The Guiltaholic in us all

Virtually everyone is plagued by guilt at times in their life, including the kind that can seem crippling if we let it. In talks I have given to parents of special needs children, invariably there would be someone in the audience who brings up the word “guilt” or “guilty” as a way of signaling how they feel about their role and helplessness to change their situation. Guiltaholism is an epidemic. For many, it’s what gets them out of bed in the morning and drives them to unsustainable levels; but it comes with all of the complications that any addiction brings.

At yet one more presentation where the audience fell into a conversation about guilt overwhelming them, I was filled with their sadness, and determined to identify the attributes of guilt that lead to despair in the effort to form a way forward…without guilt as a companion.

Universally we are searching for a way to forgive ourselves for daily misgivings over deeds undone, or neglectfully handled (in our eyes). At one talk the audience members in the respectfully listened to each other but it was apparent they were searching for validation. They desired more than anything a release of the guilt that now consumed their lives, reminding them of their apparent failures to handle all of the concerns in front of them.

How could I reach out to them in awkward agreement, without discovering my own solutions? If I had found the answers for me to release the guilt, then why could I not offer them a definitive solution in some form? As I drove home from this presentation the answers began to roll through my mind with a sense of purpose. Remembering the anxiety in their faces, I vowed to articulate a method to begin releasing the grip of guilt in our lives. And, in turn, I would hopefully permanently release my own.

The 12-step program for guiltaholism

I put together a 12-step program modeled after the vernacular in the 12-step program for those with substance addiction. It was obvious that the words I chose not to use, in the development of this 12-step program were the very ones that seemed to cause us the most guilt. Gone from the vernacular were do, don’t, should and must.

In place came empowering thoughts focusing a would-be guilt-ridden parent, encouraging them to throw away their anxieties that led to guilt. Clichés and rhetoric had to come with a sense of doable action steps, or the ideas would be tossed out. If it didn’t make sense, or in any way was not realistic, then the idea was eliminated.

Further, as I began writing the 12-step program, it became apparent that the message was worldwide. Step into the shoes of any parent and you will see that they are stepping into guilt every day in some form. It is just that for some of us, we have become addicted to the narcotic effect as our sense of motivation. That is when guilt’s effects begin to suffocate the family.

To that end I formed ideas coherent and transferable to everyone, even a parent who is dealing with everyday stresses, but yet completely applicable to those of us enduring the biggest levels of stress as the primary caregivers.

Step 1 – Acknowledge that guilt is a “drug” of choice, and as such, we are in charge of the thoughts we choose to accept about ourselves.

Step 2 – Acknowledge to ourselves and to others that we cannot do everything. If our expectations are unreasonable then our thoughts of what is doable needs to shift.

Step 3 – Acknowledge that part of our guilt is associated with our need to control all of the circumstances in our lives. We need to release ourselves from the responsibility of the demands that our need to control brings.

Step 4 – Acknowledge that we are not responsible for the happiness of anyone but ourselves, including our immediate family members. Take full responsibility for formulating and cultivating care of you first.

Step 5 – Limit opportunities that can produce guilt: say no to volunteer opportunities without regret, choose friendly thoughts about yourself and others, and walk away from negative conversations that provoke anxiety about your choices.

Step 6 – Accept yourself for who you are, in all ways, creating boundaries for how you will allow yourself to be treated. Release yourself from all self-imposed pretense.

Step 7 – Accept others for who they are, respecting and honoring their boundaries. Release them from any unrealistic expectations of behavior.

Step 8 – Accept that guilt is born from our fear of being perceived inadequate, especially in our own eyes, and the eyes of others. Release the attachment to fear of inadequacy.

Step 9 – Accept that guilt’s only purpose is to temporarily motivate us to change direction from the path we may now be choosing. It is when guilt becomes a daily motivator that we have become addicted to its effect.

Step 10 – Accept help humbly, and without regret.

Step 11 – Listen carefully to your own inner voice of wisdom, and honor its call. It is in the whisper of our own inner voice that we understand the truth about ourselves.

Step 12 – Turn over our fears and our sense of limitations to our God, however defined in our lives. As we accept a higher power our greater good is fulfilled. And when that happens, the paralyzing effect of guilt is permanently removed.

Fearless Parent: Setting Boundaries for Family Peace

Not long ago I attended a homeschooling conference geared toward the parochial perspective. While we are not a homeschool family, several of my friends are, especially for their children with special needs. I was there to help a friend who had a vendor booth at the conference.

