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What to Do When Everyone Needs Support but You're Only One Person

If you feel like you’re not doing enough and also like you’re doing way too much, making a care budget can help you figure out what “enough” looks like right now.

Apr 2 2020, 2:47pmSnap
How to Stay In is a series about redefining "normal" life in order to take care of ourselves and one another during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of people need a lot of interpersonal support. A year ago, on any given day, you might have needed to be there for one friend who got laid off or had a major health scare, or contributed to a single GoFundMe. (OK, or even a bunch of GoFundMes—things weren't perfect then, either.)

Now, as the economy and the healthcare system melt down and literally everyone’s life is at risk, there’s an even more urgent need to show up for everybody—unemployed friends, isolated loved ones, aging or ill family members, elderly neighbors, local businesses, healthcare workers in desperate need of PPE.

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“Everybody” who needs showing up for also includes you, the person who, like the rest of us, is tasked with all this caring. (And who might also be expected to do even more, if you’re a literal caregiver or have a sick relative.)

It’s a lot. There’s no way to take care of yourself and be all things to all people during a pandemic with a recession rising. One thing you can do, today, is make what I think of as a care budget: a way to think about where your most valuable resources—your time, money, and energy—are going each week. When you feel pulled in all directions, a care budget can help you functionally extend the help that you're able to give and take care of yourself in the process.

Creating a care budget isn’t about ranking other people’s needs, which is a terrible, futile exercise. It’s about carefully considering your own needs, values, and strengths, and being honest with yourself about how much you actually have to give to others. This budget isn’t meant to be terribly literal, and it can take any form: a Google Doc, a list in your Notes app, a page in your journal, whatever. The idea is not to create a super granular breakdown of how you’ll spend every free minute or dollar you have, but to establish a flexible, sustainable framework that lets you show up for yourself and others on a big-picture, in-this-for-the-long-haul level.

If you’ve been feeling like you’re not doing enough while also feeling like you’re doing way too much, sit down and figure out what, exactly, “enough” looks like in these new circumstances. Here’s how to do it.

Determine what you personally need.

Even if you already know intellectually that you can’t take care of other people if you aren’t taking care of yourself, it’s very easy to tell yourself that you are an exception to this rule—that that advice is meant for other people who are definitely not you, because you can handle it. But you—yes, you!!!—are simply not going to be able to sustain taking care of other people if your basic needs aren’t being met, or if you’re completely drained.

As a first step, think through what you need to a) literally survive and b) feel a little bit more OK. Do your best to not let what other people expect of you to influence your thinking on this; we’ll get to their desires later, and you can adjust your expectations then if you want to.

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Here are some things you might consider:

  • How much sleep do you need to be able to function (at work, as a parent, etc.)? What is your ideal bedtime and wake time most days? Do you need some naps during the day to get by?
  • Do you have an income? Do you need to pick up extra work, file for unemployment, explore job leads, or connect with aid groups to make ends meet? Do you need to make an actual budget? How much time do you need to devote to figuring money/work stuff out in the next few days/weeks?
  • How are you getting food and preparing/eating regular meals, and is that working for you?
  • Do you need medication refills (and a homemade mask to be able to pick up said refills), dental care, or over-the-counter medicine? Are you at high-risk and in need of delivery services or a neighbor to get things for you? Is it super important for you to keep up your weekly support group or therapy sessions? How much time do you need to devote to getting all of this figured out over the next few days and weeks?
  • What coronavirus-related chores (laundry, sanitizing groceries, etc.) are part of your new routine? How much time are these taking up, or adding on to regular tasks like making meals or taking your dog outside?
  • What do you need in terms of connection with others? Think about conversations with family, time with your partner, socializing, and sex. Which of these activities energize you and which, if any, leave you feeling stressed or drained? Also, think about any loved ones you want to make time for now, should the worst-case scenario come to pass.
  • Consider your media diet. While it’s important to be informed about what is happening at both the global and local level, scrolling endlessly can leave us too depleted to take care of ourselves and others. This isn’t to say you should totally shut out updates on what’s happening. (Please…. do not do that.) But think specifically about how your news consumption, scrolling on Twitter, and other social media use helps you show up for yourself and others—and if there are ways it interferes with that.
  • How can you find a little joy and peace? Is making TikToks for your friends or doing a few minutes of cardio keeping you together? Do you feel slightly better after listening to music, journaling, watching your favorite TV show, or snuggling with your pet?

Establish your priorities—and lower your expectations.

Mark the items on your list that feel most crucial in terms of your priorities. As you do this, keep in mind that we’re in a crisis and you’re going to need to dramatically lower your expectations and standards, even for the things that felt really immovable and/or core to your identity a month ago.

Think about what the bare minimum for each of your priorities might look like in the coming weeks. Does “exercise” mean you need to go for a 30-minute run, or that you need to take a 20-minute walk, a few times a week? Will a 10-minute dance party every morning give you the boost you need in this new world?

Think about your values and the people who matter to you.

Once you’ve got a firm grasp on your biggest needs, you can start to think about the folks who you most want to show up for. If your initial answer is “everyone????” don’t give up. Start with 3–5 people who are in your inner-inner circle—your partner, friends, children, siblings, parents, best friends. Also think about anyone who is dependent on you in some way (including your direct reports if you’re a manager), and the close friends or loved ones who are already struggling.

Consider how your deeply held interests and values relate to how you want to take care of your loved ones, your community, and the causes most important to you. For example, if you’re a teacher, you might be thinking a lot about your students in this moment. If you value social justice, what specific communities or organizations do you want to be there for? If you love going out to eat in your neighborhood and are worried about how the restaurant industry is being affected by the pandemic, that’s a good thing to write down.

