Editor’s Note: this article originally ran on the website of licensed marriage and family therapist Jonathan Decker. It is reprinted here with permission.
When I was young, my father and I bonded over archery. Dad taught me that I had to unstring the bow when I wasn’t using it, allowing the wood to straighten and the cord to dangle loose. If I didn’t allow the bow to rest, or in other words, if I left the cord tight and the wood bent, I’d ruin the bow. Over time, it’d no longer be taut. The wood would splinter and snap while the cord would fray. “If you don’t unstring the bow,” he explained, “it won’t be any good to anybody.
A similar thing happens to us when we dedicate so much energy to the needs of others that we neglect ourselves. Burnout is a common result, as is a growing resentment towards the people to whom we give our time and energy. Like a bow that never gets unstrung, we begin to unravel and may snap. For our health, as well as our ability to serve others, we need to “unstring,” relax, and take care of ourselves.
This is not only good therapeutic advice, it’s also a sound gospel principle. While Jesus dedicated his life to serving others, he also took time to be by himself, to commune with God, and to escape the crowds (see Matthew 14:22-23, Mark 1:35, and Mark 7:24). Before calming the sea, the Savior was to be found in the back of the boat, resting from his labors while the disciples handled the ship amidst the storm (see Mark 4:37-39).
Brigham Young taught that we all need to take a break, for our own mental health: “I want it distinctly understood, that fiddling and dancing are no part of our worship. The question may be asked, ‘What are they for, then?’ I answer, that my body may keep pace with my mind. My mind labors like a man logging, all the time; and this is the reason why I am fond of these pastimes—they give me a privilege to throw everything off, and shake myself, that my body may exercise, and my mind rest. What for? To get strength, and be renewed and quickened, and enlivened, and animated, so that my mind may not wear out” (DBY, 242).
In an airplane emergency, passengers are supposed to place the oxygen mask on themselves first, even if their inclination is to begin with those around them. Obviously, this is because a person who faints from oxygen deprivation is unable to help anyone. Likewise, we must engage in self-care and make sure we’re getting what we need, not because of selfishness, but because if we don’t we’ll eventually lose the energy and drive to help others.
People ask if I carry my clients’ problems with me because I deal with so much “heavy stuff.” They ask me if it’s hard to leave my work at the office. My response is that it’s generally easy to walk away from it all at the end of the day. I do care about my clients. Deeply, as a matter of fact. For that reason I leave their problems at work, so I can spend time with my family and recharge my batteries in order to return to the office refreshed, clear-headed, and ready to help. If I “brought my work home with me,” I’d wear myself out and have nothing left to offer.
Part of taking care of yourself is knowing that it’s okay to say “no.” If you have too much on your plate there’s no need to feel guilty for saying “I would if I could.” If you’ve got time set aside for yourself or with a loved one, it’s okay to make that a priority. Take some time for yourself every day, even if it’s brief. Read. Meditate. Exercise. Admire art and enjoy music. Connect with loved ones. Have a little fun, no matter how swamped you are. Relax and “unstring the bow” so that, when needed, you can be taut and focused instead of splintered and frayed.
Jonathan Decker is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in St. George. He is available for face-to-face or online video conferencing sessions. He can be contacted at email@example.com or by phone at (435) 215-6113. To read more of Jonathan’s articles, please visit www.jdeckertherapy.com.