time, things happen which compromise your ability to drive your vehicle to the next emergency.  Perhaps you get a flat tyre; or perhaps you just run out of petrol.

How ridiculous would it be if, as a professional ambulance driver, you insisted on driving to your next emergency with a flat tyre, even though you know that it will damage your vehicle further, and potentially stop you arriving at all?


Now imagine that your body and mind are your ambulance, which you use to help others as much as you can.

How ridiculous would it be if you didn’t decide on a self-maintenance programme that matches your energy requirements?

Ambulances have whole teams of maintenance people whose job it is to constantly mend suspension, and repair bumps to the bodywork.

If you are worth it as a helper, then surely it is your job to make sure that you don’t exhaust yourself with everything you do.  Just like the ambulance maintenance teams, it makes sense to try to help yourself arrive at each morning in a good state, with plenty of spare capacity.


Dieticians have resolved many of the problems of monitoring our food intake and energy expenditure.  Online apps exist which can help you calculate, pretty accurately, whether your current activity is likely to lead to obesity, undernourishment, or balance.

And yet we are not as sophisticated when it comes to emotional self-care.  Part of the problem is that we have no way of equating emotional ‘calories in’, to emotional ‘calories out’.  Consequently, we are always surprising ourselves with how exhausted we feel after caring for others.  We somehow believe that we should magically restore ourselves each morning, without needing to play an important part in that restoration.

When you have a lot on your plate (emotionally), it becomes particularly important to try to measure how you are doing, and to make sure that you balance the energy you are giving to others, with the energy you are regaining through your self-care activities.


It is not for me to tell you exactly what you might need to do to maintain and restore your own emotional health. We are all different.  But I can suggest to you, from my research, client work, reading and reflection, what seems to work for many.

Here are ten things you might want to consider doing for yourself.  Crucially, consider doing MORE of them, not less, when you are under pressure.

  1. Increase the time you spend ‘under your bonnet’, checking how you are, and noticing parts of you that may not be functioning perfectly.
  2. Increase the time you spend in sleep, relaxation and restoration activities.
  3. Increase the time you spend at ‘lower revs’ – switch the engine off, and let it cool down.
  4. Take more time over meals, giving extra attention to nutrition.
  5. Be ruthless in creating times of day when you are NOT available.  Protect your downtime firmly.
  6. Learn to spot your weak feelings earlier.  What kind of mechanic waits for things to break?
  7. Make sure you spend 80% of your time working at 20% capacity, and 20% of your time working at 80% capacity.  If this seems lazy, then let yourself be lazy.
  8. Increase the length of gaps between activities.  Take time to chill out in between.
  9. Learn to decribe overwhelm as ‘being unwell’.  That’s exactly what it is.  It teaches those around you that you need to focus on regaining capacity.
  10. Work with a friend or counsellor in monitoring your health – this holds you accountable better than just doing it yourself.

If you want to help others, you have to help yourself stay healthy.

Imagine you are an ambulance driver, and your mind and body are your ambulance.

Think how you could maintain it better, especially at times of frequent emergencies.

Use something like the above checklist, and trusted others, to help you monitor whether you are truly giving yourself enough maintenance and restoration time.  Mental health is as important as physical health.  Just because it is hidden to others, it doesn’t mean it can be ignored.  You are valuable, and worth defending.