Book, blanket, hot tea & pears

It’s something I frequently hear from my clients: “I don’t have time to take care of myself because I’m taking care of my _____.” (Fill in the blank with any number of things, kids, pets, work parents, house…) People have all kinds of things holding them back from taking care of themselves. Maybe something’s holding you back, too. What would you say if you filled in the blank for yourself? What’s getting in the way of taking care of you and your diabetes?

Most of my clients are women, and most of them put other people’s needs before their own. We are socialized to take care of others, and we view it as our job to make sure everyone else is OK before we do anything to care for ourselves. There’s nothing wrong with taking care of other people, but…

There is such as thing as over-responsibility.

I didn’t hear of the concept of over-responsibility until about five years ago, and by that time, my patterns of behavior were firmly established. I struggled with this concept. How could it be wrong to be responsible? I grew up with the idea that hard work would necessarily lead to happiness and prosperity. For some of us, it’s hard work not to work hard taking care of others. I will always have an instinct to volunteer, but over time, I have come to see that being overly-responsible takes away other people’s opportunities to step up to the plate.

For example, I have a two sons whom I love dearly, but we don’t see eye to eye on the level of cleanliness we’d like for their room. Specifically, I just don’t understand why one of them uses the floor for a dirty clothes hamper. It takes a ton more effort for me to bite my tongue about what I perceive to be the chaotic state of the room than it would for me to grab the dirty laundry off the floor on my way to start the wash. Beyond that, there is the inevitable morning rush without his desired outfit to wear to school. (That’s really aggravating at six a.m.) I could easily prevent that by picking up the dirty laundry on my way to the washer, but it’s my son’s responsibility to pick up his clothes and get them to the laundry. The natural consequence of not picking up your clothes is not having clean clothes to wear to school when you want them, and that’s happened several times. My son is now about to enter middle school and is becoming more fashion conscious. We’re not quite there yet, but after a few rounds of wearing the “wrong” outfit, he is finally beginning to get his laundry to the laundry room on his own.

What does self care have to do with nutrition & diabetes?

Everyone pulls more than their share of the weight at different times; that’s what friends and families are about. When we pull more than our share of the weight indefinitely, we take away our loved one’s opportunities to contribute, to learn, and to grow, and we deprive ourselves of time for self-care. This leads to frustration & resentment on the part of the person who is overly-responsible, and to a sense of incompetence on the part of the person who is under-responsible. He or she never gets an opportunity to experience the feeling of accomplishment that comes with successfully completing a difficult task. Maybe he or she wouldn’t do the job our way, or the best way. Maybe he or she wouldn’t do the job at all, and maybe there would be consequences. That’s OK. Like my son’s “wrong outfit”, the consequences belong to the other person to experience.

When it comes to food & health, an overly responsible person will prioritize everyone else’s needs above her own, leaving no time to care for herself. She makes food to suit other people’s tastes, ignoring what she needs for her health, she spends time and money on other people’s hobbies, and she forgoes her own exercise in favor of watching other people’s games. She then feels as if she has failed because she didn’t achieve the right diet, the right A1C, or the right weight, and she begins to resent the people to whom she gives so much. What started out as a spirit of giving turns into a feeling of regret.

How can I take care of myself and my diabetes without neglecting others?

If you’re feeling like you have no time to care for yourself, take stock of your situation. Are there jobs you can outsource? Are there chores you can divvy up? Are there things you do for others out of an overdeveloped sense of responsibility? What would really happen if you stopped doing them? Is that consequence one you can live with? The people in your life deserve opportunities to learn to take care of themselves as well as time for self-care, and so do you.

A wise person once told me the story of the butterfly and the chrysalis. It seems that when a caterpillar forms a chrysalis and then transforms into a butterfly, it must emerge from the chrysalis on its own. If a person tries to “help” the butterfly out of the chrysalis, the butterfly will not survive. It’s the act of struggling against the chrysalis that strengthens the butterfly’s wings enough to allow it to survive in the world.

Those of us who are overly-responsible are like the person who “helps” the butterfly out the chrysalis, only to discover that we’ve destroyed its ability to fly. If we are smart, we will step back, take a breath, and let the butterfly have its own struggle, while we have ours.

p.s. Sometimes, the first step to taking care of yourself is to make those overdue appointments with your healthcare providers. Read this short article to remind yourself appointments you need to stay on top of diabetes. You can download the free check-sheet to help keep track of your progress.

Julie Cunningham is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Care and Education Specialist. Julie is the owner of a nutrition counseling service in Hendersonville, NC. She works as both an in-person and an online nutritionist.