Three Healing Steps to Stop Pouring from an Empty Cup

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Three Healing Steps to Stop Pouring from an Empty Cup

Six months before her 40th birthday, my patient June began to feel the changes in her body. June noticed that she craved sweets more, had gained a few more pounds than she wanted and was more prone to injury and creaky bones.

One weird night’s sleep would have her neck aching for a week. Rather than being excited about their annual beach trip, she dreaded putting on a bathing suit.

It didn’t help that when we spoke, we were nearly a year into the pandemic that affected her as a full-time (from home) working mom caring for a pre-school-aged daughter and an elderly mother who was recovering from a painful case of shingles. As is common with caregivers, June needed to step back and start caring for herself rather than devoting every waking moment to her job and her family. She was nearing burnout and she felt it in her body and mind.

June’s case is common.

Many of the mothers I work with struggle to care for themselves. Even those who exercised and ate well before they had children can no longer find the time to prioritize themselves. Being a parent is a wonderfully hard role during the best of situations. During a pandemic, juggling self-care with work and parenting can feel nearly impossible. Even keeping up important friendships can seem overwhelming.

June needed to make some changes in her life. But before June jumped into a new routine, I knew we had some work to do if we wanted the changes to be sustaining.

“Changes are most effective when they link up to the patient’s big picture goals for their lives – what they would be able to devote their time and energy to if they felt better,” says Kris Wright, LCPC, a licensed counselor who focuses on integrative approaches to health and wellness. “How does the change reflect their values, and help them live the life they want? Many behavior and lifestyle changes fail when people jump into big changes before doing some self-reflection and preparation.”

Wright notes that making a behavior change is like any other journey. You need to know where you want to go, why you want to go there, and what you will do when you get there. That is why we call it a healing journey – there should be a clear destination that makes sense not just logically but also emotionally.

Reflect First, Act Later

To help set some big pictures goals, Wright recommends going through the following reflection exercise:

Step 1: Establish your meaning and purpose.

  • Why do you want to be healthy?
  • What matters to you?
  • What do you value?
  • Why do you want to make a change?

Step 2: Start to develop a vision of where you want to go.

  • Describe a time in your life when you felt your best. Explore daily activities, energy level, family connections, social events, work commitments, and special occasions.

Step 3: What do you want to do when you achieve your goal?

  • When you are not feeling at your best, what drops off? What don’t you do? What gets cut from your to-do list? What do you miss or miss out on?
  • Who are the important people in your life? What do you like to do with them? For them?

You can explore these questions on your own via a journaling exercise or by working with a therapist or health coach. There are no right answers to the above questions and the answers will change with time. By doing this pre-work, you can link up your new behaviors with what you want to live for and why you live like your family, friends, hobbies, and passions.

Set Your Mantra

Once you have explored these questions, it is time to develop a strong statement as a summary. What you want to achieve should be in a sentence or two that is powerful, short, to the point, and something easy for you to remember.

Tip: Make sure your statement is positively worded so that it is about what you want to do, not what you don’t want to do.

When Wright works with parents struggling with self-care, she uses the metaphor of cup, reminding them “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” This resonated with June as she dealt with feelings of guilt when taking time for herself. Using this metaphor, she reframed thoughts of her time spent caring for herself as adding to her contributions to the family rather than taking from them.

For June, her statement ended up being: “I am strong and healthy so I can wake up ready to carry the weight of my child and responsibilities each day.” With this as her vision, June knew where she wanted to go and why so that the healthier choices she would make in her life clearly connect to this vision.

We found that June needed to give herself permission to care for herself. Many other moms and dads I have worked with need the same thing, permission to heal themselves.  Healing the healer is an old saying – and it is also true.

Continuing the Work

In future discussions, June’s work ahead will involve exploring the obstacles, needs, and challenges that have gotten in the way of her making these changes so far. Then, we will discuss making the most of the strengths and supports already in her life.

The last step is to craft some steps along the path of the healing journey – taking big picture behavior changes and breaking them up into small, achievable changes she can try day to day. June will check in once a week to work with a health coach, but this can also be done yourself through journaling, with an accountability partner, a therapist, counselor, or health care provider.

Each of these conversations will start with June’s thoughts and ideas before we fill in any gaps with professional insights and recommendations. Each conversation will end with June identifying what conclusions she reached about the next steps. June is more likely to achieve her goals if we put her in the driver’s seat of her healing journey.