When I was a kid, one of my role models was Horton the elephant, from Dr. Seuss. His phrase, “I meant what I said and I said what I meant—an elephant’s faithful 100 percent!” became my childhood mantra. Only later in life did I fully grasp the more subtle message, that I need to choose my meanings carefully.
When we communicate, both in speaking and listening, we share meaning. In fact, in caregiving I came to realize that the words I spoke to myself and others and the meanings I was listening for influenced my daily experience. Let’s take a minute to look at the relationship between communication and well-being in caregiving.
Communication and Well-Being
“Life is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you react to it.”
Imagine visiting your loved one in the hospital. You are walking down the hallway when you overhear two people talking. One of them points to a nurse at the other end of the hall and whispers to her friend, “That one has a lousy attitude.”
Later, you meet that same nurse in your loved one’s room. Do you feel good about this person caring for your loved one? When we speak, we create realities for ourselves and for those around us. Like fish swimming in a communal fish bowl, we each create our own experiences while also having the ability to influence the experiences of others.
We are constantly being affected by others’ opinions and points of view. Does someone you know speak in a way that deflates you or drains your energy? How do you feel after watching the news? Or perhaps you have a friend who is prone to saying things like, “I’m having the most horrible day!” or “You won’t believe what she said to me!” You are being invited to join in “awfulizing,” which is counterproductive for everyone involved.
When someone is being negative or hyper-critical, I’ve been known to say, “Hey! Stop pooping in the fish bowl.” Instead of feeding into their negativity and letting it affect your day, allow them to vent and then offer to help brainstorm solutions. Work together to find a way to turn their day around or prevent an irritating situation from happening again. Sometimes there isn’t a clear solution, and “venting” is the sole purpose of the conversation. Make it known that you hear their frustration and encourage them to focus on the support found in communicating.
The reality is that negative things do happen—especially in caregiving. For the most part, we cannot change this fact. What we can do is take the challenges in our life and approach them constructively, head-on.
Your Own Words Carry the Most Weight
It is easy to think of ways in which the words of others affect us, but what about the way our own thoughts and words influence how we feel? Often we are our own worst critics when we should be our biggest cheerleaders. How you view yourself, your performance or a specific situation is evident in the things you say and they way you say them.
For example, if you say, “caregiving is hard,” do you mean you are committed to it being hard? Are you expressing doubts regarding your ability to perform this task? How does your feeling about it shift when you say, “caregiving is a challenge”? Does it make the task seem like a trial that can be overcome with extra effort? Do you feel a sense of accomplishment because you rose to the occasion and continue to power through? You should.
We use words to describe feelings, but words also generate feelings, so choose them carefully. It can take some extra effort, but those words that you speak, hear and think combine to define your caregiving experience.
While many forms of communication in ordinary life can seem recreational, (commonly called “sharing”) caregiving is not ordinary life. Your energy and attitude are to be safeguarded at all costs, and sometimes that calls for venting.
Use your vent sessions carefully, though, to avoid negatively impacting yourself and others. Set yourself a time limit, recognize the value in the emotional release of venting, then move on to more constructive forms of communication that are inspired by your commitment to providing care for someone you love.
Holly Whiteside, caregiver coach and advocate, is author of “The Caregiver’s Compass: How to Navigate with Balance and Effectiveness Using Mindful Caregiving.”