Sometimes, life throws just one too many curve balls. Or, the totally unexpected happens that catches you by surprise. Suddenly, in these moments, life seems really difficult, somewhat hopeless, and overwhelming. Things that you used to find important or pleasurable seem trivial in comparison to the giant things you are now facing.
While in better times, you imagine how you would react to difficult life events, when the real events come – your best coping skills can quickly evade you. Sometimes, we revert to an earlier time in our lives (like adolescence!). And there are real side effects to being overtaken by a disruption in our lives.
It can be hard to sleep because your mind races through different fears or anxieties. Maybe you also have a lot of anger – at real people who let you down or at the universe or God for letting someone you love get ill. Maybe you carry guilt or regret over things that you could have done differently that could have prevented a problem you now have to deal with.
As if all of this inner turmoil is not bad enough, you also have real life work to do. Shopping, cooking, cleaning, caring for children, talking to doctors, sorting through the maze of Medicare, driving people to appointments, bathing a parent, or paying bills. So, you may have some good coping skills, but in the middle of a crisis, it can be hard to think about how to best get through the chaos. They say, “if you are going through hell, keep going.” As a caregiver, you don’t have the luxury of laying down on the floor and crying – so, you have to keep going – but how can you do it more skillfully?
“Once we accept our limits, we go beyond them” - Einstien
One of the best prayers is the Serentity Prayer:
“God, Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.” Understanding and listing the things we cannot control is often a very helpful exercise.
It sounds simple, but it is not always easy.
Taking Care of Your Parents
Know the Difference Between What You Can Control and What You Cannot
You likely cannot wave a wand and cure the cancer, bring someone back to life, hop in a time-machine to alter past events, or improve the way someone else acts or thinks. One of the biggest sources of suffering is trying to control or change that which cannot be controlled or changed by you. Once you get to the point of acceptance, your emotional brain can calm down. It is like a child who begs and begs for candy at the store while the parent is indecisive. Often, once the parent says a firm “no,” the child will grieve a little and calm down. Why? Because, there is increased energy that kicks in when we think we can actually DO something about a situation (like beg). But, if we accept what we cannot control, we stop wasting energy, time and emotions on those things.
While your own list of “things you cannot control” will be specific to your situation, you can count on these general things being on the list:
You Cannot Control:
- The past
- Other people’s thoughts
- Other people’s feelings
- Other people’s behaviors
- Certain physical realities like the weather or the fact of an illness
So, focusing your attention on these issues is literally a waste of energy and time. You may experience sadness when you accept these things and may need time to grieve, but your acceptance should generally reduce the volume of the stress and anxiety over a situation.
What Can you Control?
This is the very best question you can ask in any situation. If your mother is very ill, you can decide how to best help and support her. You can find ways to make her experience more pleasant. You can be present and loving and kind. You can find ways to bring others to her so she is not alone. You can buy her colorful bed sheets to help make her days less gloomy. You can do literally hundreds of things that only make sense for your specific situation. If your intention is helpfulness, there are typically dozens of ways you can improve any situation - even if you cannot alter the situation itself (the illness).
We often do not think we have options or we think there are only two options. But, in every situation, try to think of as many options as possible for how you can be helpful to yourself and those around you. You will be surprised to find there are usually many answers to this question. We often do not handle things well because we are simply asking the wrong question.
So, write down all the things stressing you right now. Some may be very small – like “the loose siding on my house” and list what you CAN do about it. Some issues may be large like “my mother has cancer.” Still, list what you CAN do under each heading.
When you make your list of things you CAN do, try to break those down to very small “baby steps” or specific things. For instance, just writing “I will improve my attitude about the cancer” is not an easy thing to translate into action. But, you could write “I will catch myself thinking the worst pessimistic thoughts and just notice them. Next week, I will replace those negative thoughts with something more hopeful.” This is a very specific way you can improve your attitude.
Look at your list often throughout your week and update it. The very act of writing out what CAN be done can reduce stress and make your life seem more manageable.
Simplify and Let Go
When you look over your list, you may find that some issues can just be put aside for the time being. Look at your calendar too. Are there unnecessary appointments you can drop for now? When we are facing a difficult time in life, some of us want to stay really busy. But, most people will benefit from having enough time for rest and planning. We also need to schedule time for extra self-care so we can stay healthy through a crisis. When we downsize, it may feel hard and you may have to face some losses, but, usually there are things we can drop that will free us up to respond more skillfully to the situation at hand.
