by Sarah Alexander, LCSW
Many people who come to see me put self-care at the bottom of their to-do list; something that they might get to after everything else is done. They do this, in part, out of a mistaken belief that self-care is selfish (see my Airplane Oxygen Mask post). I frequently use the pitcher analogy to illustrate the physics of self-care to such people. In this analogy, the “pitcher” is you and the “water” inside of it is your energy. You pour yourself out all day, every day, into various “cups” which represent anything that requires your attention/energy/service: things such as marriage, parenting, work, school, friendships, pets, bills, errands, chores, appointments, creative efforts, exercise, hobbies, etc.
You have to refill your pitcher in order to be able to keep giving, which is what makes self-care a functional necessity for caring for others (far from selfish).
I’m not the first to use this analogy, but I have adapted it a bit since working with people with eating disorders and other chronic medical conditions. Working closely with these people brought home to me how much energy it takes to run our basic biological functioning. When a person isn’t consuming the amount of calories/nutrients that their body needs (i.e. an eating disorder) and/or their body needs more energy than it has (i.e. a chronic health condition), it’s not like their body can make up for that deficit out of thin air. Yes, it will pull on fat for energy reserves, but it also pulls on muscle (such as the heart) and bone. That is why people with eating disorders die of heart-related issues and develop osteoporosis at much higher rates than their non-affected peers. Additionally, our brain utilizes 20-30% of our calorie intake. Whether you are on a diet, have an eating disorder, or just aren’t taking care of yourself, eating less than what your body requires for an extended length of time negatively impacts cognitive functioning and mood regulation because the brain isn’t getting enough fuel to attend to all of its responsibilities and has to cut corners.
In the typical version of the pitcher analogy, we say that if you don’t refill your pitcher, you will run dry. My adaptation takes into account the needs of our most basic biological functioning. I’ll start with a secondary analogy to explain:
Say someone asks if they can borrow $20 from you. You might agree if you have $500 in the bank, right? However, if the mortgage ($2000) is due and you are not going to get paid soon, you don’t actually have $500; you have a deficit of $1500. In that case, you are definitely not in a position to loan $20, no matter how much you wish you could.
Just because you have energy, doesn’t mean you have it to spare, so my modification to the pitcher analogy is this: Understand that half of the pitcher’s contents are needed just to run basic involuntary body functions. The other 50% is for voluntary body functions such as showering, grocery shopping, picking up the house, exercising, working, etc.
With that in mind, I advise people to aim for keeping their pitcher 75% filled (minimum) at all times in order to have energy to spare for inevitable spikes in energy demands. If you are running at 75%, then when those inevitable spikes happen (such as upsetting news, exam week, a sick child, holiday-season, etc.) you still have a fair amount of your energy reserves to pull from before impacting your body’s involuntary needs. If you are running at just above 50%, however, then when the inevitable spikes happen you are actually dipping into your body’s reserves to drum up the energy necessary to handle them. If you do this for an extended period of time, you slowly but surely deplete your body’s systems. This is why someone with fibromyalgia who cleans the house for company is in bed sleeping more for next three days and why someone with anorexia who exercises has heart failure.
It is imperative that you refill your pitcher and keep it at least 75% filled.
There are two primary ways of doing this:
FIRST, reduce how much you pour out of your pitcher. Think of all the various responsibilities in your life as cups that you are pouring your energy into. Are there any cups that you can eliminate (for example, do you really need to be part of the PTA when you’re also dealing with a new baby)? Are there any cups that you can pour less into (for eample, do you really need to do everything that you do for your partner, or can s/he share the domestic responsibilities more equitably)? What are all the different cups you pour your energy into on a daily, weekly, monthly basis? Find at least two you can eliminate. Find at least two more you can reduce how much of your energy you pour into them.
SECOND, increase how much you refill the pitcher. All activities require energy, but some activities return more energy than they take. Sleep is a great example. If you are very depleted, you may find yourself wanting to sleep 10-12 hours a day. That requires energy in the sense that you don’t get a lot done when you’re sleeping that much (so you have to give up some things to do it) and/or it requires energy to explain your heightened need for rest to others and deal with how it impacts them. On the other hand, the sleep itself is rejuvenating your body, so it’s giving back more energy than it takes. Another example is exercise: it is only rejuvenating if you have enough energy to expend for it in the first place. If you exercise when your pitcher is only 50% full, the energy required to exercise actually further depletes you because you’re dipping into the energy that your body needs just to run itself. If you exercise when your pitcher is 75% full, however, then (over time) it returns more energy than it takes. What activities can you engage in that help you actually replenish your pitcher? Check out my Self Care (and Self Care 2) photo albums for ideas.