Like many people, I enjoy setting resolutions for the coming year–even though I never achieve them perfectly. Earlier in life I judged myself harshly for any slip-ups in keeping those resolutions—believing that breaking one was a clear sign of my lack of will power (or character defect, depending on how badly I felt about the mess up). You see, I had bought into a perfectionist view of the world—the one where only the flawless are considered worthy of attention or love. Any mistake, I believed, took me off the “lovable” list immediately and made the possibility of being loved for who I really was (human and imperfect) a very chancy prospect.
It’s not true about New Year’s resolutions and it’s not true about Life. We don’t have to perform this dance with life faultlessly to be worthy of love. We are likely going to screw up, even if we have the best strategies, painstakingly laid out, to achieve our goals. I’m not being pessimistic—actually, I’m an irrepressible optimist. After all these years of imperfection completion, I still set resolutions.
During this last year, as I was following a very wobbly path to unconditional self-love, I discovered an important truth that changed how I see life, and even more, how I approach New Year’s Resolutions. Here it is:
Self-love is not about learning to love yourself despite your imperfections. It’s about recognizing that you are lovable–including your flaws.
It’s a bit of a game changer if you sit with this idea for a few minutes. Those of us who have been using New Years resolutions to carefully cull out all of our “bad” habits and tendencies, hoping for that miracle of worthiness once those nasty aspects of ourselves are eradicated, have it all wrong. We always were worthy of love.
Somewhere, early in our childhood, someone important to us—perhaps a teacher, parent, relative, older friend, religious leader, or coach–told us that we weren’t worthy of their attention or love unless we changed some aspect of ourselves. We didn’t realize that the people telling us the story had also bought into the lie. And, they accepted this story so completely that they needed to make sure everyone else around them believed it too. So they punished, ignored, or withdrew from us if we didn’t change our behaviors to fit their needs.
We quickly got the idea that love, attention, or worthiness was externally driven and could be quickly lost. We learned that we had better hustle if we were going to be loved. Worse yet, we bought the story we weren’t lovable without changing and made it our truth.
We don’t have to change to be worthy of love. We already are—just as we are.
So, what does this mean for you? Well, if you’ve been learning to accept your flabby stomach, tendency towards self-pity, financial snafus or any other problem area of your life, that’s a great start. It’s just not the bottom line. As long as you see any trait or aspect of yourself as a reason that you are not fundamentally worthy of love, you’re treating yourself like that irritating relative that you barely tolerate for the sake of family harmony. You deserve better, really you do.
Something magical happens when you let yourself love all of you, including those dark, unpleasant or overweight aspects of yourself. It gets easier to treat yourself with love, even when you make a mistake. And, if you’re not in a spiral of self-loathing and recrimination, it’s much easier to get back on track with your resolution. In fact, my thirty years of helping people change their behaviors has shown me again and again that we are loved into a change significantly more often than we are belittled, harassed or shamed into one.
I hit that magical 60th birthday in July this year and, since my family tends to stay active until their 80s and 90s, figure I have at least 25 years of productive living in front of me. That recognition has birthed a couple questions that seem to run through my head a lot—“If not now, when?” and, with apologies to Mary Oliver, “What else do you want to do with this one wild and precious life?”
Those questions have led me to thinking about the obstacles I continue to stumble over in my life. These are the personality traits and well-entrenched behavioral tendencies that ride herd on my dreams and plans, slowing them down, often to a standstill. For me they are self-doubt, fear, perfectionism, and an obdurate* tendency to want to tell the Universe how to run things.
While I can claim some genetic predisposition to this last trait (family members, you know who you are) I think it has more to do with a fear that if I don’t stay on top of what is going on around me, bad stuff will happen.
Those of you who know a bit about my life (if you don’t, and want to, click here) know that this is both illogical and a bit comical. Given what has happened in my last decade alone, apparently I’m really bad at running things, the Universe isn’t listening, or the Universe dances to a much more complex set of variables than I am capable of understanding or orchestrating. I’m inclined to believe the latter.
I also used to believe that playing Universe Hall Monitor would make me more love-worthy. Preventing potential crises seemed like a great way to prove my value. As it turns out, having “the” answers for people’s lives isn’t nearly as appreciated as one might think. Some people can even get a tad irritated by it.
