How caring too much is stifling your success

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I think time is a wonderful, infuriating, gelatinous thing that constantly shifts and morphs. How else can we explain why some years leave us with hardly a memory and others leave everything transformed in their slow, boiling wake?

2020 was like that. One day everything felt normal, status quo in place (for better or worse) and, in the space of a few weeks, everything changed. It was the year time played tricks on us, when months seemed to last years while the year was somehow both the longest and shortest in memory.

Author Brooke McAlary is passionate about slow living. Her latest book, Care, explores how stepping back may be the key to a more grounded life.

2020 was the year our hearts broke. The year of kindness. The year of uncertainty. The year we craved each other. The year we hunkered down. The year of Zoom. The year of pause. The year of frustration. The year of hope. The year of sadness.

The year we learnt the real value of a hug.

It was also the year I discovered I cared too much. And the year I discovered I didn’t care enough.

We forget we are not machines. We forget we are living, breathing beings that are part of nature—just like the trees and the butterflies and the rivers. So used to productivity and efficiency and uniformity and push-button convenience and instant gratification and binary thinking that we forget what it means to take time, to care.

For years, I’ve heard rumours of a particular breed of human unicorn (maybe you’ve heard of them too?) that has no difficulty whatsoever in stepping back and prioritising their own healing. They happily acknowledge their limitations and take action to protect themselves from burnout. If, however, you’re a regular human like me, who struggles to prioritise your own healing, please know that you’re not alone, and please know that everyone (probably even unicorns) will at some time in their lives, burn out.

Let’s normalise the idea of stepping back, as opposed to stepping (or running) away. Learn to recognise it as another facet of care.

And you know what? It’s OK. It’s life, and sometimes, my friend, it simply asks too much of us. Activists burn out. Parents burn out. Students burn out. Carers burn out. Optimists and artists and teachers and builders—we will all experience times when the balance of energy out versus energy in is too uneven, when our Big Care outweighs the Small, maybe by a lot. Some people experience this as physical illness while others go through periods of depression or anxiety. For some it feels like falling into numbness—a not-caring that feels frightening—while others feel sad and tired. It can affect your health, sleep, energy, appetite, friendships, work and every other area of your life. I’m quite sure whoever you are, whatever your life looks like, you’ve experienced this feeling of being done, over it, ready to throw in the towel or to run away. Wanting nothing more than to step back and regain some space in which you can heal, only to be brought up short by the guilt, the inner voice telling you that you don’t deserve rest, that other people have it harder and you should just toughen up and keep swimming.

We need to give ourselves permission to be human, to heal. But, in this, the real world, what does that look like? I’d love to suggest a global uptake—where we all sign the social contract that says, ‘I will tell you if I’m struggling, I will take the time I need to heal, and when the shoe is on the other foot, I will allow you the space and time.’ Considering, however, that my work is grounded in realistic ideas, I instead encourage you not to wait for someone else to create the social contract you’re craving. Write your own. Look to your immediate circles and find someone to talk to about all of this with. See what happens when you make an intentional choice to create the kind of support you need.

Let’s normalise the idea of stepping back, as opposed to stepping (or running) away. Learn to recognise it as another facet of care.

One that will allow us to recharge, heal, rethink and reset our expectations, and return to ourselves, our relationships, our communities, grounded, well and ready to show up in big and small ways. First though, we need to learn how to loosen our grip.

Tips for healing if you have half a minute

  • Look at your schedule for the week ahead and choose one commitment to cancel or postpone.
  • When someone asks you to do something, respond with, ‘Let me get back to you,’ then ask your inner rebel what to do.
  • Take a big, juicy stretch – hands above your head or behind your back and feel some tension seep out of your shoulders and neck.
  • Begin your day by setting an intention: ‘I will honour my boundaries today’ or ‘I’m allowed to say no’.

This is an edited extract from Care by Brooke McAlary, out June 16 with Allen and Unwin, RRP $32.99.

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