What fills your tank? Perhaps you already know the answer to this question – as well as why it’s important for your life, your family and your marriage. But if you’re like most, you’ve probably never asked yourself what it is that fills you with joy and energy.
For nearly twenty years, Jenny* never took the time to consider this question. And for nearly two decades, she unknowingly added unnecessary frustration to her own life as well as that of her spouse and children.
Recently, Jenny discovered that if she doesn’t regularly spend time outside – in her garden, going for hikes or simply walking around out of doors – she becomes more irritable and the little things start to get to her more.
Her husband, Ross*, on the other hand, has unknowingly been practicing the art of self-care for years. The activity that keeps him calm and fills his tank is reading, so he regularly sits in his favourite chair on a Saturday and dives into a good book. With his head (and heart) filled, he is more equipped to give back to his wife and family.
“We’re all involved in a smorgasbord of daily activities – some we choose, others are chosen for us,” Wayne Cordeiro explains in his book Leading on Empty. “In your job, in ministry, and in your family, there will inevitably be those activities that tend to deplete you. It’s impossible to completely avoid things that drain you. But by making sure you keep your emotional tank topped off, you won’t find yourself suddenly facing a flashing ‘low fuel’ light on your inner instrument panel.”
Finding a balance for you and your spouse
“Each of us has an internal emotional reservoir,” Cordeiro writes. “On the topside, there’s an input, and on the bottom, a drain. Certain activities will drain you more than fill you, and others will fill you more than drain you. Some tasks will contribute to you and others will take from you.”
Learning what fills you and what drains you will empower you to care for your own physical, emotional, mental and spiritual health.
“You can get along for a while with ‘more drain than fill,’ but it will eventually catch up with you,” he explains. “It’s like a car that someone drives for years without an oil change. You might squeeze in twenty or thirty thousand miles out of it, but the neglect will come at the price of an engine that grinds to a stop.”
He suggests you sit down and write out six things that fill you and six things that drain you. Your spouse should do the same.
When you consider what activities fill your tank and what drains it, he says you should ask yourself three questions:
What am I doing that makes me feel most alive and helps me feel the fullest (on the flipside, what does the exact opposite)?
With whom am I doing these things?
Where am I doing these things?
Once you’ve finished, swap your lists and make a point of holding one another accountable.
“All of this process of breakdown and recovery – self-absorbing as it tended to be – wasn’t just about me,” he remembers. “I also needed to know what filled my wife’s tank and what drained her dry. Pursuing this knowledge saved my sanity – and may have saved our marriage as well.”
When your spouse is starting to get frustrated or stressed out, you can check in with them to make sure they’re balancing their lives between what fills them and what drains them. Once you get more output than input, you’ll start noticing the warning signs.
The danger of running on empty
For Cordeiro, he started noticing “unwelcome symptoms” in his life that, as he would learn, were pointing to burnout.
“Ministry became more arduous,” he recalls. “My daily tasks seemed unending, and e-mails began to stack up. People I deeply cared about became problems to be avoided, and deliberating about new vision no longer stirred my soul.” Later he noticed more physiological symptoms popping up including erratic heartbeat, difficulty breathing and insomnia.
In a 2006 talk he gave at the Global Leadership Summit, Cordeiro explained that if your emotional tank starts draining more than you’re filling, the first alarm that will go off will be an anxiety attack. The second level will be an emotional breakdown and the third – the level he dropped down to – will be a nervous breakdown.
The biggest danger comes when our lives start getting too busy, the things we stop doing are the things that keep us going. We assume self-care is selfish and disposable, so we stop going out in nature or reading for the joy of it. Cordeiro has learned the hard way that when his life gets busy, he has to do the exact opposite. Instead of cutting off those things that fill him, he increases them.
“The busier your schedule, the more taxing, the more you increase your fill. But what’s our proclivity?” he asks. “We usually cut off the fill because we have too much drain. You understand how nuts that is? We do that all the time.”
Self-care is not a sin
In Christian circles, the goal is so often selflessness. We give and we give of ourselves – to our spouses, to our children, grandchildren, neighbours, co-workers, church family and so on. We give to the point of exhaustion and – for Cordeiro and many others – to the point of burnout.
“We don’t forget we are Christians,” he writes. “We forget that we are human, and that one oversight alone can debilitate the potential of our future.”
In The DNA of Relationships for Couples, Drs. Greg Smalley and Robert S. Paul explain, “Caring for yourself, sometimes referred to as self-care, is the process of fully receiving God’s love and provision and sharing them with others.”
This process can look different for different people. Some may receive God’s love in nature, like Jenny. Others may find it in books like Ross. Some may feel fulfilled when creating like our Creator or spending time with their grandchildren.
Learning that caring for yourself is not an act of selfishness but the only way you’ll be able to consistently pour out into other people is a difficult lesson to learn, but it’s one that could potentially save your relationships from years of frustration.
As Cordeiro puts it:
"One of the greatest lessons I’m learning (and yes, I am still learning it) is that rest is not sin. Taking a break doesn’t mean you’re lazy or that you’re not as valuable. Catching your breath now and then doesn’t mean you’re not carrying your load, or that you are somehow less than committed to your church, your company, or your calling. It was (and is) a hard-learned lesson."
After all, from the very beginning God created a space for the Sabbath. When we take the time to rest and allow Him to renew us, we’re more able to give back to those around us – including our spouses.
*Names changed to protect privacy