Category Archives: well being

Self-Care for Caregivers

It is well-recognized that patients with long-term illnesses such as terminal cancer or Alzheimer’s Disease go through phases of inevitable decline. Transition into a new phase requires the medical team to make appropriate adaptations to patient care. Through my work with caregivers serving family members with such serious illnesses, I have found that while the changing needs of the patient are anticipated and met, the concomitant change in the needs of the caregiver are often overlooked.

In some cases the family member, usually a spouse or daughter, is the primary caregiver. In other cases the family member oversees home healthcare professionals who provide direct care on a daily basis. Both situations generate significant levels of stress for the family member. To sustain her own physical, mental/emotional, and spiritual health, the family member needs to be intentional about her own self-care. Self-care programs need to be flexible and dynamic. Strategies that served the caregiver well in the initial phases of her loved one’s illness need to be reassessed and changed as the illness progresses.

Prolonged involvement in stressful environments takes a toll on a person’s physical and mental health. This is certainly the case for caregivers dealing with the inevitable decline of a loved one. Prolonged stress leads to increases in cortisol and other stress-related hormones that can depress the caregiver’s immune system making them more prone to health problems. Caregivers often live with interrupted sleep as they respond to patient’s needs during the night. Exhaustion and an ongoing sense of loss and grief can contribute to depression and a sense of hopelessness.

Far too little attention is given to the tremendous stress such caregivers live with on a daily basis. In my work I help caregivers take a close look at the state of their physical, mental/emotional, and spiritual health. What strategies are they using to help themselves sustain health in all these areas? Which strategies are working well, which are not? As the patient declines further and the stress on the caregiver increases, what adaptations are needed in self-care?

Caregivers are often very observant of the changes in their loved one’s mental, physical, and spiritual health. At the same time, they may be giving no attention to the significant changes occurring in their own health. They cannot assume that strategies that served them well early in the family member’s illness are going to be sufficient to see them through a long journey. Failure to recognize the inevitable increase of stress they are under can lead them to feel they are becoming less patient, less compassionate, and less competent. Caregivers report increased feelings of being overwhelmed and a diminishing sense of confidence in their ability to function well. Failure to address these issues puts the caregiver at greater risk of illness and reduces their ability to provide the care their loved one needs.

The specific components of a self-care plan will vary for each individual. In this brief paper, it is impossible to cover the range of issues that caregivers face. However, I want to address a few critical considerations that are relevant to nearly all caregivers.

Interdependence of Caregiver and Family Member with Illness

Although there are many reasons why caregivers fail to give sufficient attention to their own self-care, one major reason is their failure to appreciate the profound interdependence of the caregiver and the family member in declining health. One way to probe this interdependence in speaking with caregivers is to consider the caregiver as a fresh water well.

Fresh water wells penetrate deep into the earth and tap underground water reservoirs. Reservoirs are continuously fed by underground streams that are in turn fed by rainfall and snow melt. A well with a deep reservoir can provide fresh water to sustain the lives of families and whole communities for many years. Deep, well-built wells function beautifully for long periods of time. However, they cannot function in isolation. If the streams and underground resources that feed them dry up, an otherwise excellent well provides no water.

It can help a caregiver to imagine herself as a fresh water well. As long as her water–her energy, her physical, mental, and spiritual energy–is being fed by deep streams, she can provide for her loved one’s needs. However, if she runs dry, if her physical, mental, and spiritual energies are depleted, she will be unable to care for her loved one with the strength, patience, compassion, and competence that is needed. Sustaining her own health requires intentional self-care.

I use the term “self-care” to represent ways caregivers sustain their physical, mental, and spiritual health. Wise self-care does not eliminate the significant stress involved in caring for a loved one. Rather it supports the caregiver in sustaining the balance and energy to face the challenges of each day.

The deep underground streams that feed a fresh water well represent unique sources of energy that fuel a particular caregiver’s physical, mental/emotional, and spiritual health. A factor that often complicates caregivers’ willingness to engage in adequate self-care is guilt. Many caregivers report feeling conflicted about going out to eat, to movies, spending time with close friends, or participating in groups away from home because their loved one is unable to do those things. They feel guilty enjoying themselves or getting help for themselves personally when their loved is suffering. Such guilt can be debilitating and self-defeating.

