Are you absolutely spent and exhausted from too much giving? Parents, educators, and people in the helping professions know what I’m talking about here. We sacrifice in the service of others. On our best days, it comes from a place of love. On our worst days, it is an experience of obligation in which we question everything about ourselves and the lives we’ve chosen. Where are the spaces though where we get to question everything, where we don’t have to role model, where we can simply be our genuine messy selves? Find your messy is an essential element to caregiving because it’s precisely the spaces where we can be real, laughing loudly and crying ugly, and reflect on our burdens without judgement.
This notion of finding your messy came to me while walking in the park last week. A mother of two was trying to encourage her bored 9 year-old son as he plodded along. Suddenly, her 2 year-old daughter decided that the funniest thing in the world would be to go running down the sidewalk as fast she could. “STOP!” yelled the mom after her. The little girl stopped. As I passed the vexed mother, I gave her the empathy smile, the one that sort of conveys “I feel ya” and a dozen other emotions that women share in these moment. The mom shook her head and laughed a little before sighing and saying to me, “I can’t.” (Women say that in my part of New England as a friendly shorthand for “I can’t deal with this absolute nonsense right now.”)
Of course we both understood that she had to soldier on, keeping her 2 year-old from running into traffic while attempting to entertain and rationalize with her 9 year-old. Perhaps this was her only day off from work, complete with a 3 page to-do list. I can’t, indeed. Where does she go to lay down the burden when I can’t is such a reality that she’s completely depleted and constantly exhausted? Where do any of us go?
So many of us exist in roles that hold us to higher standards. We’re looked toward as the wise ones, the persons with the answers, the endless sources of compassion and patience. Such a high standard to which we hold ourselves, and how frustrated we become whenever our physical and emotional limits are reached! We yell at the kids, we’re dismissive to a student, impatient with a client. What do we do next? Why we heap coals of shame on ourselves, playing and replaying the scenario in our heads, wishing we’d said this instead of that, acted more calmly, been more loving.
It’s hard not living up to our expectations of ourselves as Our Lady of Magnificent Mothering or the patron saint of Endlessly Encouraging and Positive Feedback, isn’t it?
The helping professions have talked for a few years now about a phenomenon we call compassion fatigue. This is pretty much what it sounds like, and we in fact give some pretty good lip service to the need for things like “counselor wellness” as an antidote. We don’t often see the term extended though to parents who may be working full-time, managing a household, or helping support or care for other family members. Perhaps we might more accurately call it wisdom fatigue from having to always know the right thing to say or do, performance fatigue from having to self-edit our words and actions lest they be taken out of context, lookout fatigue for managing the competing needs of other people, and general fatigue for when we invariably fail in each of these areas.
This is where find your messy comes into play. Where do you get to laugh and speak without filters? Who do you trust that doesn’t need you to be strong or courageous and can simply be with the vulnerability and the tears, the fears, and the truths of your life? Where do you go to lay down the hero’s burden and simply be your fabulously flawed self? (Don’t argue with me on this one. This person is fabulous because she or he is genuine and authentic enough to stop trying to be perfect. There’s a complete person inside of you with hopes and dreams, laughter, interesting stories…all sorts of cool stuff.)
I realize that creating another life space for something isn’t easy, but that’s precisely why it’s needed. Our lives become such constant chores of doing for others that we fail to meet our own basic needs for genuine adult connections which allow us to be free. If a notion of how to do this isn’t coming to you, try the following exercise:
- List all of the people to whom you’re responsible (you can simply say “the kids,” “my class,” “my team,” or whatever applies).
- List all of the people in your life to whom you have no responsibility other than to just show up and be yourself.
- What are some of the things you enjoy about time with the folks you listed in item 2? (Give some details here. This is your messy space we’re talking about here.)
- What would they say they enjoy most about you?
- When was the last time you spent time with any of these item 2 folks?
- What would it take for you to text or call at least one of these item 2 people up right now and see what they have open for lunch, coffee, a drink, or whatever?
- I think you know what you need to do next.