This brings me to what I’m working on right now—trusting in the flow of life and seeing myself as lovable and perfect, even when what I do isn’t. It means giving up the idea that I can win lovability points or prevent the scary stuff by what I do. It’s a difficult process for me and often involves prying my grasping hands off of the reins of my life or someone else’s. I still catch myself in mid-sentence giving unsolicited advice more frequently than I would like to admit.
What makes it possible for me to consider retiring from my role as She Who Can Fix Things? Well, I’ve come to deeply believe three things about this human existence:
- We were born perfect and lovable. All you have to do is look at babies to know that. What child is unworthy of love? And if our parents and other important people in our lives didn’t reflect our perfect lovability back to us as children, it was about their own fears and doubts–not our worthiness or perfection. What we do or fail to do will not and cannot alter that core lovability.
- We are loved beyond measure by the Universe/God/Howard.** You figure out what that means to you, but to me “a love beyond measure” looks like the love I have for my son, immense and incalculable, and then multiplying that times Infinity. I figure when Someone loves you that much, They have your back–even if it doesn’t always look like it at the time.
- If I let the Universe handle the creative details, S/He will delight me. My boyfriend is a sterling example of this principle in action. I had no idea that it was possible to find a smart, loving and nurturing man in Dallas Texas who is a liberal, cooks beautifully and doesn’t like sports. Who knew? Apparently, the Universe did.
So, bottom line–I don’t have to be in charge to 1) win love or 2) prevent disasters. Don’t get me wrong. Bad stuff will happen though I really, really, really wish it wouldn’t. Normal, human safety precautions aside, the truly crappy events or situations seem to show up in everyone’s life at some time. At least, that’s been my experience and that of everyone I know and love.
But….numbers one through three (above) still are true, even when the scary, out of control, heart wrenching events of our lives come barreling through.
Lean on those ideas and consider, just for today, loosening the reins just a little bit, ok? I’m right there with you.
*obdurate–love that word—it means, among other things, pigheaded. Sometimes an apt description of my unwillingness to let go.
**The Universe/God/Howard–as in “Howard be thy name”–thank you Anne Lamott!
Zelda graced our household for sixteen years, serving as protector, healer, companion, and role model. She was feline, all black, supremely sure of her worth, and maintained a Sicilian-like vendetta towards veterinarians (and anyone else who assaulted her dignity).
Last week, in the middle of a family crisis, Zelda let me know it was time to release her and let her proceed to the next adventure. I was, of course, out of town.
I had known we were heading this direction for a while—the signs were there and my intuition told me it wouldn’t be long. I just wanted to make sure it all went “right.” You see, I had a plan and I was betting against the cosmic timer that I could ensure her a pain free death while still completing my “get it right” list.
Zelda, true to her nature, listened to no one except herself. I loved that about her but her timing was lousy. I’ve learned, however, that tough times have their own schedule. You can argue with that schedule—as I have done–but it doesn’t do much good.
I’ve also come to understand that life’s difficulties have the ability to bring perspective into our lives. Jolted out of our comfort zones and turned upside down, we can see things we might have missed or ignored before. Zelda’s death made me look at some things that I have a tendency to overlook or ignore.
You can wait too long trying to make sure things go perfectly.
If you read my last blog, “Just Say Yes” you already know I have a bit of an issue with perfectionism. Zelda’s body had been failing for a couple of weeks but I was too preoccupied with trying to get things right to see the signs that her end was nearer than I wanted to believe. And while I was trying to muscle the Universe into making my plan work, Zelda took matters into her own paws and followed the wisdom of her body. When I don’t listen to my intuition and try to force things to fit with my plans or schedule, it rarely turns out the way I want.
Sometimes a decision can be right and still feel crappy.
I couldn’t get back in time to attend Zelda’s death—I was needed more, elsewhere. I know Zelda understood. I was with “her boy” –the one she helped through cancer—who was recovering from an accident. Being with him took clear precedence. Still, it felt crappy to not be there in person. Talking her through her last moments by phone (held lovingly to her ears by my boyfriend) was the best I could do. I’m perfectly ok with the decision I made. I know it was the right one. It just didn’t feel good. This is a helpful thing for me to remember the next time I find myself avoiding an uncomfortable situation or not speaking my truth.
Life is impermanent but love is eternal.
