Your gain: Understand the concept of what “pouring from an empty cup” really means, and how to cope with this when it feels like you’re giving constantly and not feeling fulfilled in return.
So, what does the phrase “pouring from an empty cup” really mean? You’ve probably heard about this concept, but just in case… its often used metaphorically to describe a situation where you’re giving to others or expending energy, time, or resources without taking care of yourself first. This can inevitably lead to burnout and exhaustion.
I’ve been looking forward to writing this post for a long time because I think it nicely pairs with this post on anticipatory grief, but this idea of pouring from an empty cup is one I know well… as I’m sure many people who have found Losses Become Gains can relate to.
My Experience with an Empty Cup
Long story short, when my mom’s esophageal cancer began worsening in the second half of 2019 (she would later die in December 2019), my proverbial cup was becoming emptier and emptier. Driving back and forth to the hospital to see her, those visits being incredibly emotionally taxing, driving home, working full time, taking care of a geriatric dog, trying to maintain my relationship, and above all of this, making sure my dad was doing okay with his own cancer journey.
What My Empty Cup Looked Like
I remember days when I would scarcely have more than a McDonald’s Sausage McMuffin and hashbrown that I would eat on my drive up to the hospital. A cup of hospital coffee and whatever my husband could help get ready for dinner that night.
Speaking of my husband, I 100% couldn’t give him my full time and attention. Not only physically because I was gone between work and seeing my parents, but by the time I got home from all of this, I was just drained. I was doing the best I could, but given I had never experienced anything like this before, I was a big ol’ fish out of water.
And with that, I neglected self-care and any semblance of balance. Honestly, I didn’t even really know what proper self-care was at the time. I didn’t practice meditation, breath work, “me time”, I didn’t even know what I needed to keep myself afloat. That said, we’re going to get more into that in a second!
In order to make sure our cup is being filled as much (or more!) as it is being emptied as we’re caring for others, coping involves many things. Self-care and balance are arguably highest on this list, but there are several things to consider here. Let’s get into some strategies!
I’ve alluded to this already, and it is THAT important! Make self-care a non-negotiable part of your routine. Self-care is a pretty allusive term nowadays, I know. But this ultimately includes getting enough sleep, eating well, exercising regularly, and managing stress through relaxation techniques like meditation or mindfulness. Here are a few more posts that can help you with this!
This one is crazy important. Simply put, learn to say “no” when you need to. It’s important to establish and maintain healthy boundaries to avoid overcommitting and spreading yourself too thin. Now, I know this can be difficult. Whether it’s a loved one who’s struggling or even on a health decline you don’t want to say no to, or really any other commitments that feel like too much right now, it is okay to say no! In fact, this is necessary.
Overcommitting is one of the most common mistakes we can make as grievers. Feeling like we need to go to some gathering or work event, feeling like we need to run X, Y, Z errand. Whatever this might be, we need to learn how to set healthy boundaries. If you just can’t pull off dinner that night, give yourself permission to be okay with that and order a healthy alternative that night. This is a day-by-day process, and let me tell you, it’s a lesson in getting comfortable with your intuition and tapping into what you really need or want. Allow yourself to feel that!
Delegate and Ask for Help
Similar to what I was getting at with setting boundaries, if you have responsibilities or tasks that can be delegated or shared with others, don’t hesitate to do so. Asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness! And this is coming from someone who is a recovering “don’t want to burden anyone” kind of girl. I struggle with this all the time.
But whether it’s just you, you and a partner, or you have a full-blown family with kids to tend to, allow the help to come your way. If someone (trustworthy) offers to take the kids for a couple of hours, let them! If someone offers you a meal, or to have one sent to the house, take it. People will rarely offer if they don’t mean it, and sometimes it’s one of the only ways people can feel like they can really be there for you. It’s better than some of the “let me know if you need anything” platitudes, right? Take advantage!
Manage Your Time
Prioritize your tasks and manage your time effectively. Now, I know this sentence alone can already feel overwhelming, so let me explain. Start off simple with a simple to-do list or time management app to stay organized, and ensure you allocate time for self-care. What’s great about a to-do list or app like this? It takes it out of your brain for a bit. When we’re feeling really griefy or overwhelmed with everything going on, that can lead to a build-up of a LOT of confusion, forgetfulness, and ultimately getting none of it done because it just feels like too much. Or, at least not everything. Seeing it out in front of you on paper (or a phone) like that allows you to take a moment, do your brain dump, and look at it realistically.
