Unfortunately, sometimes we find ourselves at a place in life where the people we love the most, whether it be parents, spouses or significant others, our own children, or even our closest friends, cause us high amounts of stress, depression, and anxiety. In these cases, it can be difficult to determine the best course of action and, even if you know the best course of action, it could be difficult for you to muster up the strength, desire, assertiveness, or determination to take those steps.
In this article, I’m going to propose a 5-step process of determining the best course of action and accomplishing it. I believe this will be helpful to you if you’re stuck in a situation like this. I’m going to use three examples to help us get a clear understanding of the steps.
Let’s consider Eric-
Eric is a 41-year-old CPA with a diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). He’s been anxious for as long as he can remember. He was raised in less than ideal situations. His mother was seldom around his father, who was an alcoholic, passed away when Eric was 9. He more-or-less raised his 3 younger siblings, which he feels contributed greatly to his diagnosis. Eric pushed himself in school and became a certified professional accountant. He determined from an early age that he wanted to be successful and, through the faith that was instilled in him by his grandmother before she passed away, he was able to do so. Eric’s younger siblings weren’t the same way, however, and, although they are now 39, 36, and 33, they still depend on him a lot for help.
Here’s Janice’s story-
Janice is a 27-year-old nurse. She is currently in a relationship that her parents don’t approve of. They like her boyfriend, Timothy, and think he is very well-mannered, but they don’t like the fact that he is currently unemployed. They think that Janice deserves better and they are not shy about letting her know it. Janice has tried to explain to her parents that Tim is diligently searching for a job and has great work ethic despite appearances, but they have not been convinced. They constantly put pressure on Janice to leave Tim and find another boyfriend, preferably one who works at the hospital where she works, so that she can get married and give them grandchildren.
And finally, meet Sarah-
Sarah is a 64-year-old retired lawyer with 2 adult children. Sarah’s 28-year-old daughter manages a successful digital marketing firm, while her 29-year-old son is unemployed, has few marketable skills, and still lives at home with her. Sarah tries to encourage her son to go back to school or to pursue some sort of career, but she hasn’t had much success. Her son, Mark, has been bitter towards her since she divorced the father of her children 15 years ago, and sometimes she feels as though not doing anything with his life is his attempt to somehow get back at her for leaving his dad. Lately, Mark has been shouting at Sarah, belittling her, and acting as though it were her job to continue to care for him. Sarah has been struggling with mild depression since before her difficult divorce, but Mark’s entitled behavior is causing her to sink deeper and deeper into depression.
Step 1: Take a Step Back from The Situation
If you find yourself in a situation where your loved ones are causing you a lot of stress leading to anxiety or depression, the first and most important thing to do is to take a step back from the situation. This could mean spending a weekend away from everyone involved in the stressful situation or simply taking a day trip to a spa. At this step, regardless of what you choose to do, it’s most important that you find a way to relax, separate yourself from the situation and all other distractors, and take some time to think.
When you take a step back from the situation, here’s what you need to think about:
- What elements of this situation are most stressful to me?
- How am I reacting to this stress?
- What do I want from this situation? If I could have my way, what would an ideal situation look like?
- Is there anything that I can do independent of anyone else to limit the amount of stress I feel and to move perhaps one step closer to this ideal?
Eric decides to visit his friend Roald in Florida for a week. Roald works from 9a to 5p, so he’ll have plenty of time to reflect in the mornings while Roald is at work. In considering his situation, Eric concludes that the most stressful elements of his situation are the facts that his siblings are not very independent and he finds himself constantly giving to them. Eric feels like he is being taken advantage of and that he is under-appreciated. He decided that, in an ideal situation, his siblings would be self-sufficient and they would no longer have a co-dependent relationship. He also concluded he had a part to play in that he created a habit of giving to his siblings instead of empowering them to meet their own needs. He decided to make this change in an attempt to limit his stress.
Janice decides to visit her favorite sensory-reducing float tank place for some float therapy on her day off. She realizes that the element that is most stressful for her is the facts that her parents still treat her like a child. She reacts to this stress by avoiding her parents. What she really wants from the situation is to have a healthy, non-intrusive relationship with her parents that is founded on mutual respect and mutual trust. Janice concludes that withdrawing from her parents instead of opening her world up to them and letting them see that she is mature enough to make her own decisions may be perpetuating their false beliefs that she is still a child and in need of their direction and guidance. Although it may be difficult, she resolves to try to do this.
Sarah decides to book herself into a nearby hotel for a weekend-long stay-cation. She concludes that the most stressful part of her situation is her son’s disrespect and the fact that he behaves as though she owes it to him to take care of him for the rest of his life. She reacts to this stress by retreating to her room or staying out with friends as long as possible. She also cries from time to time. She decides that, in an ideal situation, her son would be self-sufficient, respectful, grateful, and loving, and they would have a normal healthy relationship. Outside of what she is already doing, Sarah is unable to think about something that she could do to move closer to this ideal.