It’s my belief that the Universe/God/Love is with us always, in so many guises, helping us to grow more fully into our Divine and spiritual natures. I’ve had several experiences with spirit after the death of a loved one and so I wasn’t surprised when Zelda sent a few messages through the Divine Guidance cards I had pulled, right after her death. The first one was a cat playing, her left paw in the same position that Zelda’s had been paralyzed in before her death. The second one was even more straightforward—a black cat under a moon. I’m pretty sure the cards meant, “I’m ok” and “I’m still around.” That’s what I’m choosing to believe and it’s what I’m hanging on to right now. And I wouldn’t be surprised if that veterinarian finds a hairball in the middle of her bed sometime soon.
Like Albert Einstein, I believe that the Universe is a friendly place, conspiring to help us at all times. What I struggle with is the difference between what I think the help should look like and what the Divine has in mind. I have the tiniest problem with wanting to give the Divine fairly detailed instructions about how things should go.
You would think I might have overcome this small issue when Nick, my son, got cancer at 16. That certainly wasn’t the outcome I was writing over and over again while waiting for the results. But, as I’ve said before (mostly to myself), I think the Universe dances to a more complex set of variables than I can possibly imagine.
One of the ways that I know I’ve made progress in trusting God/The Divine/The Universe (insert the word that makes the most sense to you) is when I say “Yes” to the random opportunities that show up in my life–you know, the ones that I hadn’t planned.
I did that several months ago when Vicky Townsend contacted me through Twitter and asked me to do a webinar with her on her program for TheCafeD (an Internet community of support for people going through divorce). Training is something that I’ve done for years, but a webinar? What was the Divine thinking? But, it was just random enough that I suspected that God might be behind the weirdness. So I gulped and said yes.
It turned out just fine–not perfect. I said “yeah” a few too many times and struggled with technology a bit. But, all in all, it was pretty ok, even fun (after I got over all the anxiety I brought to the preparation process). In fact, I might just do another one someday soon. If you are interested, you can click here to watch it.
Yesterday morning, the Universe struck again. I had gone for a walk with my boyfriend and ran into one of his neighbors. She and I connected over some life philosophies in our brief discussion and the next thing you know, I had said yes to attending a meeting with her that morning at a church nearby. I didn’t know much about what to expect. When she asked me if I wanted to go with her, I heard a very clear, “Say Yes”–so I did. Although the service was a bit more churchy than my Unitarian, “I’m spiritual but not necessarily religious” leanings, the speaker was interesting, passionate and authentic in his message.
My neighbor had mentioned that at the end of the meeting, people were often given messages from the Divine by a couple of the regular attendees. That was both intriguing and compelling to me so I was pretty interested in what was going to happen when the prophets came up front. I have to admit, I was hoping to get a message but not really expecting it–it was my first time and I figured Divine messaging might be, well, a membership kind of thing. You know, show up five times and you get spiritual guidance?
You probably have figured out by now where this is going. I received not one, but two messages from the prophets yesterday and they were spot on. One was an answer to a request for assistance that I had made earlier that week and the other was confirmation of a message I had received a variety of times, most recently the day before.
I’ll share the latter one with you because it’s relevant to this blog. The prophet told me that I had, “in previous seasons of my life,” felt like I had to do everything perfectly in order for it to be “good.” Yet the Divine wanted me to know that I was more powerful when I was both authentic and imperfect–speaking from my heart.
As a recovering perfectionist, I struggle with old habits and stories of “I’ll do it wrong and they’ll be mad” so this was a fairly important message for me to hear. It’s easy for me to talk myself out of saying yes when I’m afraid that I won’t do it just right.
I thought I would share this because I figure I’m not the only one who gets nudged by the Divine and talks herself out of saying yes sometimes. I’m also probably not the only person who is trying to move beyond old stories or perfectionism. We’re all pilgrims on this path of personal and spiritual growth, learning to let our most sacred and beautiful spirits shine forth.
But in the message yesterday from the Divine what I heard was “Go ahead Susan. Just show up, be yourself, and don’t worry about making mistakes. I like you that way and I’ve got your back.”
Say Yes. See where it takes you. Suspect the Divine when random, weird, and slightly scary opportunities come your way. And don’t be surprised when something really cool happens. Remember, in the words of Anne Lamott, “God is such a showoff.”
Most of us are well acquainted with our inner critic—that voice that constantly critiques and judges our actions. The root of the negative self talk comes typically from our early childhood years when we believed everything that authority figures—family, teachers, church elders, doctors, even “older and wiser” friends– told us.
