Posts tagged ‘empathy’

September 26, 2017

Food or Feud

In my family, it can be food or feud. The simple solution is for us to eat on time. But what happens when things aren’t simple?food or fuedI am sitting in 3000 square feet of emptiness looking up at the ducts on the ceiling 22′ above me. My head is hurting. I planned to be here until 1pm. Now the heat & air installers say it may be 4pm. I am hungry for more than the cheese and crackers I brought to tide me over until 1. It may be fall, but it is hot!

Hot, hungry, and tired with a headache that won’t quit can be a recipe for a family feud or at least a lot of misunderstanding! When someone in my family starts to become easily annoyed, we immediately look for food. We know that we’re grumpy when we’re hungry. Because of this, we’re pretty good planners and we always have a snack handy, but the unexpected can still sometimes catch us unprepared.

If you’re one of those folks who can go all day without a meal, you’ll have no idea why this is significant. If, on the other hand, you begin to feel shaky, confused, sweaty, and sick if you don’t eat on time, you’ll understand why I’m writing this.It’s hard to count the number of times I’ve told a travel companion that I’m hungry only to have them stall me for 3 or 4 hours. Long before that time is up, I feel like I’m going to throw up my guts. I physically hurt. I cannot think straight enough to tell you what I want to eat.

What I’m describing has happened to me all of my life. It also happens to my son. It probably happened to my grandfather who could not tolerate sugar. He never ate cake, pie, cobbler, or cereal with added sugar. He would occasionally eat chocolate covered cherries. I don’t remember, but I’m guessing he ate those after a meal when they would have less effect.
I say this because that’s my experience with sugar. I can tolerate some after a meal, but feed me pancakes with syrup or a glazed doughnut for breakfast and I will be puking them up in 5 minutes. I will feel a horrible sinking sensation, then wretchedly nauseous.

My grandfather and his sisters who shared this sugar sensitivity were never diagnosed with a condition or disease. I have had blood work done just after two of these episodes. It is always in the normal range. My body may struggle to break down sugars because of celiac disease, but no one has been able to tell me that with any certainty.

That’s the thing sometimes. You know how you’re feeling isn’t normal, but whatever you have isn’t showing up, isn’t being tested for, or falls in the “normal” range. That can feel really frustrating. But life goes on. You learn to recognize when you’re approaching critical and do your best to stay ahead of the problem.

But when a plan suddenly changes, things run late, or there is an unexpected problem, what I most need is for you to believe me when I say I need to eat. I may say it matter-of-factly and without drama, but I need for you to understand that it will soon be more than I can do to remain calm if you ignore repeated requests to stop at the next place we come to.

I know that you may be trying to get to a better restaurant 10 miles down the road, but what I need for you to get is that once I hit a certain point, I do not care whether the food will taste good, I just need it in my tummy. Telling me to hang on because there’s a great restaurant in the next town is like telling me you’re going to break my arm. If I respond as though that’s what you’ve said, it is because that is how it feels to me.

When I am using my energy to stay calm, ask politely, and try not to puke or cry, it is overwhelming to ask me to choose a restaurant, name what I want, or really to communicate at all. Keep in mind that I will have attempted to address the oncoming problem I am sensing before I get to this point. If you did not recognize that those attempts were important, you may not recognize that I want to cooperate, but am feeling as though my situation is dire. Boom! Argument, misunderstanding, or meltdown may be imminent.

While I may get into a situation in which grabbing a handful of crackers from the table is tempting, since becoming gluten-free I have never made that choice. And that adds a second layer of distress when communication becomes difficult.
Today, when I began to feel vague hunger pangs, I ate some cheese and crackers. An hour later, I was getting seriously hungry. About that time, I received the news that my stay would be extended several hours past what I had planned for. I recognized that it was important to either stop the crew and go get food, or find a way to get some brought to me.

I did not wait until I could no longer think straight. I made a short list of people who could help, decided what I would request they do, and proceeded to call the list. Before the next hour was up, I had eaten lunch and no longer had a headache.
plate
Today, things worked out well. Other times, they have not. Most often those have been times that I was accommodating a group or an individual with little insight or empathy. Occasionally it has been at times that I was forced to deal with a person who simply can’t be reasoned with or does not value how I feel.

What’s the best plan in those instances?

Recognize that not everyone you come into contact with has your best interest at heart. If there are people in your life who are routinely difficult and make it hard to take care of yourself, avoid situations that make you dependent on dealing with them. Take a separate car. Choose a different work group. Volunteer for a different committee. Say no if you have to.
Know that you will never be able to make an unreasonable person be reasonable. They must come to a point where they choose to see their contribution to a situation that distresses you before you can reach them. How you feel can be communicated and cooperation can be requested, but it is helpful to know that you cannot force understanding.

You will never be able to make crazy behavior make sense. It is not necessarily important to understand why someone does something. If they exhibit a pattern of behavior that is detrimental to you, it is enough to know they do it and that it is not acceptable to you.

