The trouble with pendulums, is you never know where the highs, lows, and status quos are. Part of having mental health issues, is swinging wildly from one extreme to the other – eat too much, too little. Sleep too much, too little. Work too much, too little. But being kind?
Who would think you could have too much kindness.
All my life I’ve looked for the best in people. Done nice things. Listened. Hung out. Had fun. Offered a shoulder to cry on. Mentored. Taught. Helped with housework. Cooked dinners. Driven around. Holidayed. Been the best friend, colleague, teacher, mother, daughter, wife, I know how to be. Which is not to say flawless – I’ve certainly found my foot in my mouth on far too many occasions. Overstepped the mark. Missed the point. Like all of you – I’m fallible. But if it’s the thought that counts, then my thought was always well-intentioned. Of my many vices, jealousy and pettiness are not near the top of the list (it’s a long list).
When my life spiralled in a rapid downward trajectory – when that stress pendulum flew way off to the side and got stuck there – I was told, and I read again and again, that a great way to deal with stress is to do something nice for someone else. Really? Every time? When you’ve spent a lifetime emptying your bucket of care, there comes a time when the bucket is so devoid of content there’s nothing left to give. So I withdrew. I stopped teaching. And performing. I stopped looking after my house and family or reaching out to others. I became selfish. I slept and slept and for the first time in my life – did nothing. I was too exhausted to even feel guilty.
Today I’m reading a book that once again extols the virtues of destressing by giving of yourself – the theory being the more you give out, the more comes back to you. This is a lovely theory, but depends where your pendulum is sitting. Giving of yourself – your time, energy, money, love, wisdom, experience – feels great. It really does. Spending time with a friend in distress is a genuine honour – someone feels so safe in your company they share the deepest, darkest parts of themselves. And for a moment in time, my own stress and worries are eclipsed and buried.
But to give of myself, I cannot be empty.
My bucket needs to be sloshing with care and empathy. Energy. Kindness. Love. Wisdom. And to fill that bucket I need to receive – not give. To be vulnerable enough to be loved and cared for. Nurtured. It doesn’t come naturally. My pendulum has always been off centre. But having experienced the soulless void of an empty bucket, I can’t go back there, so my job now is to balance that pendulum and fill that bucket. To let people in and graciously accept a little of their love, kindness and wisdom. To practice self-care in whatever manner feels restorative. And very importantly, to ensure when I am giving of myself, I’m doing it for the right reasons. Not as a means of distraction, or running away from my own life by burying myself in someone else’ problems. But to give of myself because it’s my turn to give. And to humbly and graciously accept support and love when it’s proffered to me.
Self-care. Self-compassion. Self-love. Self-acceptance. Self-awareness. So many self words – and none of them are selfish. It’s a fine line to tread – a balancing act of giving and receiving. But when that pendulum swings too far, I lose myself in the giving until the burnout comes. Then my self-neglect becomes a burden to those left holding me together. To balance the scales of giving and receiving is a gift to us all.
When I read of the importance of being that person who gives of themselves all the time, I’d like to see the caveat that says, “But only when you’ve cared for yourself first.”