In childhood, we had too little knowledge of the world, and were too dependent on love or protection of those powerful figures to discern between what was true and what felt true to them. For example, a teacher who feared she would be judged for a student’s poor academic performance might tell a child that she is “stupid” rather than admit that she has neither the time nor skills to help the child learn more effectively. Or a parent who had experienced many disappointments in his life might teach his son that “you can’t trust anyone.” Neither of the pronouncements were accurate but both might have been adopted as true by the child who did not know better.
Our authentic self however knows us better than the inner critic. That self is connected to our strength, our wisdom, our intuition as well as to our vulnerabilities and fears. Unfortunately, while the inner critic is an early riser, standing (figuratively) beside our bed waiting to get our attention the minute we wake, our authentic self waits for an invitation to speak to us and often requires quieting our mind to hear its voice.
For many of my clients, it can take a lifetime of careful listening to begin to discern critical self-talk, created from early childhood experiences, from the voice of their authentic self. Here then is a quick primer to help you spot both the critic and your authentic self.
The authentic self, or what I like to call the “soul” me, has a different “feel” to it than does the inner critic. Some of the qualities that distinguish it are:
- Thoughts come as suggestions with a tone that is supportive and gentle or nurturing.
- Lessons learned from past mistakes are framed in a way that is helpful going forward.
- There is a sense of calm “rightness” to the actions suggestions that is less dependent on what others will think than how it aligns with your values.
The negative self talk that comes from old, outdated beliefs about ourselves is pretty easy to recognize, once you start paying attention. Some ways to catch the inner critic in action:
- The tone of the voice is harsh, punitive, blaming, or demanding often creating ripples of panic, anxiety, fear, or anger in your body.
- The voice brings up past mistakes, misdeeds, or failures in a shaming way.
- The voice predicts incompetence or failure on your part or rejection from others.
For the next couple of days, see if you can catch the often automatic but negative self-talk when it shows up. And, when you do, ask yourself, what would the authentic me want to say instead?
One of the traits I’ve worked hardest to release in my life is the tendency to harbor a grudge. Listening to my clients’ stories of wrongs done by childhood friends, mistreatment by bosses, and ancient family wounds that have never been healed, I learned that forgiveness doesn’t come easy to many people. Grudges, in fact, are often one of the first signals I receive from a client that there is psychological territory to be covered. Sticky and smelly, a grudge continues to mark the place of an earlier injury to ensure that it is not forgotten.
The cost of resentment
Lately, I’ve found myself looking at grudges in a different way for several reasons. Dr. Judith Orloff, author of “Positive Energy”, talks about all of the ways that we “pour out our stores of energy.” Her point is that our personal vitality has to be consciously managed or renewed and that anything that saps us of that is ultimately harmful. With less energy to squander now than I had earlier in my life, I find I am no longer willing take the time and energy a grudge seems to require for its maintenance.
“Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.”
I was once privileged to work with a torture survivor who, at the age of 21 was imprisoned and tortured for the crime of marrying a man who was the political enemy of the government in charge. Repeatedly raped by some of the prison guards, she lost the baby she was carrying. The day before her slated execution, she escaped, aided by a guard she knew from her village. To save her life, she fled her country, leaving behind everyone she knew and loved. In our work together, she found the courage to forgive the guards who had tortured her. A devout Muslim, she was willing to let go of the hatred that could have kept her imprisoned the rest of her life.
Forgiveness is not accepting what the offender did was “ok.” Rather, it means choosing to release that person’s power over you so that your life can go on. As long as you allow resentment of old wounds a place in your life, the offender stays in residence in your psyche. Do you really want him or her there?
Interestingly, research shows that there are not only psychological but physical benefits from forgiveness. Families from Northern Ireland who had lost loved ones to violence and then participated in a forgiveness training program showed significant reductions in stress related symptoms—including headaches and stomachaches as well as lowered blood pressure.
Forgiveness doesn’t just release you, it can create unanticipated and far reaching ripples. When African American family members of the members of Emanuel AME Church chose to forgive the white racist who had shot their loved ones in cold blood, they did not minimize their own pain. But that spectacular act of courage and empathy set into motion reflection and dialogue that has brought down more confederate flags. Or, as my so very eloquent friend Barbara says, “Racism in the face of that grace became intolerable.”
