One thing you will notice about many professional caregivers is that they are very good at responding to other people’s needs. I would hope so! To do this well is like providing nourishing and healing food for people. You notice what nourishment is needed, and supply it.

To do this well over a long period means that we as caregivers have to be in good shape ourselves. We need to be adequately nourished. This means eating well, of course, but it goes much beyond this. Consider:

If the body does not get enough of all the right food groups – enough of what it needs – it becomes malnourished. In extreme cases, it may starve. Then it gets weak or out of sorts, and is able to do less for others. This is also true psychologically. Not to get enough of what we need means becoming psychologically malnourished, out of sorts, or to experience a kind of ‘psychological starvation’. Making sure we get what we need isn’t conceit or self-indulgence. It’s more like maintaining good health.

As human beings, what are the psychological “food groups” that we need to stay healthy? There are lots of ways of thinking about it, but you could say there are four.

1. ACHIEVEMENT: The need to achieve things, to have recognition and respect, to be good at things, to be competent.
2. LOVE and BELONGING: To feel connected to other people, to fit in, to be valued for yourself, to belong, to experience affection.
3. FUN: To do things you get a kick out of and enjoy doing for their own sake, to have recreation, to laugh and smile.
4. FREEDOM: to be able to make your own choices, have things the way you would like them, do what you want to do with yourself.

When all of these needs are being met (as well as the more physical needs like adequate rest, food, safety, security, warmth), we’re generally happy. Go without one or more these, and you get distress.

Good self-care is going to include knowing what you as a human being need, and finding ways to make sure you get it.

For caregivers this is especially important, because the well being of others depends so much on you and how you treat them. When you are healthy (physically and psychologically), they can rely on you. This isn’t optional.

I’m always reminded of the announcement they make on airplanes. If the cabin loses pressure, you are supposed to put your own oxygen mask on first, and then help the kids with theirs. They need you to have it together, for their sake.

Brian Grady, Ph.D