I thought it might be good to look, in a bit of detail, into why self-care might be so hard for those whose job it is to look after others.
Doctors, nurses, teachers, trainers, coaches, counsellors… all of these jobs, and many more, have as their basis attending to others’ needs. Being good at helping others, you might think, is good preparation for helping yourself. But it often seems to work the other way, and I wanted to offer some ideas of why this may be so.
Most people, when something goes wrong, look outwards for an object of blame. Carers tend to do the opposite – to ask themselves ‘what could I do differently to stop this bad thing happening?’ This tendency might be called inward attributional bias (attribution in this case is the allocation of responsibility). It is what makes them such good carers, but it can cause problems when it’s time to relax.
An off-duty carer still has with them this tendency to look inwards. If they meet someone who needs something, rather than thinking ‘I’m off duty – it’s not my fault – let someone else do it,’ they may continue to ask themselves ‘what can I do to help?’ This can cause exhaustion, if ther environment does not let them switch off that caring response.
In order to recharge properly, many carers learn that they need to completely remove themselves from any arenas where helping situations might arise. For some this means taking time to be completely alone, and switching off all communication. For others, it means going on a course of education or treatment, where the natural flow of things means that it is someone else’s job to provide support to them.
What is more, carers spend all their working time attending to others’ needs. This gives them a heightened ability to notice when others are confused, frustrated or upset. It can take a lot of time and skill to switch off that attentional bias in order to rest.
Again, in order to recharge, a carer may find they need to remove themselves from any sensory stimulus which might trigger that caring response. Even when trying to relax away from work, their attentional spotlight, or bias, may continue to be primed to pick up cues about others’ needs.
Suitable venues for recovery can include cinemas (where everything is dark except the screen… and you can’t help the people on the screen!). Some people find shopping a useful rebalancing action, because you are replacing the caring attentional bias with something else – an attentional bias towards searching and examining. For those with an academic bent, desk research can perform the same function, giving the attentional system plenty of stimulus from things that don’t need help.
The main aim of the recovery environment should be to bring the attention away from the immediate detection of others’ needs. This provides respite. It does not stop the carer being a caring person. But it does allow their ‘caring system’ to lie dormant while it recharges.
Those who work in caring professions often find it hard to help themselves to relax.
One reason is that they find it hard to switch off their bias towards taking personal responsibility for other people’s welfare and happiness. If this is you, good ways to recover include taking time out to be completely alone, without any communication; or booking onto courses or activities where it is someone else’s job to look after you (e.g. study courses, organised holidays or tours, individual or group counselling).
Another reason is that carers find it hard to switch off their attentional bias from being triggered by other people’s confusion, frustration or upset. If this is you, good ways to recover include single-focus art (e.g. cinema, books); or focused activities that exclude care (e.g. shopping, research).
By choosing the right rest activities, a good carer can give themselves a break from both their attributional bias, and their attentional bias. This does not make them less caring as a whole, but it does ensure that they can recharge.