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My Cup Runneth Over! Managing Life Stress in The Sandwich Generation

 Managing Life and Caregiver Stress in The Sandwich Generation

This month’s post is coming to you a wee bit late. Much has been happening, my routine got knocked off kilter, and as the title states, my cup started to run over.  This may happening with you, too, now that Spring is in full swing.  Life is full, but it is also hectic.

 Many of you, like me, may be in that stage of Life called “The Sandwich Generation”.  That is, you are raising kids and coping with issues regarding your aging parents. The kids are in their teen years or adult years, and they still rely on you for help and guidance with schooling, finances, medical issues, or just general day-to-day coping. At the same time, your parents are shifting into their senior years and their accompanying challenges. They may be experiencing increased physical challenges, like decreasing mobility, heart problems or cancer, or mild to severe cognitive decline. In  fact, 32 percent of persons over 85 have Alzheimer’s dementia alone. Even if they are mentally healthy, they may be going through physical changes.  “Did you see how long it took Dad to climb the stairs to his bedroom? And he lives alone and does it every day!” your brother might say to you.

So you worry about Mom or Dad or Aunt Susan. They tell you not to, that they are “fine, and you’re being a worry wart.” Or maybe they speak from the other extreme, talking constantly about their ailments, their fears, their feelings of abandonment and anger that “young people just don’t understand.”  (By the way, what I love about the seniors is that, no matter their personality, they are practically the only people who still think of middle aged adults like me as “kids”.) Either way, it’s a challenge. 
With your kids growing and the adults getting more fragile, it can feel as though the earth is shifting steadily beneath your feet. You are now an “adult” in the truest sense,  because when things happen, you feel deep down that the worry and fallout will be yours to handle.  On top of that, you are likely balancing your own finances, career, and/or the needs and concerns of a partner. Overload, much? 

Our family is what anchors and drives us, but at times, can drain us. Especially if there is a crisis going on. You do what you gotta do, true. But it’s still important to take care of yourself amidst the whirlwind.
Easier said than done, I know. But it is necessary. I often tell people what I learned in my training as a therapist, and has been proved to me time and again in my personal life: it’s like being on the airplane and they say, “Put the oxygen mask on yourself before putting one on everyone else” (because if you are passed out, you can’t help anybody). Or like filling your own gas tank before you can drive anyone else around. If your tank is empty, that’s it.

IF your teen calls you to help because they had a car accident, plus your mother was admitted to the hospital for heart palpitations, and you dealt with this during your job hours, your cup runneth over.

A segway note:  These issues can be even more challenging to navigate if you yourself have challenges to your physical or neurological functioning, such asADHD (Attention deficit/ hyperactive disorder), which makes tasks like focusing, planning and organizing even more challenging.  In the book, Smart But Scattered, the authors point out that a person’s weakest executive functioning skill is like the weakest organ in a person’s body, such as lungs that are prone to asthma. When stress and demands pile on, BOOM! That is the first organ to get sick, so just as a person with asthma gets bronchitis, the ADHD adult loses track of time, forgets an important meeting, or loses their iphone.  In my case, my weakest executive functioning skill is organization. So when demands and stress start piling up with me, for instance, disorganization and clutter set in, and I have more trouble keeping track of my things. If you have often felt less “with it” than other people, and it seemed it is a lot of work for you to get organized, focus, prioritize, or follow through on tasks, you may want too consider getting tested for Adult Adhd. But do this when life stressors have calmed down a bit, so that the assessment can see how you do at baseline.  Treatment ranges from ADHD coaching to cognitive-behavioral therapy to medication, and it can be extremely helpful in helping you with these challenges.   

Even if you don’t have ADHD, life throws curve balls sometimes, especially when you in your “Sandwich Years”. But when those curve balls get more frequent or more demanding, we can start to feel burned out. We don’t know what to do first, or where to start. 

All this can come to a head when you are part of that Sandwich Generation, and needs seem to come from all sides.  You can feel overwhelmed or even desperate.  While sinking into despair is attractive,  it does not solve problems very well. 

So here’s what you do:

1. Recognize and accept your overwhelm.  Admit that “Your cup runneth over”, and you are on overload.

2. Get help: A therapist who has an interest in caregiver issues can help you sort out your emotions and challenges as well as help you develop coping strategies.  If you are overwhelmed, this can be a great place to start.
For your elderly parents or relatives: You may consider hiring a caregiver or home health aide. For the kids or young adults: Depending on what the main challenge is with them, a sitter (child care), tutor (academic struggles) or therapist (mood issues like sadness/depression, anxiety) or doctor (medical/biochemical concerns).

Yes, these services cost money, but this is money that helps your sanity and strength. A good place to go for help with eldercare issues can be the Human Resources Office at your job. They can often tap into your EAP (Employee Assistance Program). You’d be surprised at what they can help you find by way of help. Even if you don’t have an HR Office, check with your health insurance company about options such as care managers.
They can provide assistance for more complex medical issues with your child, teen or young adult. They can help you tap into the kind of help you might need. Your spouse, A trusted friend, neighbor or a relative that might be able to sit with you or family if you feel like you are needed in two places at once, and you need some coverage.

