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How you learn to "fill your cup"

When talking to people about energy levels and self-care, I often use a cup analogy. Imagine that we all have a cup inside us that describes how much energy we have for coping and dealing with life. Throughout the day the cup can be drained or filled based on our experiences or things we do for ourselves and others. If we are not putting enough back into the cup it can become drained to the point of drying out and cracking. When that happens, we likely feel drained and exhausted, like we have nothing left to give.

It begins at childhood

When we are children, it is our parents’ job to fill up our cups. If we are lucky we have caregivers who know how to do this and do it regularly and without conditions. This could be giving a child positive attention, talking to them, listening to them, giving them praise and positive reinforcement, letting them know that they are special and unique and that this is a wonderful thing. Unfortunately, this is frequently not the case. Too often, our caregivers don’t know how to fill up their own cups, let alone the children's. This can lead to a lot of negative side effects.

When a caregiver neglects to fill up the child’s cup then the child’s cup becomes empty and the child does not know how to refill it on their own. They will likely begin to try to take what they need by force. They will find ways to get attention, to be heard, to make people listen, or they will find other ways and other people who will fill up their cup for them. Often these ways are not healthy or start out as ok but become unhealthy with time. They also don’t learn how to fill up their cups for themselves and may become dependent on others doing it for them, which becomes more of a problem as they get older and people do not want to give them the same level of attention anymore.

Sometimes, caregivers believe it is wrong for a child to need them to fill their cups and will make them feel guilty or ashamed of it, telling them they are selfish. This can lead to the child feeling that they are wrong and selfish for needing attention and praise, for needing their cup filled up. These feelings and beliefs are carried into adulthood where they continue to feel that taking care of themselves and filling up their cups is wrong and selfish.

Conditional love

Other times caregivers may compete for or make conditional the love and attention that fills the child’s cup. When love and attention are conditional and not given freely or a caregiver tries to compete or take attention that is given to the child this can create all sorts of problems for the child. They may feel unworthy or not good enough for love and attention or attention and love may feel unsafe or unwanted because it causes conflict with the parent.

In extreme situations, caregivers may also damage the cup or take the contents of the cup from the child, making it even harder for the child’s cup to be filled and stay filled. This again can lead to the belief that love and attention is unsafe or undeserved. The child is not likely to know how to fix the cup and again is in competition with an unsafe caregiver for the love and attention that they need.

Unconditional love

When as children our cups are filled regularly and without conditions, we slowly learn to do this for ourselves. As we get older, we start to do for ourselves what our caregivers have been doing for us, hopefully with their guidance and support. This way, by the time we are adults we are skilled at taking care of ourselves and our cup is full and can be filled easily. We recognize when we feel depleted and take steps to refill our cup.

However, if we do not have healthy caregivers who fill up our cups freely and teach us to do the same, we enter adulthood not knowing how, feeling like self-care is wrong, unsafe, or undeserved. When this happens, we are often neglectful of ourselves and our own self-care or rely on others to fill us up through various methods. When we neglect ourselves, our cup continues to be low, we have little to give, or we deplete ourselves by giving more than we have. This may manifest as exhaustion, stress, irritability, depression, overindulging to try to give ourselves false energy, and any number of other symptoms. When we are relying on others to fill up our cups, we may become co-dependent in relationships or develop manipulative strategies to gain the love and attention we still require but don’t know how to give ourselves. We may also try to fill up through unhealthy means such as excessive eating, drinking, smoking, gambling, shopping, promiscuity, etc.

Learning what we were not taught

It can be very challenging to learn healthy ways to fill yourself up when you were not taught in childhood. Along with learning the healthy strategies you also have to unlearn the incorrect beliefs you were given about it. We want to start by realizing that self-care, love, and attention are not selfish. Everyone deserves them and when we know healthy ways to show care, love, and attention they are very safe. When we know how to fill ourselves up, we do not have to compete with anyone or use anyone else in order to get what we need.

Once we believe this, we can begin to learn healthy ways to care for ourselves. It might feel strange at first, but after a while we will wonder why we haven’t been doing these things all along. Healthy self-care and filling ourselves up looks like doing things that we love and enjoy, taking time to rest and relax, being creative, learning new things, nourishing our minds and our bodies.

For more information about self-care, check out my blogs on Refilling Your Cup and Self-Care Is Not Selfish or sign up for my class series that includes Introduction to Self-Care and Developing a Self-Care Plan.

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