Author: Frank King
I have been a member of a support group for many years and have recently started facilitating support groups for both Emergence and Rethink Mental Illness. A chance meeting in my local Tesco store with someone whose son has personality difficulties prompted me to write down my thoughts about the issues that arise time and time again in those support groups. I hope that by sharing them it will help.
The subject of boundaries comes up many times and I think a lot of people do not understand fully what is meant by the term. I am sure a lot of people think that boundaries are a set of rules or conditions that they should impose on their loved ones to control their behaviour. What carers should be doing is to think clearly about what their own personal boundaries are. What do they tolerate in terms of behaviour from people during their everyday lives? Particularly those who are not suffering from any mental health issue. Why should they tolerate something from one person and not the other? Most people will be able to tell you of somebody to whom the following tag is applicable - “You know so and so. You know exactly where you stand with them”. What this means is that the person referred to knows and understands their own boundaries and is able to communicate them clearly to others regardless of whether they are agreeable.
This is applicable to feelings, emotions and behaviour. Carers need to be clear about their own boundaries and endeavour to communicate them clearly and consistently. If their boundaries are confused they can only expect confused responses.
Talking to your loved ones in relatively calm periods in an adult, non-subjective and supportive manner about feelings, emotions and behaviour is important but can only be achieved if there is clarity. It also allows you to respond rather than react.
Coming to terms with your own guilt is a very difficult thing to do but is essential. Feeling guilty is normal. Without it we wouldn’t have a conscience. However it implies blame and we very often blame ourselves for the illness or condition that our loved ones are suffering from. Was it something we did in the past that has caused all the problems? This feeling of moral responsibility – that somehow it is our entire fault is unhelpful. Coupled with this is the feeling that if your loved one does something to harm themselves that you should have been able to do something to prevent it. You often hear the phrase “I would never forgive myself if….” In reality there is probably very little one can do. We somehow think that we ought to possess the powers of clairvoyance and be able to predict what will happen.
Guilt should not be confused with genuine concern for the welfare of another.
We quite often hear people making decisions for or imposing their own standards on their loved ones. What right does anyone have to impose their will on another? One could argue that children and those who are incapable of looking after themselves are different. But we should all be responsible for what we do. A child will never have a sense of discipline if they do not learn the consequences of their actions nor will anyone suffering distress and dysfunction be able to change their lives if they cannot choose to be different.
The secret, if that is the right word, is to empower individuals to make choices which allow them to function without pain, discomfort or difficulty.
What often happens is people jump in and rescue their loved one. They 'pathologise' the behaviour saying it is because they are ill. We quite often impose the outcomes that we want to see. We make judgements about what our loved one should or shouldn’t feel or do - how they should live their lives.
When we see somebody in distress and the services appear inadequate we often feel that we should step in and take control. In some cases this is desirable but we have to be sure of our motives.
It is very comforting to be in the company of someone who you think understands how you feel. This is in essence a very strong component of our Support Group. It is quite often said that it is impossible to understand what something is like unless you have experienced it yourself. This may be true but what you can be is empathetic. It is best described as being able to stand alongside somebody and see things from their perspective. Active listening is a key element.
Having empathy allows you to give support, encouragement and empowerment without blame and to give open, honest and objective feedback. This is validating a person’s feelings, which in turn suggests that your feelings should also be validated. Crucial to this is being non-judgemental. An example is not interpreting behaviour as manipulative or attention seeking. It is not suggesting that you should condone or agree with another’s behaviour but just acknowledge where they are coming from.
Looking after yourself
There are a number of elements here. Eating healthily and taking moderate exercise is obvious but more importantly is giving yourself space. Doing something that is just for you and nobody else. Treating yourself now and again. As I mentioned under the Guilt heading – Not beating yourself up all the time.
Try some meditation or doing a Mindfulness Course. Doing some Yoga or Tai Chi. Doing something you enjoy. Going on holiday or a short break (with the mobile switched off).
The important thing is to give yourself time regularly to think and feel freely without the encumbrance of your ‘situation’.
Very important though is to keep yourself safe. Don’t be afraid to call for help when you feel frightened.
And of course go to a support group. (IF THERE IS ONE).