Ask yourself: okay, what is the most important thing(s) that need to get done today? Can any of this other stuff wait? If so, what and when can that be done instead? Is there anything here that I could ask for or elicit help from others to do?
I say it all the time, it’s about baby steps. Making your workload both in and out of work more manageable and digestible is key.
This is so important: regularly check in with yourself to assess how you’re feeling and what you need. Ask yourself, “how am I really today?”. If you notice signs of burnout or exhaustion, take immediate steps to address them. Go for a walk, pay that money to get someone to clean your house or watch the kids for a bit, whatever it is. Trust me, you won’t regret spending that a year from now if you desperately need the time and space for yourself. It’s worth it!
One thing I want to note about self-reflection is that it can be very loud in your head, if that makes sense.
Talk to friends, family, or a therapist about your feelings and experiences. Sometimes, just sharing your thoughts and emotions can provide relief and perspective. And listen, it doesn’t have to make a lot of sense! Grief doesn’t always make sense, so when we feel like we’re at our wit’s end or are pouring from this empty cup especially, we can feel very overwhelmed about what to even say, and how to communicate what we want and need.
Don’t worry about that too much. Any skilled professional will know how to work with you on that. And even if you’re not working with a professional, grief groups or online communities are an amazing option to make some sense of it. Or, you can all simply chat about how little sense it makes! The point is, having people around you who can understand your pain on some level and lift you up is so important.
This is critical. Be kind to yourself and don’t beat yourself up for needing rest or taking a break. Remember that self-care is highly essential for your overall well-being. Yes, I know there can be some guilt and regret associated with this! For months I felt guilty over not being there for my mom more, for not being there for my dad more (by this I mean sitting in the hospital with them, etc.). The thing is, I was doing what I could at the time–probably more than I even realized. Not only logistically was I doing what I could, but emotionally! Emotional capacity is often so overlooked. We have to remember that our heart, soul, and mind can only handle so much, whether or not we realize it. I didn’t realize how bad this was in the moment, but looking back, I sure do now and I’m grateful I gave myself what I needed. Whether or not I even realized it at the time.
Set Realistic Expectations
I can’t stress this enough! Avoid setting overly high expectations for yourself. Understand that you can’t do everything, and it’s okay to prioritize certain tasks or responsibilities over others. Like we alluded to in managing your time, be sure to lean on others.
But so much of this comes from within, too. And I want to empower you to lean into that as well! Setting expectations and even thinking about this can feel impossible when grief is being especially naggy or intense, but keep this in mind: give yourself grace. That’s it.
Engage in Activities You Enjoy
Simply put, take time for hobbies and activities that bring you joy and relaxation. Doing things you love can help replenish your energy and, of course, keep your spirit up! However, I want to acknowledge how even getting out of bed can be difficult, let alone finding something that sparks joy again. Remember that this is a process, and it’s not one you have to do alone or take lightly. I always say: baby steps, and start small then work your way up to more!
Ask yourself: What sparks joy? What would make you feel more calm? More at peace? Is it something new, or something you’ve never done before or want to try? Remember, things we used to love doing might change or not quite feel the same after our loved ones die. Not to worry, though. Interests or hobbies can come back, and some may fade away which is okay, too. Don’t put pressure on yourself either way, just go with what feels right. By checking in with your gut on a daily basis, this will make following your intuition that much easier.
Plan Regular Breaks
Whether it’s a short walk during the workday or a longer vacation, plan regular breaks to recharge and rejuvenate. It can be really easy to want to distract ourselves (whether on purpose or not) to avoid taking a break and facing reality, but it’s a necessary part of the healing process so don’t take this for granted! Take breaths, be present in your surroundings, and savor the break.
Mindfulness techniques, such as deep breathing exercises or meditation, can help you stay present, reduce stress, and improve your overall well-being. I have a blog post all about this if you need more guidance here.
Remember that taking care of yourself is not selfish; it’s necessary for your physical and mental health. By implementing these coping strategies and prioritizing self-care, and communicating what you do or don’t need to loved ones, you can ensure that your cup remains full, allowing you to better support and give to others when needed.
Remember, the blog and my Losses Become Gains Podcast is here to support you with a variety of griefy topics! Click here to access the episodes, or tune in on any major podcast platform or Youtube.