(broad)ject self #20: Self-Care When...Your Shoulders are Heavy

Apologies for the radio silence last Sunday. We were in Winnipeg for a week and on Sunday night went out for a Valentine’s Day dinner and I just didn’t plan ahead enough. Self-Care When…You’re Disorganized is coming soon, I assure you.

It goes without saying that I am not a perfect person and I think one of my biggest flaws is that I am too empathetic. I promise you, this isn’t one of those sneaky interview question answers where the response to the question of “What is your worst quality?” is something ridiculously humblebraggy like “I work too hard”. No, for me my empathy has at this point run amok and is actively harmful to my mental health. When people I love are going through hard times, I take on all their feelings to the point that I feel anxious, guilty, and often physically ill. I can’t be a neutral third party as I put myself right in it and it’s no good.

It’s no good for me, because it increases my own natural anxiety by a factor of a million and distracts me from the work I need to get done. It’s no good for them, because I’m so busy being empathetic that I can’t help them move the issue forward and in fact may end up being burdensome because I’ve turned into a heaping ball of angst and misery. When this happens, the lyrics to Snow Patrol’s ‘How to Be Dead’ roll through my head, “…both my shoulders are heavy from the weight of us both”.

We’ve talked about self-care when you’re anxious and we’ve talked about self-care when you’re sad, and certainly all those coping mechanisms can apply here too. What about self-care when you’re taking on everyone else’s anxiety and sadness too?

The most helpful thing for me is to remind myself that I am actively not helping if I decide to be Sian Who Feels All the Things. That’s not easy and it’s a particular struggle when you were part of the problem in the first place, which can sometimes happen. In those cases, I follow my personal responsibility mantra and 1) take responsibility, 2) apologize, and 3) try to fix it. But what if you didn’t break it?

I’m going to offer what might be a somewhat controversial tactic here, and I would love to hear what you think about it, but first, the background. There’s this theory that I first read about on a parenting website called Ask Moxie (don’t even ask how I got there, it was many moons ago), about tension increasers versus tension decreasers in relation to crying babies. Tension increasers are stressed out by crying, so once they get going it’s hard for them to stop. You have to do whatever it takes to prevent these babies from crying, because once they start its game over. Tension decreasers need to cry it out a little bit in order to move on but once they do, they’re fine. This theory totally extends to grownups too and I bet if you think about it quickly you’ll know which one you are.

I’m a tension decreaser. I wig out, feel my feels, and then I feel cleansed and ready to move on. David is a tension increaser. Once he starts talking about a problem it snowballs and grows until it is A. Thing. that you couldn’t have even imagined up in your wildest nightmares. But it’s funny, because I often fight feeling the feels, even though it will make me feel better, and David LOVES to talk shit to death, even though it will make him feel worse. So this is the controversial part: I often tell David that maybe it’s better not to talk about it. This runs in complete opposition to Relationship 101, I know, but for us what works is me listening to the first iteration of the problem and then shutting that particular line of conversation down. It doesn’t always work, but sometimes just me saying “remember how we talked about tension increasers and tension decreasers?” can be enough to distract him.

So when I’m feeling weighed down by other people’s stuff, I have to remind myself to feel it out, do a little bit of problem solving (which for me is actively seeking the worst case scenario and mentally working through it), and then move on. I’m also not afraid to tell people I’m tapped out and ask if we can reschedule a particular conversation for a later date or encourage them to talk it out with someone else first/instead. There are obviously kind and unkind ways to say those things, but I’ve tried to get to a place in my closest relationships where there is enough give and take and honesty to cover me even if I’m occasionally a bit rough around the edges.

I think it’s issues like this where we can feel like self-care is veering a little bit into selfishness. Isn’t it our responsibility to be there for our partner no matter what? But I would argue that this is a major “put your own oxygen mask on first” opportunity. If you are worn down and anxious for carrying around other people’s sadness, you are no good to anyone, least of all them.

Your homework this week is to diagnose yourself and your closest loved ones as to what their tension personality is. Then have a conversation about it and how you can use that information to improve your relationship and your communication skills.

Think I’m a human monster? Tell me about it! You know where to find me.

Self-caringly yours,