If caregivers think seriously about the need for their own reservoirs to be continuously fed so they can care for their family member, they may be able to release or minimize the feeling of guilt and realize that they are serving their loved one by taking care of themselves. This is not rationalization or self-justification. It is a reality that when they are in good physical, mental/emotional, spiritual health, caregivers are in a better position to care for their loved one with patience, compassion, and competence.

It is true that there are caregivers who feel so resentful and angry about having to care for a family member that they run to engage in outside activities every moment possible. In this case, feelings of guilt may be an honest reflection of underlying conflicts that need to be addressed with a counselor or therapist. They may feel it is unfair that they should be in this situation. Expecting life to be “fair” is ill-advised. There are no families untouched by illness, reversals of fortune, great disappointments. Mental health emerges from the ability to face reality as it is, not clinging to ideas of what we wish it were or think it should be.

It is important to note that the best of caregivers sometimes wish to just run away. They feel overwhelmed and can’t imagine how they are going to continue. Such feelings along with anger, resentment, and self-pity are to be expected in the course of such trying conditions. When the feelings occur, it is important to acknowledge them, be kind to oneself, breathe deeply, and remember these are just thoughts. Excellent caregivers are human beings, not saints. Developing healthy outlets to release such negative thoughts and feelings is important. Beating oneself up for having such thoughts is self-defeating and does nothing to help the patient.

Recognizing the interdependence of the patient and caregiver can help caregivers accept the need to assess the adequacy of their self-care on a periodic basis. The following aspects of self-care are important considerations for all caregivers. The specific forms self-care takes will vary for each individual.

Developing a Safety Net of Support

Caregiving in particularly challenging situations is a high wire act. Living at such dizzying heights requires a good safety net that provides protection and solace for the caregiver. Caregivers need to be intentional about developing, evaluating, mending, and augmenting their support safety net on a regular basis.

Nets have many nodes that keep them strong. There may be a few large nodes that are critical to the strength of the net – key people on whom one can rely. These may be professionals who provide information and/or counseling. There may be one or more family members and friends who serve as major nodes. These critical people are available, reliable, and respond in ways that serve the particular needs of the caregiver.

People who serve as critical nodes may change over time. With prolonged illness, caregivers find that some people who were supportive initially become less and less available. Caregivers need to be aware of such changes and take steps to repair and modify their nets. As the patient declines, the caregiver’s needs will change. Individuals who previously served the caregiver well may not be able to meet their changing needs. It is important to mention that the failure of close friends or family members to sustain involvement with the patient and caregiver over time is common. This can cause great pain, disappointment and anger.

Support Groups

Joining a local support group or finding one on-line may be useful for some caregivers. The internet can provide information about groups related to a particular illness.

A well-functioning support group offers participants:

  • an environment within which to share feelings, fears, and frustrations with others who are facing similar challenges
  • opportunities to learn strategies from one another to address specific problems relating to both the patient and their own self-care
  • a way to overcome the feeling of isolation many caregivers experience
  • knowledge about resources available to help patients and caregivers
  • an increased sense of strength and self-confidence when they are able to offer helpful information and advice to others. They may find they are coping more effectively than they thought.
  • encouragement and empathy from people who understand what they face each day.

Monitoring Physical Health   

The demands of caregiving can make it difficult to pay attention to one’s own physical health. Developing an intentional plan for attending to one’s diet and exercise is critical.

If is helpful to have food in the house for easy, nutritional meals. Many caregivers report that they don’t take time to eat well. They snack during the day rather than sitting down and eating a good meal. When we are tired and under stress our bodies often crave foods that do not serve our long-term physical health. Keeping high quality, nutritional food available in the refrigerator or freezer can make it easier to maintain a diet that promotes physical health.