What was interesting about this particular group was how often the parents spoke about being judged by peers and relatives; even called names like crazy, ignorant and backwards. I empathized with them to a degree; however, where we differed was how we interpreted the victimization inspired by the judgements from outside family members and friends.

Based on how often my family had to set firm boundaries with extended family members and friends, I had to wonder at what point these parents would do the same. Or were they just resigned to be the victims of judgment and name calling? At what point would they decide that their immediate family’s priorities took precedence over the opinions of others?

“Victimhood” is not adult behavior

Over the years of mentoring parents who have children with special needs, I was often struck by the characteristic of “victimhood” in some who seemed to be in perpetual defense mode to justify their decision making to outside relatives and friends. It was the tone in their voice and necessity to explain their choices that demonstrated they were reliving childhood patterns.

It was not enough to point out that they were the parents and therefore needed to make decisions in spite of outside opinions. They often had to be coached to be bold in their actions and not be intimidated by anyone, including doctors, therapists and educators. They also had to be persuaded to not be intimidated by the opinions of relatives or friends.

Boundaries are necessary

Getting back to where all this fits in with the homeschool parents, I believe the same “victimhood” dynamic plays out in virtually all families to some degree. The difference lies in how each family chooses their own identity that is separate from the needs and priorities of the extended family members.

Knowing what I do about the need for setting boundaries with family members and friends, I have already given my children the explanation to set the boundaries with me, and others, one day too. In fact, I expect it. There probably needs to be some sort of a course in college called Boundary Making 101, but for now we will just remind each other.

you teach people how to treat you

Do what is right for your family

In my book Victory over Autism: Practical Steps and Wisdom Toward Recovery for the Whole Family I wrote a chapter on how parents need to recognize they are the savvy experts on all things to do with their children, and their family choices. I remind parents not to ignore their parental instincts when surrounded by other experts.

While all of that may seem like a given mindset, the reality is many parents believe they are supposed to defer to any and all other authority figures or the opinions of others, including well-meaning friends and relatives. When parents realize how crucial it is to change that mindset, they will begin to have control over their own family identity and well-being.

Setting boundaries leads to greater peace for the family

When I have mentored others in one form or another, the topic of boundary making comes up often. It is truly what grounds us as human beings, to be firm with what we will allow or expect. Without proper boundaries you see marital discord, children who are disrespected and are disrespectful. You also see a family that is not at peace. By establishing boundaries you are not as much putting up a barrier to others, as you are setting the starting line toward greater harmony.

In a conversation with a friend, she asked me how she was to find peace when all she felt was anxiety around her and her family. I asked her when was the last time she said no to others, established firm boundaries, and in all other ways looked at herself and her family as the only priority. She had to admit it had been a very long time, if at all, that she regarded her life in this way. Instead she looked to others for validation on her decisions and coped by ignoring what she really needed to change… her perspective.

So if peace is what you desire for your family—or yourself—then begin by setting boundaries. Peace will be a byproduct.

Setting Boundaries

Celebrating those who help our children

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There needs to be a universal holiday to honor those who are therapists to children and those in need. Seriously, we need Hallmark cards that say “Happy BCBA Day” or “Happy Speech Therapists Day”. The movement for this would probably be huge. For us, we would honor many, many tremendous professionals who have graced our path over the years.

One of those is this happy, smiling, beautiful woman named Charlotte who was Daniel’s first therapist of any kind. He was 7 months old when the pediatrician became concerned at his lack of muscle development so asked to have a pediatric physical therapist come to our home to evaluate and provide services. Little did we know that our lives would be intertwined over the next few years as Charlotte helped Daniel to achieve milestones, only to watch him lose them all starting around the age of 13 months.

By the age of 16 months Charlotte made the tenuous decision to approach me with her concerns that Daniel was falling somewhere on the autism spectrum. She carefully laid out what she observed with his sensory issues, his language delays, his meltdowns and repetitive behaviors. As naïve as I was to all of this I was willing to listen because Charlotte truly cared for Daniel, and was professional to the core. Daniel was officially diagnosed with autism at 18 months old, and in spite of the difficulty of hearing the word “autism” we were relieved to have found out when we did in order to begin therapies.

As time went on, Charlotte observed our challenges and celebrated our victories. She attended our first IEP meeting and later would watch as Daniel’s milestones came back, surpassing the expectations of everyone.

I have not spoken to Charlotte since we moved but I did send her a copy of the book, especially since she is mentioned in the Acknowledgement section. It was the least I could offer for all she did for us. And if there was a holiday to honor the therapists in our lives, I would send her a card too