Sunday, December 17, 2017
Parenting & Relationships

To help handle stress, build some humanity into self-image

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Q: I pride myself on being a person who doesn't get emotional and can logically work through any problems life throws at me. But I have no idea how to get through my current situation.

My dad is dealing with serious health issues that his doctors haven't been able to diagnose yet — ALS is a possibility; my mom (divorced from my dad) is bipolar and suffering from major anxiety to the point she can't travel for upcoming events; and my grandmother is recovering from cancer surgery. I have no idea how to help my family members deal with their health problems, and I'm scared of how helpless I feel. Any recommendations for support groups or advice to help me get through things one day at a time?

Feeling Overwhelmed

A: That does sound overwhelming, I'm sorry. Funny that you use "one day at a time" because what came to mind as I was reading your words was a staple of 12-step programs. Your happy atheist advicemaker proudly presents the serenity prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

The courage to change the things I can,

And the wisdom to know the difference.

Applied to your situation: Please accept that you can't diagnose or heal your father, can't remove your grandmother's cancer, can't soothe your mother's anxiety away, can't avoid pain.

What you can do is show people you love them. You can write or call just to say hello and listen; you can offer whatever help you're able to provide (bringing by a meal, filling out insurance claims, making calls for them, etc.); if they live far away, you can plot out when you can visit, for how long and how often, and what you can accomplish when you get there.

You can also contact your local hospice, as a reader suggested, about support groups.

Perhaps the biggest thing you can do is for yourself, inside, by tackling this:

"I pride myself on being a person who doesn't get emotional and can logically work through any problems life throws at me."

Taking pride in our strengths helps keep our spirits up and engines running, but too rigid a self-definition can become a straitjacket. In fact, get too tied up in being The One Who Can Handle Anything, and your first wobble will suddenly become the next thing on your list of terrible things you must face.

Instead, build some humanity into that self-image: "I'm human, I get emotional, I get overwhelmed, but then I find my way back."

Is that any less admirable, or strong or productive a self-definition than the one you offered? I don't think so, but it leaves you room to wind up sucking your thumb in a corner occasionally without having to rethink your whole concept of who you are.

You're just as tough and capable as you've always been; you're just being forced to accept that your idea of "any problems life throws at me" was formed in easier times. Welcome to the Who Threw My Life in a Blender Society. Allow yourself the feelings that come naturally with membership. Then, when you're ready, let your logic team move in.

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