Caregivers report the need to feed the patient at mealtime can make mealtime difficult and unpleasant. Some find eating at the table alone upsetting. These factors may also contribute to a caregiver eating poorly. While certainly understandable, it is important for caregivers to find workable ways to eat healthy food on a consistent basis.

It can be enjoyable and relaxing to have a glass of wine with a meal. Caregivers report the need to monitor their drinking and use of prescription medications, however. With prolonged stress, it is easy to begin drinking too much or relying on medications in ways that undermine physical and mental health.

Physical exercise plays a key role in sustaining health. For some this may involve going out for walks regularly, going to the gym, or putting music on and dancing in the house. When we are tired it is easy to think exercising is just too much. However, most caregivers report that their energy increases with exercise once they get themselves going. Over time they develop increased stamina. For some it works best to have an exercise partner, perhaps a neighbor who likes to get out for brisk walk through the neighborhood. The key is to find something the caregiver can do easily and regularly that works well for her body.

Caregivers need to pay attention to changes in their own physical health and check with their doctor if symptoms persist that might indicate an underlying problem.

Monitoring social engagement with others

Caregiving can lead to a sense of isolation. It is important for caregivers to engage in the forms of social activities that are most nourishing to them. Spending time with good friends is an important way to replenish the deep reservoirs we need to stay healthy. Many caregivers report feeling guilty if they go out with friends because their loved one can’t participate. This can lead caregivers to forego pleasurable activities that actually contribute to their ability to care for their loved one to the best of their ability. As the patient experiences steeper decline, it may be important for the caregiver to increase the amount of time she spends with good friends in order to deal with the increasing stress of caregiving.

Monitoring and adapting self-care as stress increases requires evaluating what social engagements are healthiest. With the increasing demands of caregiving, it is critical to prioritize the time one spends with others. Rather than spending time with people based on old habits, caregivers are wise to evaluate what encounters strengthen them. Some people drain our energy and leave us feeling tired and edgy. When one is under the continual stress of caregiving, it is wise to limit time spent with such people. Some caregivers feel energized engaging with large groups of people; others are energized by engaging with just one or two people at a time. Caregivers need to be self-aware and make intentional choices about the people with whom they spend time.

Recognize that talking on the phone and being connected to people can be both energizing and enervating. Many caregivers report that others want to support them, talk to them, and be there for them at a time when they are exhausted and don’t want to talk. What they really want and need is to read a book or take a bath. This leads to some delicate issues. Caregivers may need advice and support in learning how to let others know that they appreciate the concern but need to be quiet. There can be conflict and misunderstandings if adult children want to offer support with their daily morning or evening call. As grateful as the caregiver may be for their love and concern, it may be exhausting and unhelpful to the caregiver. There are no easy answers to these issues. Caregivers may need to engage the support of a wise friend, a support group, or a therapist to work through ways of handling these situations. Ideally friends and family appreciate the tremendous stress the caregiver is under and will not be defensive if the caregiver says it is not a good time to talk. Unfortunately, many people are unable or unwilling to make it easy on the caregiver to set up healthy boundaries.

Beyond the time and energy involved in conversations with close friends and family, the content of conversations can also be a source of stress. Well-meaning family members or friends may inquire frequently about patient care: has the caregiver taken the patient outside, recorded the patient’s eating habits, or arranged for a new medical test? Some callers may doubt the adequacy of the caregiver and believe different, better care is needed. Others may believe the caregiver is doing a great job. Yet they believe it would be helpful to ask questions about what kind of care is being given and report on new approaches the caregiver might consider. Whether the caller is motivated by critical feelings or intends to be helpful, the effect on the caregiver may be the same. Questions about the care being given and suggestions for new options may add more stress and contribute to feelings of frustration and exhaustion. The caregiver may need help from a friend or professional to develop ways of handling debilitating calls to reduce the toll it takes on the caregiver.

Many caregivers are engaged in multi-generational relationships. A wife whose husband has early onset Alzheimer’s Disease may also have parents, children, and even grandchildren who are also important in her life. Caregivers in these situations may need to find new ways to “be there” for these family members as the demands of patient care change. It may be necessary to establish or re-examine the boundaries and limitations within relationships that may not have been needed before.

