I spoke at a Caregivers’ Conference in Bellingham, Washington recently. As always, I met wonderful people and had some fascinating conversations with family caregivers. There were three in particular that stood out in my mind.
Marsha*, a woman in her mid-thirties, has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). She is caring for her father who has never been kind, supportive or appreciative of anything she’s done. Her father demeans her by referring to her PTSD as her “nervous little tick.”
Tammi*, a petite attractive blonde, appeared to be in her late-fifties. Nine years ago, she moved in with her 90 year-old mother. She confided that her mother had never been a “Hallmark” mom, and now at age 99, although she is still in relatively good health, she’s becoming more demanding, more critical, and less appreciative of Tammi’s help every day.
Jim* and Diane*, a middle-aged couple, have been caring for Jim’s mother in their home for the last seven years. They both looked exhausted. After I’d talked about clinical depression, Diane confided that she might need to see a doctor and get some medication for depression. She said, “I just realized that it’s been years since I woke up in the morning feeling like I had anything to look forward to in my life. I can’t see how this situation is ever going to get better, and at times I think it is never going to end!”
Where is the Boundary Between Acceptable and Unacceptable Behavior?
When you are the child of an abusive, neglectful, or unappreciative parent, setting boundaries and breaking old patterns of behavior takes a lot of mental and emotional effort. Marsha, the young woman with PTSD, said from the time she was a little girl that if something went wrong, she was blamed for it. She’s been conditioned through the years to feel like nothing she did was ever good enough. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that even now, in spite of giving up her own life to care for her father, he doesn’t think she’s doing enough. He still criticizes her, and regardless of how much she’s sacrificed, she still doesn’t feel good about herself.
Tammi acknowledged that her mother, a narcissist who has always had an inflated sense of her own importance and a callous disregard for anyone else’s needs or feelings, will never change.
Jim’s mother is a whiner. Nothing they do is ever quite right. Diane and Jim both acknowledged that they spend their days and nights trying to please her. “Mom” doesn’t like having strangers in the house, so they haven’t left her alone to do something for themselves — even for a few hours — in at least four years.
My advice to my new friends was to first and foremost recognize and appreciate all the things they are doing to take care of their family members. Then, I encouraged them to do three things:
- Detach themselves from their parents’ bad behavior.
- Stop managing their parents’ feelings.
- Set clear boundaries.
Detach from Parents’ Bad Behavior
Start with recognizing trash-talk for what it is — trash. When a person demeans, belittles, or criticizes you constantly and unfairly; recognize that they are using negative language to manipulate and control your emotions and actions. Anger and guilt are two of the most effective tools used by alcoholics, narcissists, and other guilt-trippers to get what they want.
Acknowledge and congratulate yourself for all the good, kind, and generous things you are doing to care for them. Think how appreciative you would be if someone was doing for you all of the things you are doing for your parents. Look at nasty comments the same way you would look at a sack of garbage. Whether it’s a bag of spoiled food and grimy rubbish or it’s a litany of accusations, complaints, and criticisms — garbage is garbage. Throw it out.
Accept That You Are Not Responsible for Your Parent’s Feelings
Each person is responsible for his her own happiness — or unhappiness. No matter how much you do or give, it will not change the way your parents choose to view their life. Your mother may choose to be negative and find fault with everything from the temperature in the room to the way you pour her coffee. Your father may choose to feel angry and resentful over his loss of independence and control.
The challenge for you will be to understand that whatever they feel is their choice. It isn’t within your power to turn back the clock, restore their health, or alter the way they view the world or their place in it.
If your parents know you are dependent on their approval for your sense of self-worth, you are giving them the power and the permission to treat you badly. Own your feelings and let them own theirs.
Set Boundaries—Create an Independent Life for Yourself!
You are no longer a child, and just because your parents tell you to do something, you are not obligated to do it. You can listen respectfully while they issue orders, and then you can let them know what you are willing and able to do. You can also let them know what you cannot, will not, or do not want to do.
When you decide you are tired of trying to fulfill unreasonable demands, you can let them know you are not going to comply by making “I” statements. Here are some examples:
- I’m not able to do that.
- That doesn’t work for me.
- I don’t want to do that.
- I’m not willing to do that.
Don’t apologize or explain. Simply state what you will and will not do.
Setting boundaries will create a big power shift in your relationship. Understand they won’t like it. They may ramp up their anger and disagreeable behavior in order to bring you back into line. If they do, the challenge for you will be to let them feel whatever they need to feel. Let them act however they need to act. If they need to be mad, let them be mad. If they need to pout and give you the silent treatment, let them. It is their responsibility to manage their own feelings. No matter how hard you try, how much you give, or how much you want it—you will never be able to make another person happy.
Change Your Role
You may have come from a dysfunctional family, but that doesn’t mean you have to continue playing the role you were assigned.
Accept the concept that self-care is not selfish. Do what you need to do to keep yourself healthy physically, mentally, and emotionally. Acknowledge that you deserve to be treated with respect, and refuse to allow other people to treat you badly.
It takes time and a genuine desire to change old patterns of behavior. Understand your parents will not change. It will be up to you to change how you respond to them. Do it one thought, one act, and one day at a time.
Caregiving is one of the most difficult jobs any of us will ever do. Whether you are doing it out of love or obligation doesn’t really matter. You’re doing it. You are giving a gift that deserves to be recognized and respected. If your parents can’t express their appreciation, it’s okay for you to start every morning with a vigorous pat on your own back along with a personal pledge to not allow their bad behavior affect the way you feel about yourself.
*Not their real names.
Elaine K Sanchez is a caregiver speaker and the co-founder of CaregiverHelp.com, an online video-based caregiver support program. She is the author of the unflinchingly honest and surprisingly funny book, Letters from Madelyn, Chronicles of a Caregiver. The second edition is now available for pre-orders on Amazon. Look for it in bookstores on May 17, 2016.