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 GoFundMesthings weren't perfect then, either.)
Now, as the economy and the healthcare system melt down and literally everyones life is at risk, theres an even more urgent need to show up for everybodyunemployed friends, isolated loved ones, aging or ill family members, elderly neighbors, local businesses, healthcare workers in desperate need of PPE.
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 youre a literal caregiver or have a sick relative.)
Its a lot. Theres 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 resourcesyour time, money, and energyare 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 isnt about ranking other peoples needs, which is a terrible, futile exercise. Its 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 isnt 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 youll 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 youve been feeling like youre not doing enough while also feeling like youre doing way too much, sit down and figure out what, exactly, enough looks like in these new circumstances. Heres how to do it.
Even if you already know intellectually that you cant take care of other people if you arent taking care of yourself, its very easy to tell yourself that you are an exception to this rulethat that advice is meant for other people who are definitely not you, because you can handle it. But youyes, you!!!are simply not going to be able to sustain taking care of other people if your basic needs arent being met, or if youre 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; well get to their desires later, and you can adjust your expectations then if you want to.
Here are some things you might consider:
Mark the items on your list that feel most crucial in terms of your priorities. As you do this, keep in mind that were in a crisis and youre 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?
Once youve 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???? dont give up. Start with 35 people who are in your inner-inner circleyour partner, friends, children, siblings, parents, best friends. Also think about anyone who is dependent on you in some way (including your direct reports if youre 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 youre 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, thats a good thing to write down.
Your list can be as long or as short as youd 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.
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 othersand 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 friends situation; and the opposable-thumbed might send texts that say, Im thinking of you.
Im finding this What can I, personally, offer? framework particularly helpful in a moment when there are so many people in need, and were all fairly limited in what we can do.
Things are changing very quickly, so think small; now is not the time to go into debtfinancial or emotionaltrying 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:
Let your needs and capabilities guide what your care budget looks like in practice. Again, you dont need to figure out how to spend every free minute or every last cent. I actually strongly discourage thatits super overwhelming. Its also just not practical when circumstances are changing quickly enough that you simply dont 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:
A few times a week
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.
Were 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. Its good for absolutely no one if you burn through your reserves and flame out early onand, 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.
Its impossible to predict how youll 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, thats fine! If you realize you dont have the bandwidth to talk to your parents every day, no problemadjust and move on. Keep it loose, keep it tight! I recommend setting a calendar reminder or alarm so you dont 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 nowin 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.
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What to Do When Everyone Needs Support but You're Only One Person - VICE