With self-care in mind, many caregivers find simple ways that do not demand much time or energy to let others know they are thinking of them. It is important to the caregiver to express their love and interest in friends and family members whom they may rarely have a chance to see in person. The caregiver’s needs are well-served by knowing they are expressing their love to those people who are special to them while respecting their own limitations.

Social engagement need not always involve verbal interaction with others. Many caregivers report that participating in a yoga class, for example, provides a time of gentle movement and relaxation with others whom they enjoy seeing.

In addition to social engagement with people, many caregivers derive significant social support from pets. Dogs and cats often provide a critical source of love and companionship.

Monitoring Mental/Emotional Health

Developing and engaging a social safety net, attending to one’s physical health, and monitoring one’s social involvement with others contribute to one’s mental/emotional health. Prolonged stress and exhaustion affects mental function. Caregivers may find it helpful to have a specific notebook in which they keep notes about the patient’s condition, dates of appointments, changes in medication, and information about on-line resources, etc. In the past one’s memory may have been excellent and easily able to hold the changing data. When we are tired and stressed, our memories do not function as effectively. When caregivers begin to make mistakes, it adds further stress and contributes to a cycle of frustration that can contribute to depression. For some caregivers tracking information on a smart phone or tablet is the easiest way to keep and access information. For others, learning new technology to track information just adds frustration and a sense of incompetence. Caregivers need to be encouraged to use whatever means serves them best whether the technology is old-fashioned or new.

There are simple deep relaxation and meditation techniques that can be used throughout the day for brief periods of time to release the buildup of stress in the body and clear the mind. For example, one can sit in a comfortable chair, tense and release the muscles of the body a couple of times, then take ten slow, deep diaphragmatic breaths. On the inhalation, the belly should extend, allowing the oxygen deep into the lungs. Exhale slowly and fully. When we are under stress we often breathe shallowly, using only the upper part of the lungs. This puts more stress on our cardiovascular system and reduces the amount of oxygen going to the brain. Ten slow, deep breaths followed by 2 or 3 minutes of sitting quietly can help break the stress cycle that builds in the body. There are also energizing breathing techniques one can learn to give oneself a quick boost of energy.

It is wise to intentionally plan several of these breaks throughout each day. Such brief breaks add up during the day and help to replenish the caregiver’s reservoir.

If caregivers enjoy movies or watching television, it is helpful to choose shows that are funny, uplifting, encouraging, or strengthening in some way. During periods of high stress, it is not helpful to watch depressing, violent shows. Researchers have found that our brains respond to what we watch whether the story is true or imaginary. Frightening films can raise our blood pressure and lead to the production of stress hormones as if what we were watching was actually happening. A few minutes of belly laughing changes the chemistry in the body and increases energy. Taking time every day to intentionally read or watch something that makes them laugh, along with retaining their sense of humor in general, can calm the mind and feed the caregiver’s energy reservoir.

Many caregivers find it essential to check in with a trusted therapist regularly to talk through what they are feeling and experiencing. Therapists can help them understand what is happening mentally and emotionally as they care for their loved one and can guide them toward constructive ways of coping with their reality.

Spiritual Health

The spiritual dimension of life involves our deepest values, our ways of understanding the meaning and purpose of life, our view of what life is all about. Some people find their spiritual life is fed by participation in a community of faith. They derive understanding and solace from the teachings and beliefs of their faith.

Some people do not associate their spirituality with a particular religious tradition. Despite diverse spiritual perspectives, many caregivers report that their sense of life’s meaning and their deepest values are clarified in the fire of daily caregiving. They are challenged to look at themselves deeply and learn what they are capable of. When self-reflection is done honestly with a large dose of gentleness and self-compassion, caregivers find themselves becoming wiser, stronger, more resilient people, despite the trauma of their daily life.