Once you determine that, you have many choices for what to do next:
Set and enforce better boundaries.
Minimize your exposure.
Leave behind friendships, romantic relationships, jobs, or distant relatives that hurt you.
Become realistic about your contribution to any friction in a relationship and apologize for your part in a misunderstanding.
Refuse to be lured into apologizing for taking care of yourself so long as you have managed to remain calm and kind and have tried your best not to inconvenience anyone else. You cannot control every circumstance.
pork roast
On the flip side, you also have choices about how you view another’s actions:
Extend the benefit of the doubt. Some people mean you no harm, but will inadvertently hurt you anyway.
Be present. We are all less likely to hurt each other when we are fully aware of the effect we’re having in the moment.
Allow yourself to see and feel the discomfort of someone else’s distress. Being attuned to subtle signs will change how you respond. Isn’t this what we want from others?

I wish for a partner who understands my physical limitation to the extent that in a pinch he is willing to voluntarily bring me something to eat that doesn’t take much energy to digest – a banana, a glass of milk, or some Greek yogurt. It sounds so simple. I’m sure any man who has failed to do so would read this and say, “I would do that.”

Of course you would if it seemed important at the time. But what if you got distracted by a work call or the kids throwing a fit or trying to figure out how we’re going to pay for replacing a heat & air system we haven’t budgeted for? What if you felt annoyed when I repeated a request for food when you’re planning to EVENTUALLY honor that request? What if you were in the mood for a really good meal and thought I’d be ruining my appetite by eating before our 9pm reservation? What if your mother believes I am trying to avoid eating the meal that’s taking extra time to prepare because she’s making it gluten-free for me? What if you simply don’t believe how sick I feel because you’ve never experienced it and my test results are normal?

We all like to see ourselves as reflected only by our best moments. In real life, we’re experienced by those around us as a sum of our level of presence, our tolerance for vulnerability, our priority in the moment, our insight, our ability to empathize, our reliability, our helpfulness, kindness, and thoughtfulness, our flexibility, stability, and mindfulness, our willingness to entertain different points of view, our truthfulness, genuineness, respect for others, and our courage to make the difficult choice. Other’s experience of us may not match up with what we believe about ourselves.

So what?

We are surrounded by evidence that many of us have difficulty taking care of ourselves. If we were consistently receiving the message that we matter, we are important, we are valued, others wish us well, and our loved ones are willing to help us, would we have a rapidly increasing number of pervasive, preventable, chronic health problems? Would we ignore simple lifestyle changes that can give us the ability to live longer, more productive, more comfortable, and more joyous lives? I don’t think so. I think part of the struggle to eat in a manner that maximizes our health comes from the messages we receive on a daily basis.

Why does that matter?

Only you know how significant, painful, overwhelming, exhausting, or stressful something is to you. You may communicate that clearly and still find yourself without assistance. That does not mean there is something wrong with you, that you should not take care of yourself, or that you do not deserve help. It could mean you need a better communication strategy, or it could mean that you are surrounded by relationships that need to be reexamined.

For my family, it’s food or feud, so there are repeated opportunities to observe, examine, and improve our interactions. Most of us accept each other’s limitations and work together to take care of each other. We also accept that some family members will choose to make things more difficult and that we have many options for dealing with this. Those options may not be easy choices and may require some self-sacrifice to maintain a relationship. We accept that at some point a relationship could become be too harmful to continue. At that point, we can choose to let it go.

Eating on time may not be a feuding issue for your family. Your point of contention could center around eating gluten-free or vegetarian It could be that a battle breaks out every time you try to convince your sister that your diabetic mother doesn’t need carbs. It could that no one but you lives near Grandma, but the rest of the family condemns you for wanting to put her in long-term care.

The specific issue may vary. The importance of expressions of empathy, kindness, helpfulness, thoughtfulness, care and concern, and acceptance for ourselves and each other cannot be overstated. These expressions are critical to our health, our families, our communities, and our nation. They make a difference. They can make THE difference, especially when things don’t go according to plan.

https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/diabetes/overview/diet-eating-physical-activity

http://www.webmd.com/diabetes/tc/hypoglycemia-low-blood-sugar-in-people-without-diabetes-topic-overview#1

March 20, 2013

Inspiring Lessons of Connection from Parents with Critically Ill Children

The past few days, I’ve had a chance to see both the best and worst of humanity. The stark contrast presented by a unique week of interaction has me pondering the importance of connection, personal power, fear, and our contributions to our own misery.

Okay, admittedly that’s a lot of territory so, for now, let’s look at the best and see if there’s anything we can learn that will help us improve the quality of our lives so that our families can thrive.