Tips for letting go of a grudge
- Examine the impact that the grudge is having on your life. Has it brought you closer to the people that you love or put distance between you? Is it making you stronger or weaker?
- Imagine yourself without the grudge. Do you feel lighter? That’s probably a good sign that the grudge is sapping energy from you.
- Figure out what exactly the grudge is about. Often at the root of it is a personal fear that we are unlovable or unworthy. Or, it may be a fear that if we let the memory go, we will be in danger of it happening again. It may be time to work through that belief with someone that you trust.
- Create a ritual or ceremony for letting go. I use affirmations, visualizations, letters that I burn rather than send, and prayer. My favorite affirmation comes from Catharine Ponder. “I let you loose and let you go.”
- Laugh. Humor always helps get perspective. Comedian Buddy Hackett perhaps said it best. “I’ve had a few arguments with people, but I never carry a grudge. You know why? While you’re carrying a grudge, they’re out dancing.”
The Paradoxical Commandments
Kent Keith wrote his paradoxical commandments in 1968 for a group of student leaders. It speaks to the decision that we can make every day to love people despite what they might or might not do. If you’ve never seen the original version, you can check it out here. Mother Theresa’s version of the Paradoxical Commandments, found posted on the wall of her room, is a powerful statement of the intentions that guided her life.
Yesterday, a friend and I were talking about the difference our spiritual and personal intentions and the actions we sometimes take. Gail shared the frustration she was feeling about a personal situation. She had worked hard, really hard, to let a relationship go but still was not at peace with the outcome. Gail saw her struggle as lack of spiritual progress and–as I often do–was beating herself up it.
As I listened to her, I was struck with a thought. What if maybe, just maybe, our spiritual growth was less about the amount or speed of progress we made and more about our ability to love ourselves unconditionally—wherever we are on the path? What if the most important intention that we held on to was to love ourselves unconditionally? What if self love was the foundation of our personal and spiritual growth?
It seems to be a human paradox that we expect perfection of ourselves while lovingly accepting and forgiving others for mistakes that can far exceed our own. It was so easy to cherish Gail, even while she worked through her challenges. Why was it so hard to have compassion and love for myself when I fall short of my intentions?
Psychologically, the research bears out the importance of self-compassion. The ability to mindfully treat ourselves with compassion is associated with greater emotional resilience and higher life satisfaction. It is also shown to be associated with lower incidences of depression, anxiety and stress. Kristin Neff, the first researcher to define and research self-compassion explains it this way:
Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding with personal failings—after all, who ever said you were supposed to be perfect?” (For more on self-compassion including research and resources, click here.)
Inspired by my conversation with Gail and countless conversations with friends and clients (and with apologies to Kent Keith and Mother Theresa), I would offer these as one way to find your way back to self-love and self-compassion:
The Love Yourself Anyway Commandments
From time to time you will be snarky, easily triggered and generally unpleasant to be around.
Love yourself anyway
From time to time you will act without generosity of spirit toward others.
Love yourself anyway
From time to time your fears of success, visibility, or abundance will derail you.
Love yourself anyway
From time to time you will over indulge in food, alcohol, TV, the Internet, trashy romance novels or gossip.
Love yourself anyway
From time to time you will speak thoughtlessly and hurt someone’s feelings.
Love yourself anyway
From time to time you will judge others harshly, forgetting that they too are Divine beings.
Love yourself anyway
From time to time you will blame others for your discomfort instead of looking within for the unhealed hurts that were triggered.
Love yourself anyway
From time to time you will forget to trust in the Divine Plan and spend the day anxiously trying to control everything.
Love yourself anyway
Remember, regardless of the missteps you make on your path of spiritual or personal growth, you are an amazing soul full of light and love. You WILL get back on that path, you WILL course correct. So for now—forgive yourself and love yourself anyway.
Create your personal Love Yourself Anyway commandments
The above were inspired by the struggles that I hear from my clients and those in my own life. If something above doesn’t resonate with you or your personal growth path, I invite you to create your own LYA Commandments. Write them down, read them out loud and post them somewhere you will see them every day.
With self-compassion, we give ourselves the same kindness and care we would give to a good friend.
Most of us carry old stories from our childhood. As small beings on this planet, we watched our families and other important people in our lives for input about how we needed to act to get the love and attention we instinctively knew were critical for our survival. In the process of figuring out how to get and keep our early caregivers’ approval, we accepted information we were told—about our personality flaws, the nature of other people, or the way “the world works” as true.
