Do you feel as if you have lived your life conforming to the expectations of others? Are you caught in the role of the caregiver for family members or friends? Have you put your own wishes and dreams to tend to others’ desires and demands?
Every spiritual tradition teaches us that we have free will. What does this mean in practical terms? If you are a parent, it is axiomatic that you must pour your heart, time and energy into your children for many years. If you have a small or large extended family, you probably want to participate in family events, and be part of the smaller joys and challenges they face. You have to put food on the table and have a roof over your head. You may have elderly parents who need more sustained help over time as they age.
All human beings are all bound in webs of relationships, needs and wants. This is true.
Yet a fundamental human question is this: how do you live in good relationship and connection to others without sacrificing yourself?
Oh, how I relate! Before I started out to do the work of being an energy healer and spiritual teacher 10 years ago, I, too, was caught in the trap of a career that I had built based on survival needs.
In the 10 years I have been in private practice, I have also seen hundreds of clients who are in your shoes. It doesn’t matter what your story is, what culture, religion, race, or social class. You see yourself caught, bound by other’s crises, challenges, and needs. Yet, even while you feel responsible for helping them, something else has always tugged on your heart.
Yu feel something more in alignment with your deepest soul’s expression on the outer edges of the possible.
I came up against the same question in spades by the time I was in my mid-40s.
In my 30s and early 40s, I was in the role of caregiver for my mentally ill mother who had Munchausen’s Disorder and enlisted me to accompany her to many surgical procedures and major surgeries–some of them necessary, but, likely, some of them not. People with this syndrome exaggerate or fabricate symptoms to enlist attention from family, friends and medical personnel.
In the midst of this, my very elderly mother-in-law was sent to live with my husband, John, and me from a rehab hospital to recover from serious back surgery. She would never be able to live on her own again and remained with us. Around the time she came to our home, John was diagnosed to be at risk for a potentially debilitating and ultimately lethal form of cancer. An alcoholic already, this news plunged him into depression and more drinking.
For well-on 15 years, I was frozen in the role of taking care of all these broken and sick family members. In the meantime, I worked a demanding full-time job overseeing a busy digital technology center at a large state university. I had employees and project deadlines. I would then go home after long days into a family war zone.
I bent over backward to meet my mother’s unrealistic demands for personal care from me, including taking days and days off of work to accompany her to doctor’s appointments and surgeries 2 and more hours from home. All the while, she continued a lifelong pattern of being unkind and mean to me. Nothing I did was enough, nothing I did was right. My husband was angry and resentful of his mother’s presence in his home, and took it out on me. I spent many hours in anguish trying to convince him to seek healing for himself and to stop drinking–something he was opposed to doing.
My mother-in-law, a sweet woman, meanwhile languished with untreated depression and silently expected me to sit with her every night to assuage a deep loneliness she had carried since the death of her beloved husband some 25 years in the past.
In the midst of this, a kind therapist I was seeing told me one day to just stop taking care of everyone. I did not know what she meant. How could I do this? It appeared as if I was the one keeping the ship afloat–indeed, keeping everyone alive. She said again, “Just stop. Take care of yourself, do what you like to do, be kind to yourself.” She suggested that when feelings of guilt arose in the face of stepping out of the fray, to say the Buddhist loving kindness affirmations for myself and myself only: “May I be filled with loving kindness, May I be happy, healthy, peaceful, and free.”
Ultimately, my body dictated that I take her suggestion. I struggled with so much exhaustion that I finally just had to stop.
So, I began to feel the guilt of what I told myself was an abandonment of my mother, mother-in-law and husband. I sent myself kindness and caring.
I also began to paint and do art. Instead of sitting first with my mother-in-law at night, who would normally be alone in her room and who would refuse to come out and join her son and me, and after 2 hours of that, to sit with my husband who demanded that I watch television with him, I began to go to my room to meditate, dream and rest.
I kept going to work. I had to, of course, to put food on the table and pay the mortgage (since my husband did not make enough to do so). But I decided, finally, to begin to nourish and feed myself.
I unhooked from the story that my loved ones would languish or even die without me. And I accepted that they might–and that, if they did, it would not be because of me, but because of the choices they had made to not take care of themselves well.