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Speaking of Responsibility, let’s get clear about what that means. Many of us think of obligation or blame. But, responsibility comes from the word “respond.” How we respond to a situation is totally our responsibility. We are not responsible for someone’s health or for other people’s behavior or for the weather or other people’s happiness. We can respond skillfully, but, ultimately, we cannot be on the hook for what other people choose to do.
Responding skillfully means that we can help make an environment that is right for someone’s healing. We can respond lovingly to others and we can be helpful but we cannot be totally responsible for all outcomes.
Again, asking the right question is helpful. And that question is “how can I be truly helpful in this situation to myself and others?”
Taking Responsibility for Yourself
You may have noticed that I included “myself” and others in the issue of responsibility. Yes, you are responsible for yourself and your own happiness and health. Other people will certainly at times create challenges for you – just like the world and the weather do. But, at the end of the day, you are responsible for taking good care of yourself as much as you are able.
Many people get caught up in the issues of “blame” when thinking about responsibility. If you think about blame, you will focus on how your husband “ruined your life” or maybe how you ruined your own life! But, this focus is simply not helpful. If your life is crappy, again – you can respond to that. You can be responsible from this day forward in terms of how you go about solving the issues in your life or responding to them.
If you have played a role in harming others, then you also can respond to that by apologizing, making amends, trying to help the person now. While you could punish yourself, drown in regret and misery, or try justifying what you know were real mistakes, it makes more sense and is much more efficient – and, again, “helpful” – to respond in some way and move forward. Make amends as best you can.
Keep the Engine Running
Many people in crisis neglect their own health and healthy habits. This makes sense. Other things or people seem to need your immediate attention and there is only so much time in the day.
But your health is primary - and primarily your responsibility. Without it, getting through a tough patch in life will just be harder.
Health is pretty basic and our knowledge here is clear. The basics of health:
- Good nutrition
- Adequate sleep and rest
- Support of others
- Making your regular checkups
- Getting regular preventative care
- Some regular fun and pleasurable activities
Being a martyr is not going to be helpful to you and probably not to others either. Taking care of yourself is not selfish at all.
“One of the best ways to help the poor is to not become one of them” is a famous quote that highlights this issue. It may seem selfish, but it is true. Being in total self-denial rarely helps anyone in the long-run. Take good care of yourself and make the time to even increase your self-care routines during a crisis.
Learn Good Communication Skills
One way to respond well is to communicate well. Handling tough conversations, being assertive, and dealing with stresses of interpersonal relationships will all be paramount when dealing with difficult life events.
Who has time to learn great communication skills in the middle of a crisis though? Well, if you want a short course – here it is:
When dealing with anyone about anything, work to say only those things that are kind, true, and helpful. Greet others with compassion and understanding and an intention to heal and help. When you take a few moments to do this, miracles can happen in relationships.
When we feel scared, threatened, or upset, we can again, revert back to more juvenile communication styles. Taking a few breaths before responding to people or approaching a tough conversation can make all the difference in the world.
You will get challenged, you may have feelings – but these things do not have to control your behavior. Work to put a gap between your feelings and your response and respond with good intentions.
The Final Attitude Adjustment
Overall, approaching difficulties with good intentions for yourself and others is a great way to shift your attitude toward more productive problem solving.
Another way to approach the difficult task of caregiving is to check your attitude about helping. Some people approach “helping” as an obligation and then proceed to have feelings of anger and resentment. Those feelings are rarely truly helpful.
Some people want to “fix things” and their ego is tied up in this fixing. When we try to fix something, we are usually very emotionally attached to the outcome. So, check to make sure you understand you do not have “control” over this outcome. This attitude can make us too eager to do things for someone that they can and should do for himself - weakening him in the long-run. It can also make us very upset when the “fix” doesn’t work.
The attitude that may be most helpful is that of “service.” If you take responsibility for your choice (it is afterall your choice) to assist someone, then you are not doing it from a place of obligation. Service is something you choose to do because you want to be a positive influence.
When we feel obligated to help someone – they may feel weak and guilty
When we try to “fix” someone – they may feel broken or resist our solutions
But, when we serve, we can heal.