In accessing professional eldercare help, one of the best things my family did when my own father developed Alzheimer’s was to employ a Geriatric Care Manager. His care manager not only knew how to relate to him, but she knew the local services available such as Adult Day Care.   
Support groups can also be helpful. The Alzheimer’s Association offers support groups for caregivers, where you can get good information and support from others who understand what you are going through.

3.Slow down and break it down.
Sounds nuts, right? “How do I go take a break when Mom was just hospitalized and my kid is ill?” Let me put this another way. I don’t mean plan to go on two-week cruise with no help for Mom the second a crisis or emergency is over. I mean, slow down how you are able. Watch a funny show with tea. Sit with a friend. Get your bearings, and break these big things down into smaller manageable tasks, day by day, or hour by hour.
 4. Set limits. 
This is where a good therapist can help. Oftentimes we get so caught up in taking care of our loved ones’ issues that we lose sight of two things:
a.  The difference between a crisis and an emergency, and
b. The difference between a need and a want. 

A crisis means your relative is definitely having a hard time with something, whether it is their health, their dinner, or car trouble, and that problem is bigger than the help available to cope with it.  Mom is dropped the dinner, it is in a mess in her kitchen, and she calls you sobbing. She is mobile, she is fine, but very upset.  Of course this distresses, but she her life or well-being are not at risk at the moment.  It stinks for her to have to wait, but if something else more pressing is happening, she can, if needed.

Danger to life or health- and I mean, imminent danger, is an emergency.  Trouble breathing, chest pains, or a home on fire. These are emergencies. Someone is at risk of dying or being severely injured if the situation is not handled.  

If you feel you are being hauled into crisis scenarios a lot, this is a good indicator that more help is needed for you and/or your loved ones.  You may need more in-home help with Mom.  She will likely refuse, at first. As may your son, with getting a tutor even though he is failing classes.  But one of my favorite advice columnists, Carolyn Hax, said something to the effect of,  “You don’t get to drive someone nuts while you refuse help.”  Some crises may need to occur wherein you can’t be there, and then they may begin to shift their thinking.  Limits, by the way, are not the same thing as walking away or not caring. Limits mean clarifying what you will or won’t do. Limits are proactive, rather than reactive. 

If your are dealing with the second situation, true life-or-death emergencies, a lot, I’m glad you are reaching out for help. Heed the advice of medical, law enforcement or mental health professionals in that case. You may need a more intense level of help for your loved ones that you alone cannot be expected to provide.

  1.  Relentlessly forgive yourself.

(What a great phrase!  It isn’t mine, but it’s too good not to share.)   When things don’t get done, and stressors continue, chronic stress can set in.  you can begin to believe you are not doing things well enough.  That if you were more “put together”, all of this crap wouldn’t be happening to you.  Well, guess what? That is your brain wiring playing tricks on you with automatic negative thoughts.   You tell yourself this enough, and you will start to believe you are “a loser”.  But here are other truths that are being ignored, here:  Look at how much you HAVE done, and are still standing. And think of how much worse things would be without all that you have put in place.  Better yet, how much you are doing to advocate for your family.  And yes, you may have put in a service too late, missed an important phone call, etc. Observe that thought, and forgive yourself. Over and over.

6. Savor the moments.  

I’m not saying, ignore the hard stuff.  I’m saying, every once in a while, you’ll have moments that are funny or touching.  When my Dad was senile, he was able to hug me without a sarcastic joke attached, which was odd but kind of nice.  And we were able to watch Puppy Videos on YouTube together, and simply enjoy it. Of course I still missed the person he had been, and that disease made me angry for what it took from him and us all.  But the person he had been before would have had no patience for such cutesy stuff.  So we had some very sweet moments during his illness that I am grateful for.

The Sandwich Generation on Vacation

You can employ the above strategies even when doing positive, fun things with multiple family generations. I am learning through trial and error, what limits to set and what help to get for annual family vacations.

Recognize you feel overwhelmed: The last few family trips were fun overall, but I have felt exhausted or returned with back pain or a sprained shoulder.  This is because I took on way too many physical tasks than I realistically should have. I had had fun, as well, but I’d like to curb some of the physical strain. I’d like to return from trips with my body more intact.

Get help: I am so over the type of trip I did in my college years, like sleeping overnight in train stations with all my belongings on my back.  And now that I am in the Sandwich Generation Years, I am even tired of the “self-catering” part of self-catering rentals. I don’t want to be cooking so often, changing bed sheets or nagging others to do it. Sometimes it’s worth the quality of life to pay for extra services, like a travel agent to help coordinate flights and hotels.  Or getting a hotel with more amenities like regular cleaning services, transportation, room service/restaurants within walking distance, or an easy-to-access location, if it means a bit more rest and less stress.  Next time, I will definitely get this help. And to me, this is not selfish, or at least, if it is, it is good selfish.  We need to allow ourselves to do what helps us feel more rested, not more irritable, if it is within our means. 