My week started with a photo shoot of several families who have children that are critically ill, injured, or have recently received a transplant. As I asked each family if they were having a good day, I received varied answers. One family’s son had just had his chest tubes removed after his third open-heart surgery. He is three. The mom told me that she was grateful to have learned it doesn’t matter what color your skin is. When you are told your child may die, it only matters who you are and what’s in your heart. A family that had arrived in town because the mom went into labor on an airplane and we had the closest airport, moved carefully because of her recent Caesarian. Her new daughter is still in NICU, she is having to shower in a communal bathroom, and her husband has been unable to start his new job. She calmly instructed her 3-year-old son who has to wear his blue sweater several days per week because there’s been no chance to locate other clothes. She wasn’t much for talking; her quiet smile said it all. One young mom wrestled her 4-month-old son who recently had a heart transplant. He has gorgeous red hair, a feeding tube, a mask over his face, and he cries incessantly. He was frightened by the photographer’s strobes. As he wriggled and screamed, his young mom remained relaxed and gentle with him. Her unflappable serenity shines through in the photos.

All day long, I kept expecting to see people at their worst – exhausted, frightened, struggling, hopeless. What I kept discovering was that I was seeing people at their best. They may have felt exhausted, frightened, and helpless, but what I experienced was calm strength and total presence in the moment. Without time or energy for the usual niceties or pretense, connection was natural, easy and inspiring. Over and over again, I felt an immediate connection. With each meeting of our eyes, each smile or look of empathy, I knew my presence made a difference. I felt honored, humbled and powerful.

For these families, life has been stripped down to the absolute essentials. Their challenge is to embrace each bit of kindness, joy, or relief that appears while surrounded by the most difficult of life’s realities. If they choose to spend five minutes wondering why their child must suffer when others don’t, they know that’s five minutes they aren’t fully relishing the time they have with their child. What a choice!

It’s easy for most of us to draw a contrast between our everyday lives and that of these families, but maybe there’s something we can learn from them and apply to our everyday interactions:

Because these families are painfully aware that the time we get in this life is limited and uncertain, they focus on making the most of each day. We can all benefit from this type of focus. Our priorities will then allow us to rid ourselves of the activities or friendships we have chosen that do not feed us or contribute positive energy to our lives.

While they have real reasons to worry, these folks recognize that worry is a distraction that keeps us from being present in the moment and thereby prevents us from fully connecting with each other. It is through this connection that we can give and receive empathy, care, comfort, and love. 

Although presented with heart-wrenching circumstances, the families I observed show up each day to face the situation and make difficult choices. We too are faced with everyday choices that affect our health and quality of life. Do we choose to cower in denial or do we gather our courage and make the choice that best serves our overall well-being even if that’s not the easiest choice?

In the role of parent, the adults recognize that they must function as adults. If they weep and wail and act helpless, their children will become frightened. If they are disrespectful to the nurses or staff, they may inadvertently jeopardize their child’s care. If they decide that they just can’t handle the stress of the hospital, their child will be left alone. These loving parents do not choose to burden their children with adult matters so they summon their best selves and find the strength to cope with each difficult day. How often do we fail our children by neglecting to summon our inner strength to set and enforce limits on sugar consumption, screen time, rude behavior, or frivolous spending?

When parents are separated for days or weeks by taking shifts to provide a continuous presence in a child’s hospital room, the importance of adult time to connect without the children cannot be taken for granted. Are we remembering to value our connection with our partner? Do we make time and space for connection on a regular basis? Do we present a united front to our children?

As days turn into weeks and the world begins to shrink to the size of the hospital room, these parents must find small ways to care for themselves and keep a connection with the larger world in order to remain inspired. There is no energy to feel guilty for a few “selfish” moments; in fact, there’s a realization that feeding their own spirit is not just important, but critical. Some of them make sure to take a walk and watch the sunrise or sunset. Others read a book that allows them to empathize with the characters. Some schedule a meal out once a week so they can get out and people-watch. Some moms just take a long bath and a nap or get a massage. Do we measure our worth in self-sacrifice that causes us to lose our identity or feel guilty when we take care of our spirits?

This week in the midst of tragedy, I had the privilege of seeing the best. I also had the experience of seeing the worst. This contrast reminded me that life-changing events are a chance for people to reveal their real character. Sometimes you learn that your partner, sister, aunt, mom, or dad is too fearful to be supportive, too needy to put another’s interests first, too interested in comparison to have compassion, or too threatened by real connection to let down their walls and be there for you. Can we have compassion for their weakness and the courage to let go of our expectations of more from them so that we can recognize and be open to receiving what we need when it presents itself? 

When we allow ourselves to see the truth, we may be faced with other difficult life decisions. Can we be grateful for a chance to face our fears, embrace grief, loss, and change in order to move forward and heal ourselves?

While we may never have a critically ill child, we will all face trying circumstances. Some of us will choose to live in chaos, pain, worry, and dissonance without ever recognizing that we’re making a choice. If you are struggling at the moment, can you tell yourself the truth and begin experimenting with tiny changes in your behavior? Can you take inspiration from what resilient parents have learned? 

 If so, are you willing to share your story? We’d love to hear it.