Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Why Giving Back Is Feeling Good

The other day, one of my long-time friends, Mary, and I were catching up on the telephone. Her wonderful and devoted husband had been diagnosed with two forms of cancer within the year, one after the other. She literally nursed him back to health during each scary episode. Now her 85-year-old mother has dementia, and is quickly fading. Just days before, Mary had to take her mom’s car away from her because she was increasingly becoming a hazard on the road. Without the independence to get around on her own, her mother was feeling like a caged animal, and was calling Mary non-stop, every 5 minutes, at home and at her work place. My poor friend was at her wit’s end.

Meanwhile, Mary’s next door neighbor, who is in a wheel chair, had recently been widowed. As random kindness, Mary would routinely pick up her newspaper from the front of her house, and run errands for the elderly lady. But on this day, when the neighbor asked where her paper was, my friend lost it. She told me irately, “This woman has a son. Let him take care of her.” Mary was drained and she simply had nothing more to give. She had been taking care of others from the basic core of the stuff she needed to sustain her own well-being. As Chapter 5 in “Don’t Bet on the Prince!” is titled, “Give from the Overflow, Not from the Core.” We need our core energies to nurture ourselves before we nurture others. That’s why one of my Gilda-Grams insists that we “Live the Capital ‘I’ Life.”

I advised Mary to do something terrific for herself NOW. With everyone grabbing for her attention, she didn’t know how to do that. She filled a low-dose prescription for a psychotropic drug to calm her nerves, as a short-term remedy.

It has happened to all of us. The rubberband gets stretched, and then it suddenly snaps. Usually, the snapping event occurs at the wrong time, at the wrong place, with the wrong person. But it’s usually the result of all the stress we chose not to deal with earlier. Mary and her husband have a great marriage, and with no children, they have only each other on whom to lavish love. With each of her husband’s diagnoses, Mary had acted on autopilot. She was familiar with this kind of caretaking. Over the years, before her husband had gotten ill, she became the official caretaker for his mother, then his father, then her father, and now her mom. Mary is overweight, obviously skilled at stuffing her anguish into her body. For as long as I know her, she has never taken the time to love Mary.

I shared my own week with my friend. My elderly neighbor needed a colonoscopy and asked me to pick her up from the hospital. One of my close friends needed her car repaired, and asked me to pick her up from the auto mechanic. And a close girlfriend was going on a job interview, and I volunteered to watch her infant while she dazzled a prospective employer. Despite all my media interviews, appearances, speeches, columns, coaching, and personal commitments, I offered my support to the people I love who needed me during that week because it made me feel good! I admit that doing things for people I love is purely self-driven. But the reason I was able to do it with aplomb that week was because, unlike Mary, my basic core felt solid; I had already siphoned off what I needed for me. I’m not always in such a secure place.

Most people don’t perfect self-care because it doesn’t always make them the most popular person on the block. For example, while having a business lunch with a colleague in an elegant restaurant, the young waiter interrupted our intense conversation with a recitation of the menu. I said, “Excuse me. I was just in the middle of my sentence.” My colleague, who is boundary-challenged herself, gasped at my outspokenness. The waiter quickly about-faced, and replaced himself with another server. While communicating your boundaries may have its drawbacks, it will protect you from energy drainers by letting them know your needs. Without enunciating your needs, like my friend, Mary, you will barely be able to give to yourself, much less give to others.

Giving back is a great feel-good therapy. American Idol’s Give-Back Night, and Bono’s ONE Campaign to Make Poverty History are examples of give-backs from the surplus of what these folks possess in their core. If we all optimized our time management, we could surely squeeze out a little something extra for those in need. But we must first provide for OURSELVES.

Just one caveat: While you're stealing precious me-time, people may call you “selfish.” Assertively correct them with the more accurate term, “self-caring.” And continue doing what you’re doing. This way, those you love will truly benefit from a stronger you!

Dr. Gilda


Maureen said...

I love helping others but I must agree that I get to where your friend is all too often. It's not that I resent helping it's that the occasional help (in MY mind) can quickly become expected.

I need to work on nurturing myself more and learn to help others on my schedule.

Dr. Gilda Carle said...

Hi, Maureen,
This is such a common problem for women and sensitive men. We are no good for anyone once we’ve run out of steam. In my book, "Don't Bet on the Prince!," I discuss the Overfunctioner who overly functions for others as s/he underfunctions for him/herself. I know this topic well, having been there myself. But it's healable. You have taken the first step by admitting “I need to work on nurturing myself more and learn to help others on my schedule.” Yes, if it’s not on YOUR schedule, you will become burned out—and ultimately be good for no one!
Dr. Gilda