To family caregivers everywhere, who dedicate their lives and their selves to helping their loved one – a 24-hour-a-day job, seven days a week, because even when you’re not physically taking care of your family member, their care is always on your mind – here’s an idea. What if you channeled the Hon. Maxine Waters for just one minute?
Try it. Say, “Reclaiming my time!”
And now imagine taking one minute just for yourself. Just one minute, just for you.
What was that like?
You probably found it lot harder than it sounds. And if so, you’re not alone.
Last month, I ran two workshops on “Creating Positive Change” for a local Family Caregiver Support Group – individuals who are caring for a family member with a physical and/or mental issue. Their age range was as wide as the range of their caregiving situations, but they all shared the common bond of caring for others. One other similarity soon became apparent as well.
In my introduction, I told the group that for this meeting, we’d be focusing on them as individuals, not as caregivers. For the opening activity, I put out index cards and a wide selection of colored pencils, and asked each participant to create a card representing a strength that they had – something they valued and appreciated in themselves.
The group took a few minutes to think, and then to write, and in some cases to draw and decorate their cards. When it came time to share, each person spoke about the strength they had put on their card. They were powerful words: tenacity, empathy, energy, kindness, loyalty, wonderful sense of humor, great listener, strong advocate.
But anyone who has ever been a family caregiver – whether for a child (especially one with any sort of special needs or issues), a spouse, an elderly parent or other close relative – will not be surprised to hear that every single member of the group spoke about their strength in relation to their family member and their caregiving.
Even though I had said right up front, “We are focusing on you as individuals – describe a strength you value and appreciate in yourself” ... they responded from their caregiver identity.
When I pointed this out, there was a sense of recognition and awareness around the room. As the social worker running the group later said, “They’re not used to focusing on themselves.”
What an understatement.
I know from personal experience how easy it is to fall off your own priorities list while taking care of others – it happened to me when I had my “alphabet soup” child (ADD, SPD, OCD, NLD, etc. ...) and then again when I went deep into the eldercare vortex with my mom.
People who have not gone through the caregiving experience will say, “Take time for yourself! Focus on yourself!” Only a fellow caregiver will recognize the feelings of panic, guilt, hopelessness, and even anger that can result from that advice. Focus on myself? With what time or resources? Who’s going to step in and take care of my family member while I’m off focusing on myself? And then there’s the one obstacle which many people don’t even realize (or won’t acknowledge) they have, but that carries more weight than all the others combined: the internal, nagging belief that “self-care” equals “selfish.”
For many in our workshop, the simple act of thinking about doing something for themselves had exactly that effect.
But in my journey toward becoming the most effective coach I can be, I have been immersing myself in the study of Kaizen (continuous improvement), Mini-habits, the Compound Effect, and other processes of change – processes that can work, and that create change that can be accepted ... and stick.
The challenge in a caregiving situation is not only to find a way to get the “I” back into “priorities” (there may be no “I” in “team,” but there sure are a few in “priorities!"), but to do it in a way that fits in with one’s life and role as a caregiver, and adds value to it, rather than causing added emotional stress.
Sometimes it’s just a shift in perspective. Sometimes it’s adjusting one minor action a day. These small actions add up over time, gradually building a bigger and bigger reserve of “you.” And they have an even more important advantage. A kaizen mini-change is like a Trojan horse for your emotional shut-down system. It’s so small that it slides through without setting off the alarm. It’s an end-run around the gate that clangs down and says, “I don’t have time,” “I don’t have the resources,” and “I’m selfish if I do that.”
Once we acknowledged and honored each participant’s caregiving time and responsibilities as paramount, and agreed that we’d be talking about very small steps and minor tweaks, we were able to move on to the second part of the workshop: brainstorming about one thing they would like to bring more of into their life, and small ways they could begin to fit that in.
The change in outlook was immediate, and ideas and creativity began to flow. One participant wanted more time with her significant other, but had been stymied because “date night” wasn’t a possibility. In focusing on small and feasible changes, she realized she could arrange a short “date dog walk” together every day. Others had similar awareness breakthroughs about small, positive steps they would move them toward their goals, while still fitting in with their lives and responsibilities.
By the end of the workshop, each person left with smiles, hope, and a creative strategy and action plan for making a positive change that would benefit them. And because the tweak would fit in with their current caregiving responsibilities, they were well on their way to avoiding the trap of feeling of guilty or selfish; on the contrary, they saw how it added value to their selves both as individuals, and as caregivers.
So give it a try. Channel Congresswoman Maxine Waters. You can still be the caregiving hero that you are, and at the same time, reclaim your time – and reclaim your self – one kaizen mini-step at a time.
Ruth Kunstadter, MA, BCC works with career changers and other individuals who want to connect to their purpose and potential, and to create more self-care, balance, and fulfillment in their personal and professional lives. Find out more about creating your best "what's next" at www.newpathwayscoaching.com.