This was a challenging time in my life. While on the surface, it seemed the challenges were in my loved one’s pain and suffering, the deeper challenge was to learn to love myself enough to put myself first.
I will always remember a friend telling me that a mother wolf always feeds herself first before giving her pups their chance at the meat–even if it has been weeks since they’ve eaten and the pups are starving. Where would the pups be if their mom died of hunger?
I was caught in these relationships in the role of the sacrificial daughter and wife, the rescuer, and the caregiver. They were comfortable roles for me, in part due to my steady, loyal temperament, and also due to being raised by my narcissistic mother whom I had been trying all my life to please. I gained a lot from these roles–a feeling of being in the right, of being strong and responsible. I was a warrior and a lover. In the larger society, I would have been lauded for being a “good” daughter, daughter-in-law and a wonderful wife.
Yet, the truth which I had to face was that I was robbing myself of my own life, and, even more, I was robbing these loved ones of an opportunity to step up and become co-creators in their own lives. Maybe they would, and maybe they wouldn’t. But like me, they, too, had free will.
This was now 15 years ago. First, I stepped out of relationship with my mother. After I refused to comply with her demands that I ply her with more of the pain medication than her doctors ordered, and she met me with a harsh mean coldness, I realized I could no longer be on the front lines of her self-destructive behavior and her abuse of me. I sadly wrote her a letter telling her how much I loved her and saying I was stepping away from being in contact with her.
Three years later, I eventually left my marriage, and, in so doing, left my husband to learn to live with his mother without me as a go-between. Three years after that, I then left my mainstream academic career to become a healer and spiritual teacher. Without the pressure of being the main breadwinner in a household of three (I had no children), I could then pursue my true heart’s calling.
All of these loved ones did die in the years following my stepping away: my mother died in 2001 of complications after an invasive surgery to remove the pericardium around her heart–for reasons the surgeons could not discover once they did the procedures. My husband died 6 years after our divorce of complications from the illness he had been diagnosed with. My mother-in-law outlived him by 4 months. She died at the ripe old age of 91. I think of how she must have hung on to keep her only living child, her beloved son, company until his death.
I loved all three of them. My mother could be charming and loving when she was not caught in rage and hurt. My husband was fundamentally a good person, but with a broken heart. My mother-in-law loved me and always treated me well. Yet, in the case of each, they had made critical decisions in their life to not tend well to their own bodies and hearts. They then, like most of us, expected others to meet their unmet needs, and to love them when they could not really love themselves. To help them when they should have been helping themselves. They overtly or implicitly demanded more of me than was fair or right. A
And I, in return, expected far to much of myself.
If I had stayed in relationship with them, I would have become like them: I would have languished in depression from unfulfilled dreams and desires. I would have become a hollow shell–and possibly angry at myself and the world. I would also have not then helped the hundreds of students and clients I have seen over the past decade. This has been a greater use of my gifts and energy than if I had spent them entirely on these three.
Why do I share my story here with you? I am not saying you have to cut all ties to your family and loved ones, or to leave your job or career. These dramatic decisions in my life were specific to my particular circumstances.
However, as you look at the web of expectations you have for yourself and others, you might ask the question: Am I giving away too much of myself? What roles and identities am I stuck in which are not serving me or others? Am I putting aside or putting off my own dreams and desires to take care of others? What would my life look like if I were to shed and/or redefine some old roles and let go of old identities?
Who would I be?
Ultimately, your only job is fill the sacred hoop of your life with your own energy. This includes the activities and relationships you have.
When you step into your own hoop and embrace the sacredness and truth of your own journey as a human being creating your life, then you will have greater clarity about how to navigate relationships with integrity, connection, love, and loyalty without depleting yourself or giving up too much. What this will look like in your life will be unique and individual. You will continue to love and to laugh with family, friends and neighbors.
You will, in fact, laugh more and get so much more out of life than ever before.
I invite you to step up to live for yourself and for your dreams. There is no time left. Your true, authentic self is awaiting you!
To learn more about how to release old roles and identities in service of expanding your creativity, pursuing your highest dreams, and loving yourself well, join me in the North Lodge: Planting the Soul Seed of your Life.