Your list can be as long or as short as you’d like, as long as you feel strongly, on a gut-heart level, that these are your people. Remember that no one is going to see this list, so try not to let what you think you “should” be feeling or doing influence it.

Be honest with yourself about what kind of care you can offer others.

Rather than trying to be all things to all people, as I mentioned earlier, see if you can fulfill a specific role in others' specific lives. In their book There Is No Good Card for This, authors Kelsey Crowe and Emily McDowell offer an “empathy menu” of suggestions for using your specific talents to help others. “There are a lot of different ways to express empathy,” they write. “Some will feel more natural to you than others—and when something feels easy, you're more likely to do it.” The menu exists to help you identify what role you are best suited to play during a crisis: “The chef” might drop off frozen meals; “the researcher” could sort through a ton of information relevant to a friend’s situation; and “the opposable-thumbed” might send texts that say, “I’m thinking of you.”

I’m finding this “What can I, personally, offer?” framework particularly helpful in a moment when there are so many people in need, and we’re all fairly limited in what we can do.

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Things are changing very quickly, so think small; now is not the time to go into debt—financial or emotional—trying to help other people. Keeping your own needs in mind: Think about realistic, practical ways you might be suited to help the people on your list in the next few weeks.

Some categories and ideas to consider and write out answers for:

  • Time. How much free time do you have for others? Do you have time to text during the day; make a few phone calls each night; work through the logistics of distributing supplies?
  • Attention/energy. If you can give others your focus and care without feeling drained or distracted, maybe you’re up for calling your siblings more than you normally would, doting on your suddenly unemployed partner, or chatting here and there with folks who are feeling lonely.
  • Money. Are you doing OK financially and able to give cash to those who are struggling?
  • Transportation. Do you have a vehicle and the ability to responsibly and safely pick up, disinfect, and deliver goods (groceries, supplies, etc.) to folks who need them?
  • Housing. If you have a safe space (like an empty apartment or vacation home) that could house a healthcare worker who wants to isolate from a family member, consider whether you can offer it up.
  • Talent/skills. Can you teach a class, sew masks, offer legal services, or translate important information into different languages?
  • Technology. Maybe you can help people who aren’t great with computers figure out how to file for unemployment, or donate your old tablet, phone, game console, or laptop to a neighbor whose children are bored as hell.
  • Supplies. Do you have any extra food, hand sanitizer, food, toilet paper, personal hygiene products, formula, diapers, fabric, tools, stamps or a postal scale, or anything else that could be useful to someone who is panicking?

Make your care budget.

Let your needs and capabilities guide what your care budget looks like in practice. Again, you don’t need to figure out how to spend every free minute or every last cent. I actually strongly discourage that—it’s super overwhelming. It’s also just not practical when circumstances are changing quickly enough that you simply don’t know what your or your loved ones’ health, finances, or employment will look like day to day.

Instead, keep the budget short, and the to-dos you include in it precise, but small. You could use bullet points and follow a format like this template:

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Right now/once

  • Figure out how to get my prescriptions refilled
  • Research at-home workouts and choose one to try later this week
  • Help my grandparents set up Skype

Daily

  • Eat three proper meals (large snacks also count)
  • Drink enough water
  • Listen to an upbeat playlist
  • Job-search for two hours
  • Call parents (texting is OK too, if that’s all that’s manageable)
  • Do a vibe check in the group chat
  • Check in with Tyler, Alex, and Sam individually
  • Read the news for 20 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes in the evening

A few times a week

  • Go for a walk
  • Play Animal Crossing
  • Send job leads to an unemployed friend who asked
  • Call at least one elected official
  • Call my sibling in the evening (but try to keep it to 20 minutes or less)

Weekly

  • Set up a just-for-fun Zoom call with co-workers
  • Buy groceries
  • Donate $50 to one of my favorite local businesses
  • Watch TV for a few hours

As you get going, you may start to think that if doing a little is good, doing a lot is even better. This is not true. The best thing you can do in this moment is to be realistic. Think about what you can do now, during a global crisis where a trip to the grocery store requires the mental preparation and acuity normally reserved for taking the LSAT, not what you could achieve in the world of three months ago, where conveniences like Ubers, free two-day shipping, spontaneous drinks at a bar, and hugs still existed.

We’re going to be at home like this for a while, and things are likely going to get worse before they get better, so resist the urge to go all-out. It’s good for absolutely no one if you burn through your reserves and flame out early on—and, if you need to reason with yourself about this sometimes in order not to go too overboard, remind yourself that you'll be more helpful in the long run if you're considerate and selective about your care in the short-term.

Make adjustments to your budget weekly (or as often as you need to).

It’s impossible to predict how you’ll feel or what you or your loved ones will need in the coming days and weeks, so treat your budget like a living document. If you want a little more family time and a little less workout time as you go, that’s fine! If you realize you don’t have the bandwidth to talk to your parents every day, no problem—adjust and move on. Keep it loose, keep it tight! I recommend setting a calendar reminder or alarm so you don’t forget to revisit your budget and check in with yourself every few days.

Most of all: Your budget isn't a list of mandates. The idea is not to punish yourself for not fulfilling each and every task (which will definitely happen). This is really just a way of more intentionally checking in on yourself and those around you, something we should all be doing more of right now—in the precise ways that we can do that best.

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Rachel Miller is the author of The Art of Showing Up: How to Be There for Yourself and Your People, coming May 2020. Follow her on Twitter.

Tagged:

self-care, Coronavirus, emotional labor, COVID-19, social distancing, How to Stay In

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