Care for the caretaker

Recent conversations with fellow coaches have reminded me of a 1-page handout from my time in a team that trained bereavement counsellors. Headed Care for the Caretaker, it listed ways in which those who offer to support to others can support themselves.

It began with ‘be gentle with yourself’ and ended with ‘laugh and play!’

In revisiting it, I’m surprised by how much of it I’ve internalised – it seems that phrases I thought I’d picked up ‘along the way’ are set down on a piece of paper from the very start of my road to becoming a coach, coach supervisor and leadership development practitioner.

The journey began in the mid-1990s when Cruse Bereavement Care in Scotland was looking for volunteers to join the team that trained their counsellors. I was a qualified trainer – and they seemed unconcerned that the majority of my experience fell under the banner of ‘finance for non-financial managers’. To become part of the team, the first step was to experience the counselling training as a participant.

To say this was life-changing is an understatement.

Imagine the scenario – a mathematician, accountant, problem-solver and control-freak begins to recognise that grief shows up differently in everyone. Whilst I’d suffered great loss in my own life, I hadn’t appreciated the many guises in which sorrow comes. As I witnessed the vagaries of the way death affects lives, I discovered that I’m good at listening, and at accepting and acknowledging the experience of others. I began to truly grasp the uniqueness of the way that each person perceives and makes sense of life.  

On completing the counselling training, I was accepted as a trainer – and I also volunteered as a counsellor (firmly clutching Care for the Caretaker). In these two roles, I broadened and deepened my insight into individual human experience and the human condition, unknowingly sowing the seeds for my future.

I haven’t thought about this in a long time. It’s come back into focus because I’m hearing so many people say they’re exhausted and depleted. The demands of work, family, friends and their circumstances make it very difficult to attend to their own wellbeing. In caring for others, they’re not caring for themselves.

In Pause for Breath, I wrote that it’s a ‘false economy of spirit’ to neglect our own wellbeing and happiness, saying it’s ‘essential that we nourish ourselves if we aspire to support others’. I described a memorable demonstration of this, given by an experienced counsellor in a CPD session at Cruse. Using a jug of water to represent a care-giver (or leader) and some glasses to represent clients (or team members), the session-leader poured water from the jug into the glasses, symbolising the energy we expend as we support others.  

As the jug became emptier, the session-leader paused and placed cling film over the top of it. This signified a depleted caregiver or leader trying to preserve their energy as they reach their limits. However, while this might be an effective strategy for protecting personal resources, it becomes a barrier to receiving support. If a colleague or friend offers help, care or sanctuary and tries to refill the jug from their own reserves of water, it just splashes away.

All around me, I see coaches, leaders and friends lacking the bandwidth to accept and take in resources that will help restore their sanity, balance and wellbeing. It feels like every kind of pressure is being heaped on all of us: go faster; do more with less; navigate broken systems; make ends meet…

There’s little time to be, breathe and rest – unless we prioritise these things.

I return to the Care for the Caretaker handout to offer inspiration for this. In between ‘be gentle with yourself’ and ‘laugh and play!’ are invitations such as:

  • Remind yourself that you’re not a magician;
  • Find a hermit spot – use it daily;
  • If you never say ‘no’ what is your ‘yes’ worth?; and
  • Give support, encouragement and praise to others AND accept them in return.

For me, these last two points are essential to self-care: balancing what we draw in to replenish our reserves and what we offer out to others.


  • What helps you to foster a balance between what you draw in to replenish your reserves and what you offer out to others?
  • How might you make this a daily practice?