How can we help others and still look after ourselves?

Updated: Aug 27, 2021

For the last year our collective gaze has turned ever inward – we have been set in our family bubbles, with limited opportunities for wider interaction. Like little stars tracking across the night sky, adrift from our constellations. At Happy Mums, it felt like we had a double-whammy – we were due to shut our creche anyway pre-Covid and give up the building where we once hosted support groups. When we reopened, we were faced with a virtual world – we held each other at arms-length, with little windows into home-worlds, which vanished with a click of the mouse into the ether. Yes, we still held each others’ thoughts and feelings, we shared and got used to doing so through a computer screen.

In some ways this was more comfortable. It was much easier to practice what we preach: to leave the problems and challenges of other peoples’ lives in the group space, to stay separate and a little bit detached. It was harder too though. Where once we would have hugged or passed a tissue, when words were not enough, we now talked about wanting to hug, wanting to comfort, but unable to reach out.

With our tentative return to face-to-face meeting we have all come much closer to the pain and struggles of group members. Feelings that have been bottled up for months and months have started to trickle, then flood out. It is harder to stay emotionally separate, whatever the markings on the floor dictate. On the plus side, we have been able to fling individual packets of tissues at those with tears, and since May even share the odd embrace.

This opening has coincided with our first ever large-scale recruitment of volunteers. We have had amazing volunteers in the past, and many have gone on to paid or board level roles. But it was always ad-hoc and our volunteers were not always supported as we would have liked. Now though, we have our first cohort of volunteers who have been interviewed and recruited, on the cusp of completing our first induction package and the first to use our newly created volunteer framework.

So now the question seems more important than ever: how can we all give enough of ourselves to help others, without compromising our own wellbeing? It’s a question both Katherine and I grapple with constantly. As mums we are habitual self-sacrificers, so used to putting the needs of others first, we struggle to even recognise our own needs, let alone prioritise them. As peer support workers we tread a tight-rope between our own struggles and the help we can provide for others. One false wobble and we can quickly fall into our own crises, and become little use to anyone. If we stray too far from our own vulnerability though we risk losing our insight and ability to connect with others who are struggling.

Our volunteers will have to find their own path: and come back from the inevitable wobbles. They will need to negotiate a change in their relationships: group members may also be friends and vice versa. And the challenges are made more intense by social media. The line between the personal and the professional is no longer fixed. We all tend to be publicly available, whether or not we have shared our phone numbers.

So I think the only way to negotiate this delicate balance is through reflection, and support from others who have been there before. If we can recognise our own flashpoints, and sense when our own emotional resources have been depleted, we can hopefully act to take care of ourselves without feeling cold or selfish.

As I’ve said before, self-care is not easy. It’s not all bubble-bath and breathing: often it is about telling others you cannot help them right now, or saying no to invites or requests, and living with a feeling that you are letting others down. The oxygen mask analogy is a good one thought: if you cannot breathe yourself, you will not be able to help another.

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