Caregivers continuously provide help for others who are unable to help themselves. Although the role is full of positive rewards and experiences, the role can tax your wellbeing without allowing opportunities for respite.

In light of that reality, caregivers have to create whatever form of respite they hope to experience. Short of taking an extended break, one small way to give yourself respite is to set and maintain boundaries.

Think of boundaries as your values, needs, and preferences, put into action. You have both a right and a duty to set boundaries (i.e. express your values, needs, and preferences), for the sake of your wellbeing. You cannot take care of others without taking care of yourself.

When was the last time you considered your needs?

If you cannot remember the last time you slept properly, ate adequately, exercised weekly, or did not feel guilty about taking a sick day, then you’re probably feeling the impacts of caregiving on your mental and physical health.

Ask yourself: “What could I do to replenish myself?”

“Is there any small action that could improve my life or make me feel more content with my present state?” If you’re treating yourself fairly, the answer should be yes. Everyone always has some need that could be better fulfilled–caregivers are no exception.

You are still a human. The emotional and physical demands on you add up!

It is never selfish to preserve and/or recover your wellbeing. Caregivers can only give quality care when they are intimately familiar with their own needs and limitations.

Setting and maintaining your boundaries

Building healthy boundaries is by far the most important measure for improving one’s well-being and laying a foundation for positive self-care habits. 

Setting boundaries is a logical response to unmet needs, excessive demands, or unsustainable patterns. Neither distress nor guilt help your situation, so let’s dismantle both and talk about boundaries–step by step.

1. Accept your emotions, good and bad.

Diverse emotions flood a caregiver’s mind while providing aid. The positive sides of the role include feelings of love, gratification, and satisfaction. Most caregivers feel comfortable and proud to own these emotions. On the other hand, they experience shame when engaging with less savory feelings. Portraying anything other than pure enjoyment generates guilt in caregivers. It feels safer to hide this side of the experience.

Sure, there’s a selfless Mother Teresa fantasy ideal to live up to, as a caregiver. But in reality, caregivers commonly feel justified guilt, anger, resentment, and frustration about their situation. It’s easy to feel inadequate when you can barely take care of yourself in addition to your caregiving responsibilities. However, these emotions have important underlying messages. 

Anger and frustration notify you of unfair or unsustainable conditions. Fear arises from uncontrollable events colliding with limited resources. Guilt displays our genuine wish to treat others well. Resentment stems from feeling unappreciated or trapped. 

Recognizing how your emotions control you gives you the opportunity to identify where to set boundaries. These boundaries can help adjust your caregiving dynamic. 

2. Catch stress early-on.

Constant stress levels throughout a caregiver’s day can bring about irritability, forgetfulness, and symptoms of depression. Obviously, stress hurts you. But if you need further motivation to set boundaries in order to reduce stress, consider that stress diminishes the quality of care you provide.

To combat the feelings of stress, you have to recognize it as it appears. It’s easier to stop mild stress before it spirals into full-blown panic.

When you start to notice stress, use it to brainstorm a boundary. How are you currently pushing your limits, and how can you better stay within them? What’s causing this stress, and how can you remove fuel from this fire?

There are parts of your role you can and cannot change, so you have to reflect on which you have no influence over. Your mental well-being is being drained by the consistent stressors.

Embrace the barrier of managing your stress by exercising weekly, participating in mindfulness practices, journaling, spending time with different people, and doing activities you love. Everyone deserves a break from their roles, especially if it improves their wellness. 

3. Set boundaries according to your goals.

What will help you feel better in daily life? You might make a list of healthy habits, a do-able schedule, or a tangible goal to work toward.

In order to achieve your goals, you’ll want to set boundaries to keep yourself on track. This means communicating your goals, and how reaching them interacts with your caregiving duties.

Below is a list of example goals, and boundaries that could support them.

  • Eat 3 meals a day, so I don’t feel lightheaded and fatigued.
    • “I need 20 minutes, three times a day, to cook and eat in silence. I love to chat with you, but I can’t give you my all without some quiet meal times.”
  • Get racing thoughts out into a journal before bed, to improve sleep.
    • “Can we get all of your nighttime needs met by 9pm, so I have an hour to journal and wind down before sleep?”
  • Exercise 2x-3x a week 
    • “I will be going on a morning walk after your morning routine on days I feel up to it. I wanted to let you know that’s on my schedule, and you’re welcome to join me whenever.”
  • Sleep 8 hours every night
    • “I’m a night owl, and you’re an early bird. That clash sucks, but I think we can find a solution that works for both of us. How can we set you up for the unattended time between when you wake up and I wake up?”
  • Engage in activities that bring you excitement
    • “My soul needs some recharging and I think a long hike would do the trick. Is there a window of a couple hours in the next two days when you won’t need my help?”

Slowly but surely, your goals and boundaries will help construct a more sustainable lifestyle, free of guilt. 

4. Reach out to others.

No one except you knows what you are going through. 

Many caregivers isolate themselves by withdrawing from their families and friends because they feel cornered, alone, and helpless. Caregivers think their situation is a burden to place on anyone else, but that could not be further from the truth. 

Friends, families, physicians, therapists, community support groups, and online support networks may not be in your shoes, but they have resources and are willing to listen and work with you through tough situations. 

If you need a re-frame, look at it this way: reaching out to others grants them the ability to mitigate the stress and frustration you are feeling. They could provide you a break, a sympathetic environment, or a safe space to vent. Asking someone else for help is a great gift, and can strengthen both your confidence and the connection between you.

Reaching out to others does not mean you are weak. Reaching out to others means you are strong enough to realize your emotional and physical health is at risk. 

5. Say no. 

You are overworked, overwhelmed, and overstimulated. Denying the facts doesn’t help anyone.

When asked if you can do an extra assignment or take on another duty, ask yourself if you really want to and if you can handle it. If you hesitate for a second, then you should not be picking up new tasks. 

Saying no to someone is not rude or mean. Saying no demonstrates that you know your limits, and it implies that when you’re there, you’re really there.

6. Build a community outside of your caregiving relationship.

When it’s just you and the person you care for, things can get tense, awkward, or sticky. You likely have years of memories, arguments, likely influence your well-intentioned interactions. Nobody’s right or wrong; it’s just hard when there are valid hurts on both sides of the relationship.

To avoid a proverbial cabin fever with the person you care for, consciously diversify your community. Set an expectation that you need a wide circle of support for yourself.

Alexandra Drane, Co-Founder and CEO of ARCHANGELS suggests that caregivers “have a community that’s not just family. Family has a lot associated with it, so include people you don’t have 50 years of history with.”

“We all need to be intentional in building out our community, because it takes a village.” Drane continues, emphasizing that community “can be a joy that you would not be able to name until you’re living it and experiencing it.”

There is no room for guilt when you fill the room with people who support you. 

Maintaining boundaries is a must.

“The care you give to yourself is the care you give to your loved one,” says one caregiver. 

Caregivers deserve to exercise, sleep right, have hobbies, and enjoy their lives. They time to reach out to their community, family and friends, or supportive peers. Boundaries can support the needs caregivers deserve to meet.

Boundaries are meant to protect you and the person you care for, to preserve your caregiving relationship, and to create a more functional partnership. By showing the courage to value your own needs, you enhance the quality of care you provide.

All caregivers experience the emotions of stress, frustration, and anger, so no feeling you have is invalid. One way to honor these valid feelings is to set boundaries. It’s not productive for anyone to deny your undeniable needs.

A glowing caregiver gives glowing care, and it all begins with boundaries. 

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