Three most common, self- limiting stories
The late Debbie Ford suggests that information we gained in childhood solidifies into one of three core stories we come to tell about ourselves—“I’m not good enough”, “I might be abandoned or rejected”, and” I can’t trust” (people, life, God.) Those stories, carried into adulthood, are at the basis of the limitations we set on our lives as well as at the core of the relationship and career issues we face.
Think about it for a minute. Do you hesitate to ask for what you want? That is likely the story that “I’m not good enough” to have what I want or “I’m afraid I’ll be abandoned or rejected” if I ask for anything. Do you find yourself micromanaging or controlling others actions? That often is an “I can’t trust” story.
When those self-limiting stories are triggered by an event or another individual, they typically bring strong feelings of anxiety, fear, or perhaps anger with them. Because those feelings are so uncomfortable, we learned ways to make them go away—by stopping what we are doing and focusing on something else, blaming our discomfort on someone else, or avoiding the situation that triggers them. The problem with this strategy is that it is a short term solution but does nothing to address the core issue. In fact when you avoid facing the story or dealing with it, those beliefs tend to gain strength in your life. The more powerful these stories become, the more they limit your life. If you think you might be betrayed, why would you trust someone enough to fall in love? If you think you might be abandoned or rejected, you may create a more socially acceptable version of yourself for others to see, hiding your true self from view.
Instead of distracting yourself from feeling the uncomfortable feelings, the next time one of those stories is triggered and the uncomfortable feelings arise, try this. Imagine that you are a house with both the front door and the back door wide open. Then get still and say to yourself, “I release my resistance to experiencing this feeling of ……..” As the feeling swells up, visualize it traveling through you–drifting slowly but surely from the front door to the back door and back outside again. Don’t try to figure out the feeling or why it’s there, just let it float through. You may experience a brief intensification of the feeling– like a ball shooting up after being held under water too long. That’s ok, just hang with the feeling and ride it out. Avoid, if you can, rushing the uncomfortable sensation through the house, just let it move at its own pace. The feeling will typically begin to dissipate, leaving a greater sense of calm. If it comes back, just repeat the exercise. You’ve spent a lifetime trying to hold these feelings down—it will take some time to let all of that pent up energy fade.
As you become more aware of those stories, and more skilled at letting the feelings just flow through you, the stories lose their potency in your life. Knowing how to let those sensations of anger, anxiety, or fear pass through you allows you to make decisions based on what is true for you now. After all, that is where you are living, right?
The past is supposed to be a place of reference, not a place of residence!
Over 34 million people serve as unpaid caregivers for loved ones, helping them with the daily living and/or medical tasks they cannot navigate alone. One of the questions I frequently get from caregivers is how to cope better with the exhaustion and sense of helplessness that can come with managing the logistics of two lives—theirs and their loved one’s.
When I speak with them, I’m always interested in how they’ve defined that precious boundary between themselves and the one that they are caring for. Healthy relationships require some separation of space—mentally, physically, and emotionally–but the frequent crises or watchfulness that caregiving often involves can make finding that line a bit difficult. It’s all too easy for people who care to become caretakers instead of caregivers.
Consider these questions and decide if you’ve moved beyond your role of caregiver into the ultimately thankless one of caretaking.
Do you think your loved should appreciate for what you are doing for him?
Caretakers often believe that jumping in to help people will make those people love them more. After all, who doesn’t appreciate someone who has sacrificed for you? Many do, but hoping someone will value you more because of what you do for him or her can be a sign your sense of worth is too dependent on what others think—and that’s an bucket that can never stay full.
Do you find yourself getting angry or resentful at your loved one?
Frustration and irritation is common in many stressed out relationships but one early sign that you may be in a lopsided relationship can be recurring resentment. It’s is one of the surest signs I’ve found in my practices that 1) some radical self-care and/or 2) a renegotiation of the helper-helpee contract is in order.
Does your loved one get resentful when you ask her to reciprocate in some way or take on some responsibilities?
One young client shared his insight that by being “the perfect boyfriend” at the beginning of a relationship and jumping in to solve all of his love’s problems, he created a dynamic that wasn’t healthy. When he asked for some reciprocity, it seemed to her as if he had changed. And he had—he wanted a more equal relationship than the one he originally negotiated through his actions.