Through daily spiritual practices such as inspirational readings, prayer, and meditation, many caregivers find the strength they need to face the day. They learn to find beauty and goodness in small things and small acts of kindness – cardinals and chickadees that visit the bird feeder daily, a neighborhood child who smiles and waves as she passes the house, a card from a dear friend. They seek to appreciate the strength the loved one has left, the unexpected song he begins to sing when the radio plays, a loving touch. So much may be gone, but there is still much for which one can be grateful, if one chooses that view. When we focus with gratitude on what we have in our life rather than on what we do not have, it feeds the reservoirs of our life in every possible way.

Approaching Self-Care as a Dynamic Process

Caregivers need to be encouraged to see their own self-care as a critical part of caring for their loved one. This requires that self-care be intentionally planned and regularly monitored. When caregivers understand self-care as a dynamic process, they will be in a better position to develop and sustain their physical, mental, and spiritual health throughout the strain of a long illness. This, in turn, will help them provide competent, compassionate care to their loved one.

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Developing Awareness

Thankfully, more and more people are learning about the benefits of quieting the mind through meditation. There are different ways to meditate and it is helpful to practice an approach that resonates within.  Classes are taught in such techniques as concentration, compassion, mindfulness, lovingkindness, transcendental, guided visualization, heart-centered, and others.  Different approaches require different brain skills.  Practicing every day benefits our mind, body, and spirit.

What jogs my blog today is the importance of extending this awareness to others. I have become more aware of how often people (myself included, sadly), go through the day multitasking.  I think about this a lot and have written about it before.

Now, I am focused on how many people are looking down at their mobile devices while walking, sometimes bumping into people or barely missing them!

Is there an unconscious expectation that it is the responsibility of OTHER people to be careful that they don’t bump into us?  Do we expect THEM to weave around us because we have face-planted into our mobile device screen?

When we are in the position of being so focused on our mobile device that we cannot be “conscious” of others, we are living in our own bubble.  Instead of an increased awareness and a compassionate connection to those around us (often made through eye contact) we experience the opposite:  a lack of awareness of others.

So as we sit and meditate and clear our minds, perhaps we can remember that we are a piece of a larger whole. Our energy is connected to others.

Let’s begin with ourselves and then recognize that we are “a part” of a larger world, not “apart” from it.

Whose Body is This, Anyway?

Most of us know nothing (or very little) about body mechanics.  And few of us really pay close attention and listen when our bodies “speak” to us.  We wonder why our “back goes out” or where the “hip pain” came from, or “why turning our neck is so difficult!”

We go through our days without thinking about how we sit or stand or walk or reach or bend or carry or even open a door.  Add to that the contortions that most of us experience when we use our handheld devices or are sitting at a computer, and, well, it’s amazing more of us are not in constant pain.

Of course most of us are aware of the influence that stress has on our well being and functioning, and how our mind influences our health.  But are we also aware of how paying attention to the slightest twinges can be helpful in protecting us from more serious injury?

I’ve always been conscious of health, wellness, and the mind – body – spirit connection.  I can’t even remember a time when I was not physically active and aware of myself in space.  But recently, my body “surprised” me when I Injured myself and the simplest movements became complicated and painful. Although well along the healing road now, I am much more aware of protecting my body and being even more mindful of “simple” movements.

There is a lot to learn when you are “flat out” and if we learn those lessons then our “time out” was not wasted.  Feeling angry, disappointed, sad, or whatever emotion emerges is natural.  However, staying in those places can contribute to healing’s detriment.  Learning the lessons can mean focusing on why something may have happened and how we can change our lives to move through life more consciously. This can be the proverbial silver lining.

Discovering Patience

It’s when things go wrong that you can really tell what you need to know about a person. As I continue to learn from the people I meet through everyday life and work … it’s easy to be married when things are going well.

The real challenge is to figure out how to remain kind and respectful and compassionate to your partner when one or both of you are experiencing tough times, even if those times are momentary.

Patience is a virtue and an important attribute which enhances every relationship. When someone “loses” their patience, the damage can take its toll.

