Think of it like putting some distance between you and your mind, but still being able to see what’s going on in it – thoughts, feelings, memories, and so on, and being able to observe without judgement. The reverse though, is fusion, which means getting caught up and swept away by our thoughts, feelings and memories.
We know, it sounds easy. It would be challenging to do so if we are overwhelmed by the stress of caregiving.
But rather than wallowing in self-deprecating thoughts that you’re an incapable parent and worrying about having your salary deducted (maybe because you took unpaid leave to take care of your child who’s fell sick), there’s a much better way to cope.
Acting as a third party to your thoughts! Give yourself an outlet to air these thoughts, like through journaling. Think of these thoughts and worries as mere jumbles of words ( let’s call it the ‘yada yada’ attitude), not at all related or connected to you in any way. Over time, this will become more intuitive, and these thoughts will appear merely as words on paper. Finding a way to put some distance between you and your mind will help you be less attached to stressful experiences, feel less of overwhelming emotions, and have an easier time dealing with them.
When we mean internal experiences, we’re talking about thoughts, feelings, urges and so on. How do we keep ourselves from avoiding the circumstances that we cannot change, when it’s all we want to do when things get difficult? Mindfulness. It’s a good way to learn how to accept our feelings and thoughts as they are. Acceptance requires us to actively embrace (not the same as ‘liking’ or ‘approving’) our experiences, no matter how unpleasant they are, without any attempt to change them. Taking unpaid leave is something that you just have to do sometimes, and there is nothing you could have done, or can do, to change the fact that you have to take leave. From the wise words of our boss, “Step one — If you can do something about it, do it. Step two — if you can’t do something about it, accept it.”. So, if you’re feeling useless or worthless for taking unpaid leave to take care of your child, just acknowledge that you’re feeling that way in that moment (e.g., I notice that I currently feel useless). Can you tell that this doesn’t mean that you’re actually useless? Being mindful of your feelings and thoughts not only loosens our attachment to them, it can also facilitate future values-based action.
How many times have you gone on “auto-pilot” and went about doing things mindlessly, only to look back and realised you’ve completely missed the details? This step requires you to not only bring your attention to focus on any given moment ( like beaming laser at a point), but also involves being non-judgmental about our experiences. This will enhance our experience of the events as they occur, but also helps us behave in ways that are more consistent with what we value.
Let’s say you’re blaming yourself for taking unpaid leave to take care of your child.
You may critique yourself for spending too much time on work and neglecting your child, or regret taking too many days of leave in the past.
Here’s where things change. Instead of getting preoccupied with the past, and on what’s irreversible, why not accept what’s happening now? Describe the events to yourself objectively, and non-judgmentally, resisting the urge to label them. See the moment simply for what it is. That your child needs you. Ask yourself, what do I do now? Doing so frees you from the past (or future) and gives yourself more control over your behaviour. When you start focusing more on the present, you spend less time judging and criticising yourself.
There are two distinct elements to our mind: (1) the “thinking self” and (2) the “observing self”. We are so used to operating from the thinking part of our mind that we jump to problem-solving mode at every opportunity. But now, we really want to activate the observing part of us a little more. What about trying to gain some awareness of our experience instead of simply doing what we are accustomed to doing (e.g., generating thoughts, beliefs, judgements, etc.)? How would it feel to just mindfully observe your thoughts and feelings, instead of creating thoughts about your thoughts or judging your own emotions? Again, mindfulness can help us (now you know why everyone preaches it!). Learn to see yourself as the constant, at the centre of everything that’s happening. Notice your thoughts, emotions, sensations as what they are. Independent of you, without any judgement about them.
Now that we’ve learnt to embrace our internal experiences and observe them without judgment, what now? We get to doing. We use our personal values to guide the actions we can engage in. Think of values as desired qualities that help you decide how you want to behave. Sometimes, it takes a while to know what our values are. We get caught up with life and can occasionally lose track of what’s important to us. It’s not ideal, but it happens. How can we be mindful of our values, despite everything that’s going on in our lives? Here are some thinking exercises to help you along the way. Spend time to think about how you want your children to remember you, or the things you would disapprove of if your loved ones did them. They can help you be clearer about the qualities that matter to you, and the ones that might not be as important. If you’re taking unpaid leave for your child, most likely you value family a lot, maybe equally or more than your career (this isn’t the same as saying your career isn’t important — you can have values about family and values about work which matter to you).
Stay with us, we’re almost done. Once you are clear on your values, the next thing on the list is finding ways to act according to them. This involves setting goals to pave the way for a more values-consistent life. What can you do in a particular context, so that it reflects what’s important to you? Set SMART goals (see diagram) as it’s been shown to increase the likelihood of achieving the goal. Say, you are someone who values your family and children a lot. Your short-term goal may look like this: Specific : I will set aside 2 hours to be with my children every Sunday. Measurable : I will mark on my calendar each time I spend 2 hours with my children on Sunday. Achievable : This is something within my ability. Realistic : I do not work on the weekend and can block out 2 hours every Sunday. Timely : I will do this over the next four weeks. Over time, it gets easier and more intuitive! On its own, caregiving is already a challenge. Coupled with unpaid leave, it can sometimes overwhelm us beyond words. While we’re unable to change these situations, we have control over how we react to these situations when they occur. Undoubtedly, it will be a challenge to apply these strategies initially — especially acceptance. Know that many of your reactions are normal (and shared by hundreds of thousands of parents out there), and remember to be patient with yourself along the way!