Do you respect your loved one?
The wisdom that helped me release an old pattern of caretaking was something a friend said. Her perspective is that when you care-take people, you send them the message that you don’t respect their ability to take care of themselves. I realized by assuming that I saw their lives more clearly than they did, I was subtly telling them I thought they were not good enough.
Are you jumping in the way of the bullet from the Universe?
When caretakers pre-solve loved ones’ problems or protect them from the consequences of their actions, my experience is that two things happen. One–the loved one doesn’t get the lesson that dealing with the issue would have taught them and continues the behavior that created the situation. The second thing that happens is that the caretaker suffers by having to handle the situation, causing stress in his or her life. The metaphor I use with my clients is to ask them to imagine that the Universe is sending a bullet – in the form of a lesson that will ultimately (if a bit painfully) help their loved one grow. When they care-take, they save their loved one from the pain, but they also take the bullet! And furthermore it didn’t save anyone from having to get the lesson another way (including, I might add, the caretaker).
Bottom line–look to the words “caretaking” and “caregiving”
Are you gifting the person you love with care? That means you are offering a present of your time or assistance without expectation of return. Or, are you taking charge or taking care of them? Sometimes the answer is hard to see. If you aren’t sure, ask a friend who you know will be honest with you. If the answer is “caretaking,” it’s time to re-negotiate the relationship!
Caregiving requires the intention of love; caretaking requires the intention of fear.
I had lunch yesterday with a woman I had met while her husband was going through an extremely rough recovery from cancer. They were a young married couple when he was diagnosed and she had been there, right by his side, throughout the rigorous protocol that ultimately saved his life.
We spent lunch comparing notes about what we had both gone through and learned during the medical crises that devastated our families’ lives. We talked most about letting go—moving from patient advocate, decision-maker, head of household, and holder of hope to a time when our caregiving was no longer needed. Her husband had recovered, though with some ongoing medical issues. My son was thankfully healthy and cancer free, but my husband had not survived.
Karen (not her name) and I talked about how surprisingly difficult it had been to shift from caregiver superwoman to just mom or wife. Though we admitted that we had never wanted to assume that heroine role, we both found it tough to give up the outfit. With that cape, those cool boots, and a clearly marked “S” on our chests we had discovered new strengths, resilience, and “grit” that had never been completely claimed in the past. And then there was the admiration we got, every time we jumped out of the phone booth in the service of our guys. It was hard, gut wrenching, scary work—pushing back when a treatment didn’t seem in their best interests, or sometimes just curling up next to them, trying to bring some comfort. Having people recognize both the difficulty and bravery we had to call on to do so had felt pretty good.
Sometimes it’s hard—when the crisis is over or downshifts in intensity—to let go. You’ve done everything in your power to ensure your loved one survives. The joy when they do can be tinged, surprisingly, with an almost superstitious fear that letting go of your caregiver role might lead to a return of the crisis. Taking your hands off the wheel and allowing your loved one to start driving their own lives again? You’re caught between “Finally!” and “What if they crash?”
In contrast to our concerns about the right time to let go, our guys had had no problems giving us the caregiver pink slip. They had come through their crises and were ready to move on. Karen’s husband was relishing a life that he hadn’t been sure would continue—trying out new things and challenging himself physically—often to Karen’s discomfort.
My son bought a Harley-Davidson motorcycle—a pretty clear signal to his mom that, at 23, he saw himself as an adult—legally and financially responsible for his own decisions. And although I did threaten to buy him a T-shirt that read: “I bought this Harley because childhood cancer wasn’t life threatening enough,” I got the message.
If you are trying to decide whether the time has come to release your grip on the reins of your role as caregiver, these questions might help:
Is your loved one physically and mentally ready to take on more? What are the consequences if they do and fail? How serious are those consequences? How might you mitigate those consequences?
Are there some intermediate measures that you can take to ease yourself out of that care-giving role? What conversations do you need to have with your loved one to make that happen?
And, if they believe they are ready to regain their independence, are you? If not, why not?
In many cases, there are no easy answers. Talk to friends, caring health professionals, or other people who will provide a neutral perspective. More importantly, share your concerns with your loved one. Be honest about your fears and what kinds of compromise might help you make the transition from caregiver back to spouse, parent, sibling, family member or friend.
And yes, you get to keep the outfit. It will always be there in the closet if you ever need it again.