Good times together can suddenly turn sour when you or your partner lose patience. It can be something as mundane as waiting on line at the grocery store while someone ahead of you needs to exchange an item, or waiting for a parking attendant who is taking longer than you are comfortable with to find your car. In either case someone is making a very human mistake.

Losing your temper and your cool really isn’t very cool! And to be sure, if you are near children, they are watching and learning.

What are these children learning when we fly off the handle? That yelling at others is an acceptable way to deal with our own frustration? What are they absorbing about dealing with life’s unpredictable snags when the immediate reaction we model for them is demonstrating our anger by shouting at others?

Each of us has the capacity to learn to value the humanness in every person. One way we can do this is by being mindful of the situation and choosing our patience when we are stressed. It is true that some of us have “longer fuses ” than others, but we can lengthen a shorter fuse when we have the desire to do so.

Partners can be very helpful in reminding us of the value of developing patience for ourselves as well as for others.

How we learn to grieve

Lately, what has jogged my blog are the conversations I have had with a number of people who are grieving.  New losses trigger old losses.  That’s what happens.  We don’t expect it and we wonder what the heck is going on.

In the process of uncovering layers upon layers of sadness that has been locked away, we becoming sensitive to the connection between the way we handle grief and what we learned about grief as we were growing up.

As we allow ourselves to work through and understand grief that we have held for decades, we can trying to free ourselves from a form of grieving (or not grieving) that is often patterned after our parents and the way grief was handled in our family.

I have always been interested in loss.  My own mother and father experienced significant losses when they were very young parents.  They were awfully busy with the day to day of raising two very young children and starting a business so from what I gather, there wasn’t much time or energy given over to mourning.  I am sure one of the reasons I found my way to my profession was because I learned, at a very young age, that I was pretty good at taking care of people.

And then, early in my career working with families with children who had hearing losses, I saw the powerful way previous losses stay, and how they impact us as we experience new losses. Whether and how we allow ourselves to grieve is very much tied to what we witnessed early in our lives and what we felt was allowed regarding our own processing and expression of grief.

The loss could be the death of someone close to us, a significant breakup, retirement, divorce, or a change in our financial or social status.  When we understand the myriad ways that present loss triggers the re-experiencing of previous losses, and spend time exploring the meaning of what we have gone through, we can work through our anxiety, guilt, and sadness.  We become freer to go to places that had been “emotionally off limits.”

As part of this process, I believe it is helpful to think about the messages that were attached to grief as we were growing up.  Likely what we heard and saw and felt informed the way we do or don’t move through grief.  It is hard (impossible?) to grieve when the people around us are so uncomfortable with our grief.

Some of the things people say:
No child should come to a funeral.
Only the good die young.
Just move on.
You’ll find someone else.
Focus on your schoolwork.
Now you are on your own.
It’s for the best.
We know he took his own life but we’ll say he died of cancer.
Don’t ever tell anyone what really happened.
You are a big boy; I don’t want to see you cry.
You have mourned long enough.
Stop talking about her so much. You are stuck.
He is with God, in a much better place.
Don’t celebrate her birthday. She’s dead.

Perhaps your mom lost her mother when she was a child.  As a result she became responsible for the younger siblings.  It may be that her “not thinking about mama” may have been what got her through.  But at what cost?  How did that determine the way she dealt with loss throughout her life?  And what did she teach you about sitting with grief, forging ahead, not looking back, and so on?

Maybe your dad was a widower who removed the photographs of his deceased wife because it is too tough for him to see her image.  You and your siblings got the message that even talking about your mom upset him.  And, so you don’t.

If after your parents’ divorce, one of your parents remarried and helped to raise you and your sisters, I am certain it wasn’t long before you and your siblings picked up what is appropriate and inappropriate regarding what you did with your feelings of sadness, anger, confusion, and abandonment.

Think of the messages you heard as a child and try to have compassion for the people who delivered those messages.  Given their experience, culture, or any number of factors, they were doing the best they could.  Now it is your turn to, if necessary, revisit the losses that you could not approach at the time.  You can understand the reasons as you allow yourself to experience the grief and “sit with it and then walk through it” without judgement, and with an open heart for your grieving self…no matter how long ago you experienced the loss.

