I remember when my husband Michael expected me to read his mind. When I didn’t immediately recognize what he needed, he accused me of ignoring and neglecting him. For instance, one day when he was struggling to transfer from his wheelchair to his stair lift, I was standing to one side, waiting to see if he needed my help. I was doing this because he had told me in no uncertain terms that when I jumped in to help him, I was undermining his independence. So, I was waiting to help if he asked me to. Instead, he became angry at me for “Just staring at him.” Later, with the help of our therapist, he realized that I couldn’t read his mind; he needed to let me know what he wanted.
But all of us don’t have a helpful therapist to clarify matters. So, what do we do?
Well, it isn’t easy. First, it helps to take a deep breath and get centered. Then, decide to respond rather than to react. Responding means to act responsibly. Reactions are often unconscious and based on old defenses that may no longer serve us. In the moment, you might ask him or her what they would like you to do. If their response is an angry one, and they are in no immediate danger, it might be wise to suggest talking about this later, when the air has cleared. Then, perhaps, you can reach an agreement on how to proceed in the future.
In your conversations, addressing feelings is always helpful, such as, “When you did or said (this) I felt (this).” For example, “When you yelled at me and accused me of just staring at you, I felt hurt.” And your loved-one might say, “When you didn’t help me, I felt afraid and alone.” To have an honest conversation like this, we must be willing to recognize our own feelings and to be vulnerable and trusting enough to share them. You may have built trust in your relationship on many levels, but if you are entering new territory as patient and caregiver, new acknowledgements and agreements may be in order. One caution: Statements such as “When you didn’t help me, I felt you were being mean and selfish” are not about your feelings. They are accusations, and they will trigger defensiveness in the other person. This is not helpful.
An honest conversation about your feelings may not work perfectly at first, but then, if you can talk honestly about what worked and what didn’t and how it can work better next time, perhaps you can become closer and more trusting of each other. Becoming a compassionate caregiver is always a work in progress. We are all human, and mistakes are unavoidable. If at first things don’t work out, just try for more clarity next time. Mistakes are our best teachers.