Family dynamics, boundaries, compassion and mental-health
Let’s talk about balancing it all in our busy lives
Our families, for better or for worse, have a big impact on the people we become. We spend our most formative years with them, and as we grow up and fly from the nest, we take with us our desire to please them, our love for them, our worries about them —they are a big part of our lives.
So what happens when something changes for a family member? The whole family dynamic can be shifted, impacting everybody in your close, familial circle. What I’d like to address today is how family dynamics, and those changes within them, can affect our mental health.
While much of this is outside of our individual control, we must focus on what we can control to take better care of our own mental health through intense periods of change.
When my own family dynamic shifted
I’ve had my own experience with a big change to my family dynamic. After my mother’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s a big shift began. My mother had been the feistiest member of our family and an amazing example to each of her three children. I followed her into first traditional medicine and later Chinese medicine and positive psychology.
When mom’s health, and particularly her short-term memory deteriorated, my sister was the first to take on her care. Living in France at the time, I decided it would be great to fly home with my daughter so we could spend some quality time with mom, and I could give my sister a much-needed break from being the primary caregiver.
It was tricky to say the least, but we persevered. Bringing mom back to France for a break, things got harder as suddenly we didn’t have the rest of the family around to pitch in.
Mom needed me from the moment she was awake until she went to sleep at night. And due to jet lag, confusion and her dementia, she wasn’t even sleeping much — so neither was I.
Any caregiver will tell you that they end up putting their own needs last, and for a while this became my default setting too. All of the self-care habits I had put in place were falling off my daily to-do list, and my energy was suffering.
Without my morning walk or my daily meditation practice, my mental health was starting to slide backwards. I’ve shared before about my history of depression. During this time I was starting to feel the darkness creep back into my peripheral vision, so I knew I had to do something.
At first it was little things, such as clever ways to take 5 to 10 minutes alone to meditate. I would tell my mom and my daughter that I was going to the bathroom, shut the bathroom door and take myself through my compassion meditation. This was a time when I really needed to call on compassion, for myself while I was feeling guilty about taking 10 minutes away from my mom, and for mom too, who was struggling with her condition.
Ultimately I asked for help and hired somebody to help out with my mom’s care at home for the rest of her stay with us in France. I had to let go of trying to be everything to my mom, while trying to be a mom myself, and to run my businesses! This is why the self-compassion was so needed —I was taking on too much.
Getting some help with my mom’s care meant that I had more energy for her and my daughter, I could still go for walks, meditate and take care of my mental health, and when I was with my family I was more present for them.
Boundaries and compassion
I think that boundaries and compassion compliment each other nicely. Setting our boundaries in order to ensure our mental wellbeing is based on self-compassion, which is often the missing piece of the puzzle for caregivers. We have so much compassion for the family member we are caring for, that we forget the first rule.
When there is a safety announcement on an airplane, they tell you to put your own oxygen mask on before helping others. We all know why that makes sense, yet we don’t apply the rule to ourselves in the rest of daily life.
What I’ve learned from this experience
Our children model our behavior. Teaching them how to be resilient starts with our own self-care routines. It is our responsibility to fill our own cups, put our own oxygen masks on — or any analogy for this that works for you. By setting the right example, we teach the next generation the importance of self-care.
We need to teach ourselves and our nearest and dearest that compassion is not a weakness, and that setting boundaries is not selfish. We need to show them how refilling our own cup first means we have the strength to then look after others better.
Above all, we need the whole world to understand that becoming exhausted or burnt out is not a measure of success or nobility. It is an affliction, and one that we can avoid with the right approach to life.
Our families are precious. Our mental health is precious, too. It shouldn’t be a competition between them, but rather a balance.
I think the bottom line here is to address that sense of fear we feel when dynamics shift and it’s outside of our control. It can feel as if the rug is being pulled from underneath us, creating a sense of overwhelm, and maybe even hopelessness. Family and that sense of home is so often our anchor in an otherwise crazy world. The thought of that changing is understandably something we worry about.
But there are many things in life that we cannot control. So with any problem or change, just like with a shift in the family dynamic, the key is to focus on what you can control.
So let’s get real for a minute —what can you control? You can set your own boundaries. You can reach out for help when you know you need it. If all else fails, you can excuse yourself to the bathroom for ten minutes if that’s your only chance to meditate. You are in control of you. If your mental health needs your attention, you can tell someone you need support.
Want to learn more about preventing and recovering from burnout? Watch my free video series here.