Resilience, A Caregiver Superpower

Imagine a job where each decision is influenced by our worst fears. Imagine a career where each decision teeters often on life and death. Imagine a job where urgencies arise without warning, sometimes, minute by minute. Imagine a job that no matter how much you have studied, researched, and practiced, you feel impotent. Welcome to the life and job of a caregiver.
How does anyone survive a job like this? The resilience each and every one of us is born with. How do I know this? Well let me tell you a story.

It’s October 1998, my wife has just joined me in the United Arab Emirates during a sabbatical she had taken after completing her PhD and before going on to finish the MD portion of her MD/PhD program. I am thrilled to have her with me. She and I already mapped out all the things we were going to do. Life had really blessed us with so much, the job, love, opportunities and possibilities. Upon entering the UAE, my wife needed to undergo a brief medical screening as part of the application process. Get ready for the sucker-punch moment. Of course you saw it coming. Right after her 31st birthday she was diagnosed with stage 3B breast cancer.

It set off an emotional rollercoaster beginning with an enormous drop that led to a series of corkscrew twists and turns for the next eleven years. We were smack dab in the first car without any restraints, knuckles white as we held on for dear life – literally. There were no screams of excitement as you normally hear at an amusement park, but an eerie silence resulting from the suffocating swirl of fears gripping us by our throats.

Riding in the first car with her, I instinctively and without hesitation assumed the roles of; caregiver, protector, source of hope, and of being her impromptu Life Coach. It was while learning how to navigate the controls of this rollercoaster that I conceptualized my definition of purpose: when values come in alignment with passions. My purpose became supporting Desiree through her life’s journey, not just in managing her disease. And it was resilience that powered me on.

Caring for another human being, especially if that person is the love of your life, can not only be overwhelming, but can bring you to a point of exhaustion you could never have imagined existed. As caregivers our desire is to fix. And the more we try to fix, the more we realize we can’t fix anything. That throws us into a spiral of emotions such as frustration, anger, shame, guilt, loss, uncertainty, impotence and of course fear. But our resilience can help.

So what is resilience and how does it help?
Resilience is commonly defined as bouncing back after a crisis. But my life experiences have shown me there is no “bouncing back” after a crisis. The crisis forever changes the landscape in which we find ourselves, it forever changes us and our perspective. It requires bouncing beyond, not back.
Real resilience, the resilience each of us were born with is the ability of bouncing forward to adjust to a “new normal.” Resilience has been evolutionary programmed in us to positively adapt to change. It is about pure focus, removing the unnecessary, and making decision with clarity, not through the lens of emotion. Crucial to caregivers.

The lens of emotion I talk about is fueled by one thing and one thing alone – fear. It is the fear of loss, the fear of failure, the fear of the unknown, the fear of not being enough, and the fear of losing your identity. All summed up, the fear of change.

“You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the things which you think you cannot do.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

We are hardwired to protect ourselves, so it is easy to go with the default of “danger Will Robinson” and crank up the fear machine. This does not mean you are not resilient. It means you have left the machine running on autopilot and are not exercising your resilience.
Resilience helps you manage that fear, not become fearless. Fearlessness is impossible, so please stop beating yourself up for being afraid. Now let’s use that fear to access your resilience because with attention and practice resilience can be strengthened. Yet the most amazing thing about resilience is it allows us to open up, to be vulnerable, to connect to joy in the darkest of times and it allows us to love.

“Caregiving often calls us to lean into a love we didn’t know possible” – Tia Walker

Have you felt the urge to fight against what I am saying? Has fighting against become your modus operandi? Take a step back, take a breath and turn that around. Let’s move from fighting against something to fighting FOR something, because that is blocking your resilience.

As I mentioned earlier, as a caregiver, we want to fix and that is a battle we can’t win. And the more we fight, the more armor we put on to fight the battle. Drop your armor! Fight for something. Identify with your strength, not with the armor or shield you wield. How do you do that. You need to move from obligations to opportunity. You need to remove the unnecessary. You need to open space for life to be lived. When you are fighting against you are not living, when you are fighting for, you are demanding life and joy be present.

But where do you find your resilience and how does it create hope and joy?
My life experiences have shown me that resilience is found at the intersection between Purpose, Perspective, and Personal Power.

Simply put,

1. Purpose
In defining your purpose in a situation, you move away from feeling like something has been thrown on top of you and move to seeing everything as an opportunity to put who you are and put your values into play. It is understanding your why. And you discover your why by asking yourself some powerful questions.

• What is your purpose as a caregiver?
• What impact do you want to make for the person you are caring for?
• How can you support that person through their life’s journey?

2. Perspective
The way we look at life determines how we experience life. It’s true that life is filled with events we’d rather not happen. Many events unfortunately are out of our control. Yet, our reaction and how we show up is directly under our control. But commonly, our perspective and how we react are habitual. To change our perspective from obligation we need to ask ourselves another series of power questions:

• What stories are you telling yourself?
• What are the real truths in what is happening?
• What limiting beliefs are you carrying?
• What can this event teach you about yourself? How can you grow from it?

This will help you move away from life working against you and to life working for you. I know that sounds impossible because we want to fix the situation as a caregiver, but ask yourself, what has really happened?
Once we realize that change, in many forms, is just the natural part of life, we can stop fighting against it and start fighting for living life in the moment.

• What little thing can you do right now to bring more joy into your day as a caregiver?
• What little thing can you do to bring joy into the life of who you are caring for.

My wife and I used to have funny designed paper napkins, which we would call “happy napkins”, to add some joy to any meal. Yes, it might be childish, but who ever said we have to give up our childish enthusiasm for the joy and wonder of life?

3. Personal Power
Personal power represents your agency. Agency means how you assert yourself in your life and in situations. In other words, it refers to your ability to influence how your actions in response to the events in your life.
The best way to build your personal power is making space between the event and your response. In fact, your person power, your agency, lies between cue and response.We are evolutionary programmed to analyze our internal and external environment to try and predict an outcome. And over time, in order to be efficient, we have minimized the space between cue and response, leaving us to feeling helpless in many circumstances. Therefore, we need to widen the gap between cue and response. How do we do this?
First, we must become aware of the gap. For those of you that have ever been to London, you know the famous phrase “Mind the Gap”. That is your first step, become conscious there is a gap, and that you have a choice of response. A great first step is to use a tool made famous by Mel Robbins which is to count down from 5 to 0, just like at a NASA rocket launch. Whenever you are confronted with what you perceive is a threat. Hint, most of the times there is no real threat. But count down and then try to identify anything that you find yourself getting caught up in. This allows you to stop, take a breath and become aware of what you are experiencing in a non-judgmental way.

Rethinking Hope

I have worked with a lot of caregivers who all suffer from a feeling of overwhelm and feeling lost. They whirl in the vortex of the unknown like Dorothy in the tornado which brings her to Oz. Yet as a caregiver, we feel there is no technicolor destination, just darkness, despair, and sadness. What I have seen, both in my own caregiving journey, as well as in those I work with, accessing your resilience turns on a megawatt bulb of rainbow light. It allows you to be hopeful.
It is not hope rooted in the future, but the hope of living wonderful moments along the journey. It is focusing on the joy of the ordinary moments and letting go of some desired future result. I call this chasing life, which I define as chasing and capturing the joy in the daily fleeting moments where life really takes place. It the hope to live well – today, not tomorrow!
It’s asking and answering these questions:

• How can we live a great life right now?
• What can I put in place to get us to that point?
• What’s stopping me?

That is the strength that comes from resilience. That is the strength you were born with. That everyone was born with to help us not just survive but thrive.

By Robert Pardi, Life Coach.