What we need to do when someone shares their loss with us is to be with them.  Even when we do not feel comfortable doing so, that is our role and purpose.  As tough as it is, our role is to be with people where they are.

Perfection at the Holidays

In order to not only get through the holidays but to enjoy them, we need to focus on what we would like to have as our experience for the holidays.  We can ask ourselves what are the most important aspects of this holiday?  A “perfect” table and dinner?  Having everyone together, enjoying board games, football, a holiday movie, and sharing stories while sipping hot chocolate?

Take care of yourself.   Be sure to “mind your own health” at this time of year.  Remember how important it is to exercise (even if you do 1/2 of your normal routine), drink water, eat consciously (save the desserts for the parties instead of for late night snacking) and breathe deeply.

Breathe mindfully, visualize people smiling and enjoying themselves, move your body and stretch, which helps you to “be flexible” (in mind and body).  Play MUSIC to help you get into the “spirit” of the holiday.  SOAK in a hot bath.

Make time for the cuddling and “hot chocolate” moments with kids and listening to music you love with family and friends.  Each night before the holidays arrive, as you fall asleep, recount the things you are grateful for and spend time reflecting on each one.  When we focus on gratitude (maybe write down what you are thankful for) you are training your brain to be more open to the positive in your life.  This simple act helps to “tone down” the need for everything to be perfect.  Expressing what you’re thankful for is an effective way to channel the good of the occasion or event and opens your mind to thinking in a healthy way.  Noticing the good and focusing on what is going right can soften a harsh, critical perspective (only noticing the one thing that is out of place on what others all see as a beautiful table).

Whether you need to have the perfect decorations in your home, buy the perfect gifts, serve the perfect meal, host the perfect family party, or show off your perfect children, if taken too far, the desire for “holiday perfection” can be not only exhausting, but quite harmful to your mental and physical health.   Having high standards is great; having excessively high standards that can never be met isn’t so great.  To be sure, getting through the holidays can be a challenge.  Lots to do while working against a clock that seems to be ticking faster than ever before.  For many of us, we just pile on what needs to be done while still expecting to do everything else we normally do and for many of us, our plates are already spilling over.  We somehow believe that we can do it all, whether selecting, buying and wrapping presents (sometimes for more people than we expected), decorating our homes, traveling to relatives, attending holiday parties, or planning a delicious and creative meal where we have considered everyone’s allergies!

The keys to get through the holidays include planning, flexibility, seeking and accepting help (even at the last minute), “lightening up” and seeing the humor in mostly everything.  And when the unexpected happens (and it WILL happen) allowing yourself to be flexible. Understand that SOMEONE will be late, SOMEONE may have too much to drink, SOMEONE may be in a bad mood, SOMEONE will bring up a taboo subject, SOMEONE will disapprove of something, and YOUR ATTITUDE will determine whether or not everything will be okay if you are determined not to get yourself in a tizzy.  Tell yourself that there may be lumps in the gravy, or not enough stuffing, or that someone isn’t going to like their gift, but that the whole idea of getting together is…to be together and make memories.  So ask yourself, what are the memories you want to help make?

Consider what is really important to you.  Is it being with family, decorating the house, cooking an amazing meal, socializing with friends?  Be sure you choose activities that will most likely bring you and your family joy.  Keep this as your priority when you set boundaries and prioritize so what you take on is reasonable and fits your desire.

Make a plan. You may be a person who really likes to have control.  Feeling that you have some control helps you to feel calm so don’t expect yourself to forfeit that control…make a workable plan to get a handle on the many things that have to get done to help you get through and enjoy the holidays.  You can only do so much!  A goal is to not going overboard with too many commitments.  You can always control your attitude and your reaction even if you cannot control what happens.

Recognize what you can manage.  Figure out what you can and cannot manage.  For example, when you attend a party that you are obliged to attend, try focusing on a new person or a few people who matter and explore or deepen those relationships instead of trying to “work” the entire room.