Step 2: Tell the Person or People Involved How the Situation is Affecting You
If after doing what you can to change the situation, things still aren’t exactly ideal, consider having a conversation with the person or people involved. In this conversation, tell them exactly how the situation is affecting you. Addressing how the situation is hurting you (and not how they are hurting you) is key because this can be a sensitive conversation for everyone involved and you don’t want to make them feel as though you are blaming them or as though you believe they are the only ones at fault. If you were able to discover something that you could have done better, consider sharing that with them as well.
Step 3: Ask Them What They Think They Could Do to Improve the Situation
Just like in the previous step, the way in which you ask this question is crucial. As much as possible, you want to avoid telling them what they “should” or “need to” do. Asking them what they think they can do to improve the situation (especially after telling them what you have been doing to try to improve the situation) puts the ball in their court and allows them to set their own boundaries, while still encouraging them to consider your feelings and needs. In my experience, this is the least threatening method of helping someone to see the situation from your perspective and possibly construct a plan or course of action that has a goal of helping to restore the unhealthy relationship.
Eric calls a family meeting after trying to implement his action plan with little success. He explains to his siblings how the situation is causing his anxiety yo worsen, but they are unconvinced. He explains that he has been trying to empower them to meet their own needs since he came back from Florida, but that it seems as though they may not actually want to do for themselves. When he asks them what they think they could do to improve the situation, his two brothers stare blankly and his sister responds that there is no problem, so there’s no need to try to solve an imaginary one. Eric’s situation is still unresolved with little hope of a resolution within the coming weeks.
Janice shares the situation from her perspective with her parents and they respond by saying that they had no idea that she felt that way; they thought she appreciated and was actually asking for her input. They agreed that her withdrawing from the family had actually made the situation more confusing for everyone. They stated that, now that they actually know how she feels, they will give her the space she needs, give Timothy another chance, and, only if he agrees, her mom offered to submit his resume to her company since they are actually trained in the same field. Janice’s concern is resolved.
Sarah returns home and immediately explains the situation from her perspective to Mark. She tells him that she has been sinking into deeper and deeper depression as a result of the situation and he listens silently. When she asks him what he thinks he could do to improve the situation, he says that he could try to be more respectful to her and he could try to get a job and get on his feet. Sarah’s situation is yet unresolved but appears to be headed in the right direction.
Step 4: Know Your Value
After you have a heartfelt discussion with the people involved, if they refuse to work together with you to resolve the situation it’s critical that you know your value, and by that I mean you need to understand that everyone, both you and the others involved, deserves to be respected and has the right to decide what they will and will not be subjected to and how they will or will not permit themselves to be treated. You may need to take a moment apart and really consider whether or not you would be willing to continue this relationship with this person or these people for the remainder of your life if absolutely nothing changes about your relationship. If you decide that this is simply a minor annoyance and you can continue your relationship, then you do so and continue on with your relationship. If however, the stress related to the situation is negatively impacting your health or your job performance, or anything else that is crucial to your advancement in life, then you may need to proceed to step five.
Step 5: Remove Yourself from the Situation
Although it is almost always difficult, it may at times be necessary to completely remove yourself from a stressful situation or relationship. This can be either for a stated period of time or indefinitely. It all depends on the situation. Sometimes, when people see that, despite your love for them, you are choosing to prioritize your own health and sanity and make strides toward achieving optimal physical, mental, spiritual, and social wellness, their respect for you is restored and only then can the relationship begin to heal. In other cases, they never come around. Regardless of what the outcome may be, however, it’s critical that you know and understand your value and know when it is time for you to leave an unhealthy relationship. If it is hard for you to see your own value in the situation, then you may need to take some time apart from the person and work on developing a healthy appreciation of yourself and healthy self-perception or self-image.
Since we know what happened with Janice, let’s see how things turned out with Eric and Sarah.
Eric decided that if he had to live with his siblings’ behavior for the remainder of his life, he would not fare well. His GAD has been worsening and he has contemplated returning to his specialist in order to possibly increase his dosage. Because he does not want to live this way, Eric decides that, although he loves his siblings, the best thing that he can do for both himself and for them, is to distance himself, give them space, and not supply their every demand. After three months of this separation, Eric’s siblings realize that he is serious about maintaining his boundaries, apologizes for their behavior and the stress they have caused him, and gain a new-found respect for their older brother.
Sarah was hopeful that her relationship with Mark would be mended after their last conversation. Although he stated that he would implement changes, however, Mark continued with the same behavior. He did not begin looking for a job nor did he return to school, and he continued to be disrespectful to his mother. Sarah spiraled into deeper and deeper depression until she finally decided that enough was enough. She decided that, although she loves her son dearly, for her own sanity and if there would be any hope of him maturing into a self-sufficient young man, she needed to stop enabling him. Sarah sat Mark down and told him that he would need to move out of her home by the end of the month. Mark moves out and joins the armed forces. Sarah misses him but is happy to know that he is becoming a more disciplined young man. Her mood and mental wellbeing improve.