February 5, 2023
What Caring for Others Can Teach Us About Taking Care of Ourselves

What Caring for Others Can Teach Us About Taking Care of Ourselves

5 Lessons from Domestic Violence Service Providers.

What can caring for others teach us about self-care? Caring for others and caring for ourselves can seem like opposite actions, but many who work in caretaking fields such as domestic violence advocacy show that the two can, in fact, go hand-in-hand.  

Last week, I led a self-care writing workshop for the Community Learning Collective, a collaboration between San Francisco domestic violence agencies W.O.M.A.N. Inc, Asian Women’s Shelter, The Riley Center, La Casa de las Madres, and Community Overcoming Relationship Abuse (CORA). My workshop was part of a day-long retreat for domestic violence service providers to foster wellness for themselves and their work.

Having worked in the domestic violence field at Community United Against Violence (CUAV), I know many of us are drawn to this work partly because of our caretaking nature. We often put others before ourselves, and we’re not the only ones. But, as I learned from my time with the Community Learning Collective, those of us who spend time caring for others have some of the most useful insights about taking care of ourselves. Here are five lessons we shared with each other:

1. We can show ourselves the same compassion we show for others

Those who care for others are compassionate by nature. Of course, many of us find it much easier to show compassion for others than for ourselves. But as Jack Kornfield wrote, “If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete.” So how do we go about treating ourselves with kindness? Well, we’ve had a lot of practice in being kind, just in the way we treat others, so we’re very skilled in that area. If we remind ourselves that we deserve kindness, too, we can follow our nature and simply do what we do best: showing compassion, and including ourselves.

2. We learn about our own resilience when we witness the resilience of others

Survivors of violence are some of the strongest people among us, and yet, when we experience trauma, we often feel powerless. People who work in the domestic violence field witness the powerful resilience of survivors every day, and we can use what we witness to build and celebrate our own resilience. As the keynote speaker for the Community Learning Collective retreat, psychotherapist Ina Moon helped us reframe the idea of vicarious trauma to think of it as vicarious transformation or vicarious resilience. Rather than focusing on the detrimental toll that taking care of others can take on our own well-being, we can recognize the many ways that caretaking actually builds our capacity to deal with stress and difficult situations.

3. Caregiving can show us where our limits are

We often dwell on the dangers of caretaking, the risk of overextending our capacity and sacrificing ourselves to look out for others. It’s true that this is a big risk, but what we can gain from taking this risk is an awareness of our limits. Awareness of the limits of what we can give is essential, and listening to those limits is a generous act of self-love. In my writing workshop, I invited participants to follow the call in Rumi’s poem “The Guest House,” to see even the toughest emotion as “a guide from beyond.” I stumped myself when I used the example of guilt – what can guilt guide me toward? One answer, I found, is recognizing what’s not mine to hold, and letting the guilt I feel when I reach my limits transform into the loving act of setting boundaries for myself.

4. Holding others’ emotions can teach us how to be with our own feelings, without shame

In caring for others, we often help hold difficult emotions, such as sadness, fear, and anger. In others, we see these feelings as natural and healthy, but when they arise within ourselves, we often feel discomfort and shame. By helping others face those feelings we try to avoid, we can discover how useful it is to remove the “negative” label from our uncomfortable emotions, and to instead embrace all of our feelings as being exactly what they’re meant to be. We can feel more deeply, address our true needs, and end up happier and healthier when we engage with our own feelings the same way we engage with the emotions of others.

5. Being gentle with others can help us see our own failures as chances to learn and grow

Everyone who participated in my workshop came with vulnerability and honesty, seeing opportunity for growth in the areas of their lives that call for more self-care. This is a fantastic way of identifying areas for growth in our lives, not by viewing them as shortcomings or shameful failures, but by opening ourselves up to the possibilities they point us toward. Most of us wouldn’t dream of judging or scolding a domestic violence survivor who comes to us for support – instead, we see that they’ve done their best to survive along every step of their journey, and we honor them for that. The practice of reframing tough times as triumphs can nourish us deeply along our self-care paths.

With every little bit of self-care, we help redefine what it means to care for others – not caring for them more than we care for ourselves, but growing more each day in our capacity to treat ourselves with kindness.