Thursday, August 20, 2009

Resisting Caregiving – The Science of Fine–tuning Your Emotional Accessibility and Mental Health

(Harmony) is when...
“Yes” is tempered by a gentle “No,”
and “No” is expanded with measured compassion.
— Mrs. Chana Rachel Schusterman

Few of us have struck the perfect balance between empathy and self-preservation. While it is not widely discussed in health science and healthcare, resistance to the thought of caregiving is common, and can come from feeling too much—too much needful caring, or too much fear.

It is possible to be so entangled in love for a person that the thought of watching her/his decline feels impossible. Or if your loved one historically has been an unsafe person for you, abusive either emotionally or physically, you are likely to feel an aversion to getting that close. Too much caring can swamp you making you ineffective. Too great an aversion will limit your caregiving to merely basic maintenance. Or perhaps you feel pulled in two by simultaneous love and aversion. In any case, if you can approach caregiving as a series of learnings it can provide a precious opportunity for greater health, relatedness, and personal completion.

If any of the above feels familiar to you, yet you have decided to take on caregiving, you can learn to find a healthy and effective middle ground of healthy caring and emotional safety by fine tuning your emotional accessibility. Caregiving, for you, can be an opportunity to become more present to yourself while becoming a more effective caregiver.

For instance, if you feel empathetic to your loved one to the point of entanglement, your vulnerability will make caregiving a struggle. Notice if you have entanglements in other relationships. Then take steps to learn about developing your boundaries. Books and websites offer ample suggestions to get you started. Learning how to extricate yourself now, to reclaim an empowered sense of autonomy, will make all of your relationships healthier and all of life easier.

On the other extreme, if your loved one was unreliable or brutal when you were a child and you responded by shutting down your emotions, your challenge will be different. If being with your loved one clearly feels unsafe due to a history of emotional or physical abuse, or if you feel deep seated rage, consider contributing minimally or long distance. But if, as an adult, you have managed to gain some emotional balance about your shared history, this could be an opportunity to come to greater peace with your loved-one. Is it worth it to you to try? Only you can say. If, given your current adult status, it seems right and wise to attempt to resolve your history with your loved one, compassion could be the key to making the shift. You can’t change others, but you can shift the way you think and feel about them. You will need to stretch yourself, to work up some acceptance of who your loved one is, shortcomings and all. This doesn’t mean that what they did was right—only that they were who they were. The seeds of who (s)he is now were probably planted before you were born. Understanding and acceptance breed compassion. Compassion will allow you your fullest possible expression as a caregiver, and fuller self-expression in all of your relationships.

Making such a fundamental relational shift can be greatly facilitated by working with a trained therapist to move your boundaries. Whether you are entangled or aloof, a comprehensive self-care program can support you, but it is a bandaid compared to healthier boundaries.

Caregiving also brings with it an automatic shifting of roles that will help to rebalance your relationship. If your loved one becomes somewhat childlike, your adult self will begin naturally to take its place in the relationship. If your loved one is authoritative or judgmental, you can discover in yourself a new stronger voice than when you were a child. Adjusting to this shift takes time. It feels strange. You may find yourself both grieving and celebrating the change. Be patient with yourself. You are growing in ways that will pay off for years to come.

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