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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 your self-care?

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. 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 a thing as over-responsibility.

I didn’t hear of the concept of over-responsibility until about five years ago. 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…I have come to see that being overly-responsible takes away other people’s opportunities to step up to the plate.

I have 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. I just don’t understand why one of them uses the floor for a laundry hamper. It takes a ton of effort for me to bite my tongue about the chaotic state of my son's room. It would be so much easier 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 those morning wardrobe emergencies 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 in 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. But, 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. We also deprive ourselves of time for self-care. Then we get frustrated and resentful. The people we do everything for begin to feel incompetent. They never get an opportunity to experience the feeling of accomplishment that comes with successfully completing a difficult task. Maybe they wouldn’t do the job our way, or the best way. Maybe they 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. Then she feels as if she has failed because she didn’t achieve the right diet, the right A1c, or the right weight. She starts 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 practice self-care without neglecting others?

If you feel like you have no time to care for yourself, take stock of your situation. Are there jobs you can outsource? Any 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 a consequence 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. 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.

Julie Cunningham

Julie Cunningham

MPH, RDN, LDN, CDCES, IBCLC

I believe people with diabetes can enjoy good food and good health without feeling ashamed of their bodies.