Here’s a tale about boundaries – and the almost-certain impact that not having them will have on you, too.
A client of mine, Sarah, complained all the time about not having time for herself to get things done. The reason – always – was that she was constantly running to take care of her mother’s needs and demands.
Her mother had recently moved into an assisted living complex, and Sarah felt bad that her mother could no longer live independently. More importantly, Sarah felt extremely guilty that she was unable to have her mother live with her. After all, her grandmother lived with her family while Sarah was growing up.
Some self-judging phrases I heard from Sarah more than once included:
“I just feel like as her daughter, I should do whatever it takes to make it possible for her to live with me.”
“I feel like I’m failing her by making her live in that place instead of at my house.”
It didn’t help matters that Sarah’s mother complained bitterly and often about her life, her lack of independence, lack of visitors, and the fact that there just was nothing of interest for her in life any more.
None of which Sarah could do anything about – but all of which added to her feeling of failing her mom.
Remembering how her mother had always made sure to include Sarah’s grandmother in social activities, and tried to provide a variety of outings and diversions she would enjoy, Sarah felt particularly unworthy by comparison.
(Of course, she completely forgot that her mother was not holding down any sort of job outside the home while Sarah was growing up!)
So Sarah ran. All the time.
She ran every day to visit her mother and bring her everything she asked for as quickly as she could. She ran to be with her for as many meals as she could – while missing meals, time and activities with her own family. She ran to be with her mom after work, and even took numerous days off from work that came directly out of her paycheck. She regularly skipped her own medical appointments to run and do things for her mom instead.
By the time Sarah came to see me, she was overwhelmed with guilt – but also with stress, frustration and pent-up anger. She couldn’t do enough for her mother, yet her mother never gave her any sign of real appreciation for everything she did do. And while she continued to run and do for her mother, Sarah’s own health and physical wellbeing were suffering.
Naturally, Sarah connected feeling so miserable in large part with the constant demands of caring for her mother. It was also clear that her feeling of struggle to meet expectations, and feeling like she was failing, was making any sort of positive relationship with her mother impossible.
Sarah wanted so much to have just a small sign from her mother that she was appreciated, and that her efforts were making a difference in her mom’s life.
But what she couldn’t see was that before any real healing in the relationship between Sarah and her mother could begin to happen, Sarah had to be able to take a few steps back.
Once we could both see the full the extent and the impact of her Herculean efforts to meet her mother’s needs, I gave Sarah some good news: there was just one thing she needed to do to get some relief – a single solution to all of this, that was actually quite simple…and she could begin putting it into practice immediately.
It was all about setting some boundaries, to create some space for her own life. And, much to her surprise, that started with breathing.
I taught Sarah to memorize my “secret weapon” in the fight against caregiver stress: “…And We Breathe!”
The fact is, simply breathing before jumping in and acting on any new request from her mom was an imperative first step. Sarah was used to saying “yes” without a moment’s hesitation…then regretting it almost immediately.
–> Putting this “pause button” in place was Step 1 in a recovery process for her sanity and health!
So Sarah and I worked on her being able to slow down long enough to simply delay answering her mother’s requests, demands and complaints. She started small, carving out an extra hour or two before acting on any non-urgent request.
Within 2 weeks, Sarah was able to delay running to her mother by one full day, and within another week she had been able to cut down her running to just three times per week. Making this shift gradually “trained” both Sarah and her mother to a different schedule, and different expectations.
She began attending her children’s activities again, and improved her attendance at work. Within a month, Sarah was scheduling (and keeping!) her own doctor appointments. She began recognizing that her mother, while still complaining, could actually manage pretty well for a time in her absence.
As I taught Sarah the additional steps to having healthy boundaries, she was delighted to see that her mom even became receptive to some new social activities provided at her facility, which provided a very supportive environment with lots of options for her to enjoy.
Sarah’s family and social life improved dramatically as well. Needless to say, Sarah was thrilled!
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Going forward I’ll be sharing additional steps for setting boundaries in your life…so you really can gain your independence and feel good about yourself, and about your relationship with your loved one!
Start by remembering in those moments of overwhelm: “..and we breathe…”
Check out my virtual education and support group for caregivers called “Take Back Your Life: The Art of Self-Care.”
…and stay tuned for what to do beyond Step 1!