Another great Reader’s Question came in this week:

You write all the time about the importance of self-care, especially when caring for aging parents. I am struggling with making myself a priority when I have both of my parents, my home, my husband, my job and even some of the needs of my young adult children to manage.

I don’t see how it can happen that I could really shift my priorities…it sounds good, but it just doesn’t feel feasible!

~ Always Missing From the List

Here is My Response:

Dear Missing,

This is a very common struggle for so many people who are faced with the enormous responsibilities that you have laid out.

As someone in the role of caregiver, you have learned to put everyone’s needs above your own. When you’ve been caring for others for a long time, then certain beliefs and habits are well established, making changing them a little more challenging. But change IS realistic and doable, IF you want it!

Many people say they want more freedom, and the possibility of making themselves a priority, but fear of making the shift gets in the way.

But it’s imperative that you follow the recommendation always included in pre-flight airplane flight attendant announcements: “Should oxygen be required during our flight, anyone traveling with a dependent should place the oxygen mask over your face first.” This is necessary, because the reality is if you are not breathing, you will be of no help whatsoever to those you love and care for, who also then will not be able to get oxygen!

At the core of every change has to be either an immediate need or a desire. Until one is really “sick and tired of feeling sick and tired,” people don’t tend to initiate a change that they believe will cause others stress, tension, upset, create discord…or even end in being disowned.

In order to shift priorities and put your needs and feelings at the top of the list, the first step is deciding that you really desire that outcome – perhaps to avoid risking a stress-related health emergency of your own in the not-so-distant future…(and we breathe….)

It’s important to understand that when you are faced with family responsibilities, obligations and a desire to help and be there for everyone else, learning how to include yourself on the list of priorities means confronting – and perhaps surrendering – some long-standing family rules you were raised with and have never challenged up till now.

We deal with this very significant issue during the Take Back Your Life: The Art of Self Care group program. It causes a great deal of angst for many people, and not just caregivers. For all of us, changing our behavior to be more respectful, compassionate and caring toward ourselves will probably cause some resistance and pushback from the people most directly affected by that new way of making decisions.

We have to break the spell of family history, guilt, and shame in order to do something other than what has been expected, demanded and given in to, up until now.

The following steps take practice, patience, perseverance, and courage, but will bring you to a new sense of yourself and with that comes the freedom to live authentically and without resentment. Feelings of guilt and shame begin to wane, and you will actually be creating opportunities to enjoy family visits, rather than just seeing them as ongoing obligations and responsibilities.

We always start with a deep breath. It moves you from a space of reacting, to being in a position to be more responsive to your needs, feelings and, of course, your desired outcome. Then you can take the next 5 steps as you begin to make yourself a priority in your life.

  1. Acknowledge your feelings and needs. In order for you to become a priority in your life, you must first acknowledge how you feel and that there is something you want or need that is missing from your life.
  2. Awareness of the beliefs that have kept you in the habit of putting everyone else before you. The saying is “love thy neighbor as thyself” it does NOT say “more than yourself”. Become aware of when and why you learned to neglect or ignore yourself and your needs and feelings in deference to others. There is no judgment in this, simply awareness.
  3. Notice the fear that you feel at the idea of changing anything. Be aware of the excuses, justifications and resistance you have with simply the thought of changing the rules and your behavior. Write down the thoughts and beliefs that go through your mind that keep your fear very strong.
  4. Is your desired outcome stronger than your fear? Only when we can make our goals stronger than our fear of how others will react will we really move forward. (Whose reaction to your change do you most fear?)
  5. Affirm that this change is for your greater good. This is the step that helps you focus on being allowed to take loving, respectful and compassionate care of yourself.

The challenge for caregivers of maintaining a commitment to self-care is a complex and important issue that deserves time and attention. The shift in priorities, to take as good care of yourself as you do of others in your life, is in fact doable and feasible. But it feels hard, and maybe even at times impossible. The key is to start with small steps.

I recommend you begin with the Step by Step Guide I created to help caregivers discover new ways to handle daily challenges. Go through each of the steps, focusing on one change you’d most like to make in order to start practicing consistent self-care. Remember, change happens one step at a time.

                                                                                                                                                                                                   And we breathe…. Loren

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