My husband’s elderly mother lives with us. She had been in an independent living facility, but it locked down in March because of Covid-19. By July the loneliness and restrictions were taking a toll on her mental health, so we invited her for an extended stay at our house.
That was four months ago, and now it’s my mental health that is under strain. We imagined she would move out when the threat from Covid diminished, but it has intensified. So, an extended stay has turned into an indefinite one. I cheerfully gave up my office so that she could have a private room on the main floor, but I have begun to resent the loss of a private space in which to do my work. She wants to be included in everything we do, which is normal. But she’s very old and very slow, and my patience for accommodating her pace and ability has grown thin. I never wanted to be a caretaker, had imagined that my caretaking days were coming to an end, as my daughter is about to graduate from high school and go off to college, and my son is now driving. When I imagined this time of my life, I had always imagined myself footloose and fancy free, not shackled.
Naturally, I feel ashamed of myself for these feelings. I am not supposed to resent an elderly, frail woman. I’m supposed to be loving and patient. So, I kept trying to talk myself out of my feelings, kept trying to pretend I wasn’t feeling them.
I was so persuaded that I had done the best I could with it – that a feeling of stoic resignation was the best I could aim for – that I mentioned the situation only in passing to my coach.
“What?” I said, confused.
“I’m just imagining what you would say to me in the same situation.” She and I trade coaching. This week (thank goodness) was my turn in the client seat.
But she didn’t do what I would have done with me. She knows that my go-to is to find the thoughts that underlie suffering and question them, using The Work of Byron Katie. Instead, she invited me to feel my feelings.
“What have you lost?” she asked. Because I know I am safe with her – she does not judge me – I can tell her anything. So, I tell her everything: my griefs over my loss of freedom and privacy, big and small.
She writes it all down. She tells me she’s going to read it back to me. She invites me, as she does, to listen and feel it in my body, so first I center myself using deep breathing and relaxation. Then, she reads back my own words to me in the most loving way. I hear it as if she’s telling me what’s going on with someone we both love. I feel a wave of compassion. My face crumples in sympathy.
“What if your feelings are not wrong?” she asks. “What if they are normal and okay and not an occasion for feeling bad?”
Just like that, a path opens up. If my feelings are not wrong, then there is no shame. Without shame, there is no stuck-ness. Instead, my feelings alert me to the existence of a problem, and I remain a person with agency. So, rather than stewing in resentment I can say, “We have a problem,” and we can problem-solve together.
It’s such a simple thing, allowing feelings, and what a huge difference it makes! I talked to my husband right after that coaching call, and we’re going to bring up the subject with his mom this evening. I am not sure what solution we will come up with, but I am confident we’ll soon have a plan that will meet everyone’s needs.
I invite you to use this simple path to clarity and agency the next time you feel stuck. Let yourself feel your feelings. Allow them. Ask yourself, “What if my feelings were normal and ok?” See what happens.