On my first trip to New Mexico, I discovered storyteller dolls. These pottery figurines represent storytellers surrounded by children (and occasionally other beings) who are literally hanging on the storyteller’s every word. Knowing nothing about the history of these pieces, and not bothering to ask at the time, I thought they were images of women with way too many children and pets to care for. In my mind, I equated them with the nursery rhyme of “The Old Woman in the Shoe” (after all, she had so many children, she didn’t know what to do).
This misunderstanding on my part led to a powerful dream not long after that trip. I dreamed that I was the woman depicted in the pottery. I was a giant, sitting in a featureless room naked (sorry, folks, dream imagery doesn’t follow our conventions). A long line of people, some of whom I recognized as friends or family members of my waking self, were waiting impatiently to breast feed. My breasts were bloated and painful, so full of milk that at first it was a relief that there were so many hungry mouths to feed. As the dream wore on, the milk kept pouring forth but I was dwindling. I became exhausted and emaciated. Yet the hungry kept coming to be fed.
When I woke from the dream, I immediately grasped its implications. At that point in my life, I felt like I was surrounded by people who were emotionally needy – friends, students, family. I tried to be nurturing toward them all. But I wasn’t finding ways to replenish the source of that energy, so while I continued to (figuratively) feed others, I was starving myself. And while I was pretty quick to understand the problem, solutions were in short supply. I had never been taught that there were limits to a person’s ability to nurture others. Scratch that – I was taught that one gave everything she had until it was gone. Then, depleted, she would self-isolate in a dark place until forced to return to the light. I didn’t want to perpetuate that cycle, but I had no tools for gently disengaging long enough to replenish my own energy. That, AND I lacked the basic understanding of reciprocity: that I could expect to rely on others to nurture me sometimes, if need be.
Allow Others to Nurture YOU
I’ve been thinking about this idea of reciprocity between friends for two reasons. First, we don’t all have the same skills or personalities, so what we have to give won’t necessarily be an exact exchange for what we got. A friend told me recently that she isn’t much help to people having emotional crises. “I’m good at practical advice. I jump right to how we can fix it.” Yet, this same friend freely admitted to appreciating her friends who could be right there with her during emotional melt-downs.
Second, on the receiving end, we each have our own interpretation of the ways others relate to us. For example, an old friend of mine became concerned that he might have offended me when I didn’t respond to an email from him in what he considered a reasonable time frame. When I said no offense had been taken, he told me, “Email is my love language. When I don’t hear from someone I assume something is wrong.”
Regardless of the potential miscues and misunderstandings that result from individual differences, allowing ourselves to accept love, understanding and nurturing from others in the manner in which it is offered is important to maintaining your own reserves.
Watch out for cognitive distortions
Sometimes the way we think about what is taking place has as much (or more) to do with how depleted we feel as the actual energy being exerted. If you fall prey to any of these cognitive distortions, you are more likely to feel burnt out as a “caring other” than if you are able to maintain a distortion-free viewpoint:
- Personalization: when you start to think that the issues at hand are all about you, rather than about the person you are attempting to care for, things can get crazy pretty quickly. With this distortion, you either feel you are responsible (blame yourself) for the other person’s issues OR you begin to experience the paranoia that your friend blames you. Tell yourself, “This isn’t about me.” Repeat as necessary.
- Jumping to conclusions: if you decide, without deep listening or empathy, that you know what your friend is thinking, feeling, or is in need of, you will find yourself experiencing a great deal of frustration as you attempt to offer care or comfort. After all, they would feel better (be more successful, be happier, etc.) if they just listened to you, right?
- Should-ing: How often have you felt you “should” be more available to a friend, even when you didn’t feel emotionally ready to do so? If you are overtired, overstretched, burnt out, stop should-ing on yourself. You’re already depleted, and likely to be less than helpful – perhaps even cross over into actively harmful instead.
You, too, can have personal boundaries my friends! Set parameters – especially if someone is so needy he or she has become an emotional vampire (“Come closer, I vant to suck up your energy!”). A little secret: we are all bad at setting boundaries – until we actually practice setting and keeping them.
Look for ways to fill YOURSELF back up
Sometimes, we get in the habit of looking to others to fill our emotional buckets. We not only allow them to nurture us, we demand that they be available to us for that purpose. But each of us has inner resources – even if we’ve gotten rusty at exercising them. Prayer, journalling, yoga, bike riding – any activity that puts you into a semi-meditative state is great for refilling your own decimated reserves. Be aware that, for most of us, a semi-comatose vegetative state in front of the television does not produce the desired results. Couching-it, while it has its uses, is not the same as actively reinvigorating our emotional and psychological energy.
For most of us, being available, helpful and generous toward those we love is second nature. We want to be there for them; we hope to be a positive light in their lives – especially on their darker days. We can’t do that if we have lost our own will to live and give – if we have allowed an endless parade of others (and their neediness) to suck us dry.
Ever since my original dream of myself as the breast-feeding storyteller who literally dried and shriveled up before my eyes, I’ve practiced re-imagining the story. In the updated version, I welcome all who wish to join me in a place of warmth and supportive energy. However, it isn’t a 24/7/365 feeding frenzy. I imagine myself posting a schedule: I say who, when, how much. Not because there is a finite amount of love or caring within me – but because my energy IS limited. When I offer support, I want to be TRULY present – it is, after all, the only real gift I have to offer others.