Call me weird, but there are few things I find as comforting as those warm blankets they put on you in the hospital. I had to go to the emergency room recently for food poisoning, and the professional, kind, and attentive care I received included one of those blankets. It was a small gesture that made me feel especially well cared for. It makes me wonder — how do I show others that I care? How do I know and protect the boundaries that divide caring, caregiving, and caretaking?
Caring is defined as “someone who shows kindness and concern for others.” Notice that doesn’t include any real action. Kindness and concern can simply mean being present with an empathetic and compassionate heart. Yet we often feel that we have to “do” something — as if our presence is not enough. When sitting with someone who is expressing some difficulty, the most caring thing we can probably do is simply to be present and listen.
Caretaking can be described as “someone who takes care of everything.” Maybe this person believes that in order to be a good, caring person, it is necessary to be constantly active, performing, and doing for others. A caretaker tends to be a very controlling person. He or she steps in to get things done for adults who are quite adept at doing for themselves. This is all done with the best of intentions, but it’s quite disrespectful to control the affairs of another person. It’s always best to allow adults who are capable to do for themselves, to learn, and to grow in the process whether they make the right decisions or not. This is not an easy concept for caretakers to grasp, perhaps because a caretaker feels inadequate unless doing things for others and probably truly believes that he or she is simply being a good person.
Caregiving is yet another animal, and it is defined as “someone who expresses kindness and love.” This person does not control nor take on the responsibility of another person. He or she might spend time with someone who is depressed, provide care for disabled people, or assist the elderly or children with tasks that they are unable to perform on their own (to name a few examples). While caretakers take the power from perfectly able-bodied/minded individuals, caregivers give of their time and talent to those who are in need of them.
Caregivers are typically very selfless people, but it is important to remember that we cannot care for others unless we ourselves are healthy and whole. It is imperative that caregivers take time to rejuvenate body, mind, and spirit so that compassion fatigue does not set in. Time to eat, pray, rest, relax, and plain old fun should be planned in the caregiver’s schedule. These are not self-centered activities but rather self-caring ones. I know it’s cliché, but as they say on airplanes — put the oxygen mask on yourself before you put it on those around you. If you can’t breathe, you are worthless to everyone else.
I personally fall into the trap of giving of myself until I am empty, and what’s worse is that I don’t always take time for prayer to fill myself spiritually. When I am spiritually, physically, and emotionally empty I am useless to the many people who seek advice, care, and my whole-hearted, healthy presence. Self-care is something I have to practice daily — some days hourly — in order to be a strong, joyful, peaceful, willing, and caring person. That is far from selfish; it’s actually caring for myself with others in mind. Otherwise I pick up the phone and am emotionally unavailable to the person on the other end.
There are times too (or maybe it’s in certain relationships) that I am a caretaking maniac. I interrupt my day and important activities, or my times of rest, to do things for people that they positively can do on their own. On those days you would swear that I am the only one on the planet with access to the Internet, the telephone, or the bank. You would also be certain that my cell phone is permanently implanted in my ear without an on/off switch. By the end of a frantic day of caretaking I am usually exhausted, emotionally depleted, and extremely resentful. Yet I am the one who felt the world just couldn’t spin on its axis if I wasn’t there to assist.
So how would you categorize yourself? Are you a caring person, a caregiver, or a caretaker? Do you practice self-care? Do you believe that your presence is enough? Do you balance your time and not allow yourself to be taken advantage of? One of my favorite sayings is: “You are called to be a light, not a doormat.” Being a caring person does not mean that you have to allow yourself to become worn and matted like a doormat that's been stepped on countless times. Keep yourself fresh and renewed in body, mind, and spirit. Maybe think of yourself like that warm hospital blanket that doesn’t do a thing but stay close and exude its warmth; yet it makes one feel safe and loved. Remember, the blanket eventually cools and has to be warmed again or another blanket replaces it. Stay warm — it can be a very cold world.