Keep your expectations reasonable.  Don’t expect what you cannot deliver.  If someone you cared for died, you WILL miss them at the holiday.  If you don’t have the money you want, you will buy fewer or different presents.  Keep your expectations in synch with your reality.  If you have a realistic picture in your mind of what the holiday will be like you will feel more calm.  Tell yourself: “I know I will miss not having Joe here this year.” “I know this year will not be about buying a lot of gifts.”

Manage commitments by delegating and sharing tasks.  These tasks take up your time, so do them together with friends or family members (someone to help cook, pick up house guests, or set up a party).  This can help you let go without feeling you are losing a sense of control.  Just because you believe that everything has to be perfect  doesn’t mean that is true!  Usually there are one or two or more people among your family and friends who want to contribute in some way.  So give them a job and let them help to reduce the pressure off you so you can spend more time socializing.  When allowing friends and family to bring parts of the meal, or contribute in some way, you not only give yourself a break, you also give others a chance to feel a part of the celebration in meaningful ways.

When you are flexible in the way you do things, you give yourself a chance to learn to be more comfortable with minor imperfections and unexpected changes to your plans.

Join the Club

For many of us, the thought of becoming a member of a club involves anticipation, applications, interviews, assessments, dues, and a fair amount of socializing in order to join.  For some the process is enjoyable; for others, there is some dread associated with it, wondering if they will be “accepted” by the group they want to become a part of.

Having neither applied for nor joined a club, I have not experienced the “club world” first hand but I remember laughing at the now infamous Groucho Marx comment, “I sent the club a wire stating, PLEASE ACCEPT MY RESIGNATION.  I DON’T WANT TO BELONG TO ANY CLUB THAT WILL ACCEPT ME AS A MEMBER.”

But what happens when you become a member of a club you never wanted to join?
Never submitted a membership application?  Never wanted to be or see yourself among its ranks?  Yet something happens in your life, and bingo, you are a member of a club you had no idea existed or had no desire, or maybe even feared, joining.

Within an instant you become a (reluctant) member of the orphan club, the breast cancer survivor club, the young widow or widower club, the parent of a child with special needs club, the divorce club, the partner of someone who has Alzheimer’s club, the battered woman club, the sexual abuse survivor club, the spinal chord injury club, the parent of a dead child club, and countless others.

Not only did you not want to join, you never thought it possible that this new position would define you.  Before you may be ready to identify as a member, others either enlist you for membership or refer to you as a member.  You may feel stripped of the rest of your personhood–your identity–other roles and functions you assume.

Yet when we experience life to the fullest, being present during our journeys, we see that we are, indeed, members of many clubs.  Those we make an effort to join and those we had hoped to avoid.  Initially, despite the way we entered the club, we may believe our personhood is defined by our membership; that our status is enhanced or diminished by that membership.  In fact, it is neither elevated nor reduced.  It just is.

Belonging to clubs where others have experienced similar life challenges can be comforting in unexpected ways.  We feel an association with people we may never, otherwise, have met.  We feel we share nothing in common, except this one, deep connection, which others in the clubs we worked so hard to get into, may not be able to relate to, or may even avoid referencing when in our company.  Asking, “how ya doing?” for awhile but then, over time, for any number of reasons, moving on and praying that we do too.

Being a member of the club we never wanted to join can help us immeasurably during tough times, knowing we are not alone; that others have survived the “unthinkable” and they are there for us to observe, learn from, lean on, emulate, rail against, challenge, get through, perhaps transform as a result of knowing they did it…are doing it.

It helps as well as allows us to stay a part of the other clubs, the ones we tried so hard to join, if we want to.  Because in the end, we are the sum of all of our experiences and we have many aspects.  We integrate it all and go on.  Sometimes we need to go to the movies or participate in life without focusing on our loss, and feel “normal” even though we are in the midst of trying to get our minds and arms around what will be a “new normal.”   We don’t expect members in one club to give us what the members in the other club can give us and we don’t resent them because they cannot or will not.  We must determine how we get what we need and when we stand back and look, we may be able get what we need from both…the ability to live our life fully.