With summer vacation season here, many of us are so happy to once again get together with extended families.
In some cases, though, this seems to have gone into overdrive. One of my friends just had 15 people under her roof. And another friend had 10 people for 10 days. While the second friend said it was wonderful, she lamented that she’s always prone to overdoing things – making sure everyone else’s needs are being met – and ignoring her own.
Taking care of everyone else
That reminded me of a story sent along from executive coach and registered nurse Charlyn Shelton Mentor, describing her burned out mother who was exhausted, irritable and suffered from insomnia.
Until one day, suddenly, her mother’s responses to family members – who always came to her to fix things – changed. Please note that the mom in this example could easily be a dad, sibling, other relative or caregiver. The dynamic remains the same.
“My brother said to her: ‘Mom, I’m doing poorly in all my subjects at the University.’ Mom replied: ‘Okay, you’ll recover. And if you don’t, well, you can repeat the semester; but you’ll need to pay the tuition.’
“My sister said to her, ‘Mom, I smashed the car.’ Mom replied: ‘Okay, take it to the repair shop, and find out how to pay. While they fix it, get around by subway or Uber.’
“Mother-in-law: ‘I came to spend a few months with you.’ Mom: ‘Okay, settle in on the living room couch, and look for some blankets in the closet.’”
The family was worried, Mentor relayed, and gathered to consider an intervention for her mother. As they gathered, her mom gave the following response.
“It took me a long time to realize that each of you is responsible for your own life. It took me years to discover that my anxiety, insomnia and stress does not solve your problems but aggravates me.
“I’m not responsible for the actions of any of you, and it’s not my job to provide happiness. I am responsible, though, for my reactions. So, I came to the conclusion that my duty to myself is to remain calm – and let each of you solve your own issues.
“You have all the necessary resources to solve your problems. My job is to love you and to encourage you. I can only give you advice if you ask me. Whether you follow it or not depends on you. There are consequences — good and bad — to your decisions. And you have to live with them.
“From now on, I cease to be the receptacle of your responsibilities, the sack of your guilt and the depository of your duties. I declare all of you independent and self-sufficient adults.”
Everyone in the house was speechless, Mentor relayed. From that day on, the family began to function better because everyone knew exactly what they needed to do.
Setting healthy boundaries
I’ve always said that “You teach people how to treat you.” And, in this case, the mom had done just that. She had taught her children to rely on her — and that she would tackle all their problems.
No doubt this is a noble thing — and necessary — as the children were growing up. At some point, though, the pattern needed to change. And this can be very difficult for everyone involved.
It’s sad that it often takes a breakdown to have a breakthrough. As humans, though, we’re generally adverse to change. And these ingrained habits can be the toughest of all.
“As moms, it’s hard to let go,” says Mentor, “because we’ve been the caretakers – the fixers. We never want our loved ones to struggle. When the children are grown, though, it becomes necessary to transfer those duties.
“The sooner we take that responsibility off our shoulders and onto each loved one, the better we’re preparing them to be ‘MEsponsible.’ We’re not here on earth to be everything to everyone. So, stop putting that pressure on yourself.”
Poet Mary Oliver puts this so eloquently. Here’s a synopsis of a piece my friend, Nancy Bulla, shared with me.
“I worried a lot. Will the garden grow, will the rivers flow in the right direction, will the earth turn as it was taught? And, if not, how shall I correct it? Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven, can I do better?
“Will I ever be able to sing? Even the sparrows can do it, and I am, well, hopeless. Is my eyesight fading, or am I just imagining it? Am I going to get rheumatism or dementia?
“Finally, I saw that worrying had come to nothing. And I gave it up. I took my body and went out into the morning and sang.”
Which reminds me of a point I once made in a speech. “When I resigned as CEO of the Universe, my life became a lot more peaceful.”