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Ask a Latter-day Saint Therapist: Balancing Self-Care with Helping Others

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When I was young, my father and I bonded over archery. Dad taught me that I had to unstring the bow when I wasn't using it, allowing the wood to straighten and the cord to dangle loose. If I didn't allow the bow to rest, or in other words, if I left the cord tight and the wood bent, I'd ruin the bow. Over time, it would no longer be taut. The wood would splinter and snap and the cord would fray. "If you don't unstring the bow," he explained, "it won't be any good to anybody.

"You Have to Unstring the Bow"

Just like the bow, a similar thing happens to us when we dedicate so much energy to the needs of others that we neglect ourselves. Burnout is a common result of doing this, as is a growing resentment towards the people to whom we give our time and energy. Like a bow that never gets unstrung, we begin to unravel and may snap. For our health, as well as our ability to serve others, we need to "unstring," relax, and take care of ourselves.

In an airplane emergency, passengers are supposed to place the oxygen mask on themselves first, even if their inclination is to begin with those around them. Obviously, this is because a person who faints from oxygen deprivation is unable to help anyone. Likewise, we must engage in self-care and make sure we're getting what we need, not because of selfishness but because if we don't we'll eventually lose the energy and drive to help others.

Finding That Balance

People ask if I carry my clients' problems with me because I deal with so much "heavy stuff." They ask me if it's hard to leave my work at the office. My response is that it's generally easy to walk away from it all at the end of the day. I do care about my clients. Deeply, as a matter of fact. For that reason I leave their problems at work, so I can spend time with my family and recharge my batteries in order to return to the office refreshed, clear-headed, and ready to help. If I "brought my work home with me," I'd wear myself out and have nothing left to offer.

Part of taking care of yourself is knowing that it's okay to say "no." If you have too much on your plate, there's no need to feel guilty for saying, "I would if I could." If you've got time set aside for yourself or with a loved one, it's okay to make that a priority. Take some time for yourself every day, even if it's brief. Read. Meditate. Exercise. Admire art and enjoy music. Connect with loved ones. Have a little fun, no matter how swamped you are. Relax and "unstring the bow" so that, when needed, you can be taut and focused instead of splintered and frayed.

Following the Example of Christ

Sometimes in trying to follow the Savior, we wear ourselves out in the service of others because we believe that’s what He would do. Yet, after creating the world for our benefit and to obey His Father’s command, “He rested” (Genesis 2:2). Though Jesus spent day after day teaching, ministering, and healing, He also deliberately escaped the crowds to recharge (see Matthew 5:1; Matthew 8:18; Matthew 14:22, Matthew 15:39). When the disciples labored against the storm, Jesus slept below deck and allowed them to do the work themselves until He was absolutely needed (see Mark 4:38). When the demands of the people were not aligned with the work that He had been sent to do, “he departed again into a mountain Himself alone” (John 6:15). Christ was selfless. He was giving. He was kind. He also took care of Himself so He could continue to be those things. We would do well to follow His example.

God bless you. I hope this helps. If I can help you apply the teachings of this article, I’d love to talk with you.

Jonwe

Jonathan Decker, LMFT, Contributor

Jonathan Decker is a licensed marriage and family therapist and clinical director of Mended Light. He offers online relationship courses to people anywhere, as well as face-to-face and online therapy to persons in several states. Jonathan has presented at Brigham Young University Education Week and at regional conferences in Arizona, Utah, and Nevada. He is married with five children. Contact him here and join his Facebook group for daily gospel-based relationship tips. 

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