For many in caregiving situations, the holidays can be really tough. Adding to the difficulty are memories — both positive and negative ones. To make things worse, it's also the time when everyone else is cheerful, yet you still have to face the struggle.
For those who are no longer caregivers, it can be especially difficult to remedy the memories of the past with your present, whether from moving the loved one into a facility or in the event they’ve passed on. It's the uncomfortable part of being human, the "touchy-feely" mess that we try desperately to ignore.
Most of the articles you're probably reading right now are focused on the positivity of the new year, the beauty surrounding renewal and refreshment, and the limitless potential that a new year brings. But what about when you’re just not in the mood to hear it? Is it wrong to be cynical or pessimistic? Does a positive attitude really make all the difference? What’s the right answer here?
Pessimism, Optimism, and the Fight for Truth
You hear it all the time: everything boils down to attitude. Whereas it’s true that attitude can have a profound effect on your reality, this doesn’t mean that you ignore what you’re feeling. This is when optimism becomes outright denial.
In reality, it doesn't come down to whether or not a person is an optimist or pessimist. Rather, it's more about digging into what you personally need as a caregiver. Pessimism, especially in context of darker humor can be a great way to get through a really difficult time — but this is only a temporary solution, so you must be mindful of negative thoughts.
Gaining self-awareness is one of the most difficult challenges we face as human beings. When are we overreacting? When are we "under-reacting?" When are we in that Goldilocks zone of "just right?" And what do we do when we feel like we're in the middle of the darker parts of our journey? How do we find our way when it's nearly impossible to even see the path before us?
If you recently had an awesome holiday, then fantastic! We’re going to have good days and bad. But for those of you who, like me, might have struggled a bit, here are some tools you can use to not only get through tough times, but to even grow from them.
1. Acknowledge what’s going on.
Living in a state of denial isn’t good for anyone. It’s a temporary coping mechanism that indicates you’re avoiding a core problem. There are many reasons we’ve developed it — denial can keep you going when the odds are against you. But there is a cost.
If, for instance, you’re reluctant to admit that your patient is getting noticeably and measurably worse, you can remain in a state of blissful ignorance for a little bit. One day, though, the reality of the situation will impact you, and if you aren’t prepared, things can get a lot worse.
It might sound like something really tiny, but denying your feelings will, ultimately, knock you into a negative cycle, which will make things much worse.
2. Give yourself permission to feel whatever you’re feeling.
This might seem silly, but thinking to yourself, “I am upset about the situation, and it’s perfectly okay to be upset,” can change your life.
And you don’t literally have to say or think it to yourself, but finding a way to be okay with what you’re really feeling is important. This doesn’t mean that you need to do something about it, act on it, or even change it. Similarly to how acknowledging a feeling is itself one of the best ways to overcome it, giving yourself permission to feel it gets your mind in sync with reality.
It isn’t so straightforward, either. You might feel angry about a situation — or even anger towards your patient (we’ve all been there, whether or not we want to admit it). Feelings like this aren’t supposed to be rational or logical — they’re feelings. The key here is to give yourself permission to feel, even if you’re wrong. Note I’m not saying you should act on those feelings, but rather you simply give yourself permission to feel and experience it. Later, you can get to whether or not to act on a situation, and you will be better equipped to deal with it having.
Conversely, you might have recently found a facility or service to remove some of the caregiving burden you’ve carried and feel good about having part of your life back. If this is the case, then give yourself permission to feel relief. And if that relief comes with a side of guilt (again, we’ve all been there), then give yourself permission to feel that way, as well.
Feelings are complicated. Again, acknowledging them and allowing yourself to experience them doesn’t mean you have to act on them, it simply helps you process them. Sooner or later, these feelings will be processed. You can choose to do it on your own terms like this, or you can wait until a weak moment, and likely take it out on someone else who doesn’t deserve it.
And you know what? Even if you take out your feelings on someone undeserving, you should still acknowledge how you feel and give yourself permission to feel. Then, you can begin letting things go.
3. Forgive yourself and show compassion.
You will make mistakes. You will screw up royally. You will disappoint others. You will be absent from important events. You will be tired and say things you don’t mean. You will act in ways that make you ashamed later. We’ve heard the refrain since we were children, and still we have trouble believing it as adults — nobody’s perfect.
Caregivers are most often family members — thus, the caregiver and patient have a pre-existing relationship, sometimes good, and sometimes bad. And to make it that much worse, your patient might not have any memory. It might be too late to change some things. But that doesn’t mean that you have to keep beating yourself up for the past.
So what does this mean you should do? It means to show yourself the same compassion that you show your patient. Forgive yourself. Accept yourself, victories, defeats, mistakes, and all.
Failure is one of the greatest teachers in our lives. It’s in our failures that we are able to learn and grow. And don’t worry if it’s hard to do. Forgiveness, like any skill, takes practice.
“Happy” New Year
As children, we usually only find beauty in positive things. It takes years for our tastes to grow and evolve to see beauty in things beyond the basics. For instance, as a child, it can be difficult to find the night beautiful. Small children are often afraid of what they can’t see. But as the child grows and matures, they learn to appreciate things for what they are.
Happiness is no different. As we grow older, happiness becomes less and less about smiling and laughing, and more about appreciating the beauty that’s there in the world. And in this way, if you’re a caregiver who has had trouble this holiday season, I can only hope that you can find a moment to sit with your thoughts, to see the bigger picture, to really appreciate how you’ve helped relieve the suffering of your patient, and what that says about you as a person — even if it seems like you’re fighting a losing battle.
And with this understanding, I hope that you find some sense of happiness and peace as we kick off this new year.
Note: We saved this post until after the holiday for two reasons: First, we didn't want it to get lost in the holiday season "overload" of buying gifts, travel, and family commitments. Second, what Blake is writing about applies to so many more occasions. These emotions can overcome us at any time. -Jeff
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