I met with a friend of mine yesterday who was telling me how her life is running out of control. She’s in a demanding role at work, her kids are still at home and her parents are increasingly in need of care; she is fraying at the edges. Her plan seemed to be that she’d just run faster and harder to keep up with these increasing demands on her emotional and mental resources. That’s an untenable way to live.
Studies have shown that women experience more mental health problems than men due to the stress of juggling many roles. As Professor Freeman of the University of Oxford’s Department of Psychiatry put it; ‘Increasingly, women are expected to function as carer, homemaker, and breadwinner – all while being perfectly shaped and impeccably dressed…… These are the kind of pressures that can leave women feeling as if they’ve somehow failed; as if they don’t have what it takes to be successful; as if they’ve been left behind. And those kinds of feelings can lead to psychological problems like anxiety and depression.’
As my friend and I continued our chat, she told me that she worries constantly about the emotional challenges of those whom she cares for – rather than appreciating that it is each individual’s choice about what to think and therefore how to feel. My friend also told me that she felt she had lost herself amidst all of these roles and longed for some calm to arise from the chaos. She just wanted to feel a sense of control for a short while. We talked about what was tipping her out of control. She has what she describes as ‘perennial guilt’ that she isn’t spending enough time with her boys, or her husband, or her mother, or at work. Her own wellbeing didn’t feature anywhere on this radar of ‘shoulds’. She is continuously mentally prodding her guilt gland with thoughts of what she isn’t doing rather than focusing on what she is doing. She is seldom ‘in the moment’, and constantly living the “I’ll be happy when..’ routine; ’when things calm down at work, when my eldest has finished his exams, when my husband gets the promotion’. In short, she is mostly listening to her inner stream of conditioned consciousness, and pinning her hopes of happiness to her outside experiences. Her perspective is stuck so that her own needs are drowned out by the demands she imagines others are making of her. She has forgotten to set clear boundaries and balance her own needs with the needs of those whom she cares for.
By the end of our short chat she’d galvanized herself; she would set boundaries and do something for herself once a week – that would be non-negotiable. She knew that if she kept giving, then others would keep taking and she had to be the one to set the conditions that she could live more comfortably with. She had to learn to value herself much more – or others would follow her lead in taking her for granted. Working out what was really important to her was also on the agenda, as well as saying ‘no’ more frequently, and delegating those things that didn’t have to be done by her. ‘It’s all about boundaries’, she said as she marched off with a spring in her step.