If I could teach every empathetic person one relational/emotional skill, it would be making self-care a priority that comes first at LEAST half of the time.
Earlier this year I wrote about how loss of alone time, constant caretaking, and medication stigma almost killed me and that is one of the most important things I've ever written. This will be focusing on how constant caretaking without sufficient rest is damaging for the caretaker, the one who is being taken care of, and the relationship itself.
People who are generous and strong and good at managing emotion often end up in a caretaking habit by default. We know that even at the end of a terrible day, if someone comes to us with a need we can pull energy seemingly out of nothing in order to take care of them. The thing is, we're not pulling that energy out of nothing, we're pulling it from our cognitive/emotional reserves and our future. That's a great skill for an emergency but it is not sustainable; it cannot be a way of life.
When I was married, I spent a good half of my cognitive/emotional resources on my spouse, who had no coping skills to speak of and worked at a job they hated. Every day I would soothe them and skirt around their sensitivities, all the while thinking that it was just the current situation that was the problem. However, what I ended up doing was enabling them to feel okay without having to develop any skills at self-care. Rather than think 'what can I do to help myself feel better?' they simply unloaded all of their stress and bad feelings onto me, and I dealt with them partly to give myself a less terrible environment. After 8 years we parted ways, and two relationships later they were with someone who was quite selfish and did none of their emotional caretaking -- so they learned skills which made their life better. All my caretaking and compromising my needs for their feelings did not help them to grow emotionally -- in fact I think it hindered their growth significantly.
Since I was able to be so intensely caretaking for someone for so long, I imagined I had no limits to the help I could give others. Then I ended up in three relationships which all took far more energy than they provided (mutually, I believe, as none of us had compatible needs & abilities at the time), which stripped me so far down that I could not get back out of the hole without medical, chemical help. Until I experienced being suicidal and reality-broken for months, I did not admit to myself that I could not give to everyone whatever they wanted and still be a healthy person. Until it almost killed me, I refused to value my needs above even the desires of others, much less over others' needs. But you know what? I'm no good to anyone if I am dead. And emotional death is real. I was absolutely useless to the world for at least six months if not a year after I ran out of energy and if I hadn't had access to free doctor visits and cheap meds through my university, it would have been a lot longer of a period. To a certain extent I am STILL recovering from that awful crash in late 2012.
And you'd think I'd have learned my lesson, but I got in a pattern of caretaking without paying attention to my needs again, and this time it was the fact that Topaz is independent that saved me. They realized that they were relying on me more than was healthy, and they asked to take a break from our relationship. We took about six weeks separate, I believe -- reducing our communication to occasional, not being romantic, and not seeing each other in person. This allowed us to break the pattern of me ignoring my needs and focusing too much on Topaz. I can still get that way, but I'm more careful now and I am determined not to fall into that again.
I have found that when I sacrifice my mental health for another person, eventually my survival instincts will kick in -- in ways that I really don't want them to. Either I stop being able to feel empathy for them and develop a dread for their presence or I start escaping constantly in my every spare moment and cease being an actual person, or both. These things are obviously not helpful for the other person and they can destroy a relationship. Kylei and I had no good connection for a year after we broke up because the pattern had gotten so deep that it was still there for many months afterward. Had we broken up earlier instead of staying in that sacrificing mode for each other, I am certain we would have healed much faster.
So my point in all this is that caretaking another person at the expense of your own needs is not sustainable. It will at least destroy the relationship if it continues too long and I think it can also destroy the person sacrificing, AND it is ultimately damaging for the person who is being taken care of. Coming to depend on someone for your needs and then having that ripped suddenly away when they run out of ability is profoundly destabilizing and terrifying, and it is inevitable because no one has infinite energy or the ability to give endlessly without being nourished enough to refill. If you love the person you're caretaking and you want to help them the most you can, you MUST take care of yourself. Otherwise you are setting them up for a really, really awful crash (and setting yourself up for the same).
As I said to a friend, you don't actually have the choice of caretaking someone without rest forever -- that's an illusion or maybe a delusion. The only choice you have is in what the end of the pattern looks like. It's literally impossible to continue giving while your needs are not met, while you are not taking in nourishment. I feel as sure about this as I am about the fact that you can't go endlessly without food.
The problem is that caretaking others at one's own expense is not always bad. It's only unhealthy when it is the norm, which usually happens gradually. This is why you need to know what your needs are and pay attention to whether or not they are being met. I am sure everyone's tells are different, but usually there are things people do when they are nourished that they don't do when they are drained. To know if you're nourished it's important to keep some kind of log of those things if your memory is not that great (like mine), or check in with yourself every so often.
To be healthy mentally, I need to 1) spend at least three nights a week in my own house, 2) have at least 12 hours of alone time every week with at least half of that in a solid chunk 3) spend time with a variety of my people at a rate of 2-5 plans per month. I can do without that any of stuff occasionally, and when there is a crisis then it seems time to put those needs aside. But when there are crises often enough that a month goes by without me practicing good self-care, it's time to be conscientious about providing myself with what I need.
The two main need-lack tells for me are if I have not written in LJ and I have not seen any friends in three weeks or more. Those tells are red flags and they need immediate response. My yellow flags (needing a response soon) include: getting easily irritated, watching more than two hours of shows per day, missing meals, failing to do basic things like dishes and laundry, not reading LJ, or not posting to twitter/fb.