On that note, we can, no, we SHOULD ask for help from our family members.  Ahead of the trip, discuss what tasks are expected from everyone, with the main goal being a fun, manageable time.  List the tasks, and ask, who chooses which ones?  Put it in writing, have everyone sign it, and if things are not done, refer back to the list for accountability.  But again, be realistic, and still book the kind of trip that will not make this too energy-consuming for you. 

Slow down.  Sometimes, the packed itinerary that jams in a million tours, trips and activities can be too much.  I want some days to be open and unplanned, and again, this helps me rest, so I have more mindful, positive energy for others. I now build in some time for this, and I opt out of some hikes, activities, and such. Even with very young children, you can opt to hang back with them at the hotel or a kid-friendly venue.

Set limits. While sitting at a pizza parlor on our vacation, we got to chatting about The Next Trip.  This was amusing to me, given that we were only halfway through the Current Trip, but hey, we get caught up sometimes.  Some family members thought that our next extended family trip should be to Hawaii.  I nixed that immediately.  With elderly relatives, I have decided that my limit is 4 hours of driving OR 3 hours of flying to get to our destination, maximum.  I feel that the fatigue of long drives/flights, plus the possibility of health complications with elderly relatives is not worth it.   

On that note, don’t be everybody’s personal chef, maid, cleaner, itinerary planner, ALL the time, because then you will ALSO be everyone’s Grump. You’re entitled to your share of moments of grumpiness, yes. Vacations in new places with new routines do add some stress.  But if that becomes your “style” of relating when on vacation, chances are, things need tweaking. Adding a “Sandwich Generation Takes a Break” day is important. The benefit if your kids are teens is that, they can step up and do a few of those things here and there.

Yes, some people will be disappointed, but sometimes we need that flexibility from others. Sometimes even the adults may have the fantasy or belief that they will be helpful or not cause problems.  I believe that they have good intentions, but still, we need to be realistic.  For example, your Dad believes he’ll be able to handle that hike up the mountain, but he can barely manage the stairs, so you may need to put your foot down (no pun intended) on the idea of the Island with the Big Mountain and find something more low-key that your teen can still enjoy.  And my awareness of Mom’s back issues meant that I said, “No way are we doing a 10-hour flight”.  Even a spouse who is usually supportive may not recognize the risk in such a long flight.  But I held my ground. And you know what?  They got it.  Sometimes they need to hear the “no” from us.  That’s our right to assume as the main “focal person (or people, if you are partnered)” that coordinates everyone’s experience.

Forgive yourself relentlessly. 

We had an issue with our house rental while on vacation. I hadn’t foreseen running out of garbage bags, so I did not clean up the way I would have.  Plus the owners had not left a checklist of what they expected or wanted.  This resulted in dissatisfaction on both sides. After all was said and done, our family took responsibility for what we had not done, but protocol indicated they should have left us a checklist.  The whole incident made me realize that house rental without help is simply too much for us to oversee on multi-generational vacations.  But rather than self-blame, I’m looking at it as a learning experience, and making changes in the future.

And remember, most of all to savor the moments.  This is something you can do on vacation that is much harder to do (but not impossible) when you are coping with the daily demands in Part 1 of this post.  I am aware as we get older that our time with the older relatives is limited.  Sometimes that helps me remember that snafus may occur, even with these steps.  I’m glad that we can do these family trips and are creating those memories.  I just want to stay somewhat sane in the process, and so the above strategies can really help. Hopefully, they will do the same for you.  With that in mind, may you get the support you need if  your cup runneth over.

Discussing your Religious Beliefs in Therapy

 

Happy April!  It’s the second day of the month, and the first signs of Spring are poking through here in Northern Virginia.  It’s looking greener, and the Cherry Blossoms are at peak bloom this week at the nearby Tidal Basin, Washington, DC

It’s also the month of Easter, Passover, and many religiously-based holidays around the world.  How does this influence your life, if at all? And if it does not, what is on your mind as Spring opens?

I’m not about to endorse or dismiss religious beliefs here.  I just want to open up a topic for discussion to those who wish to discuss it.

For those of you raised in faith traditions other than Judeo-Christian, I apologize in advance if I am not acknowledging you.  I am drawing on the faith traditions with which I am the most familiar, but please feel free to add a perspective based on your own belief system or background in the “Comments” section.

The holidays of Spring tend to focus around the themes of rebirth and new beginnings. This of course relates to the way nature is coming to life again after lying dormant all Winter.   Also, the Spring holidays are not as commercialized as some of the Winter holidays have become, but they still come with their own distinct rituals and celebrations.  They often come with expectations, too, from faith communities, family, and friends.  This is usually the time of year that folks seem to want to discuss religion with me more.  So I am opening up this topic for you here.

 I grew up in a predominantly Christian neighborhood outside Chicago.  Most of my classmates were Catholic or mainline Protestant, particularly Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Episcopal.  

“I have CCD today”, they would groan. (Usually, this was their reaction.)

“I gave up chocolate/video games/gummy bears for Lent”, was another refrain.

So for me, this time of year brings up these memories, along with coloring eggs and chocolate bunnies, come Easter.   Once we had a Passover dinner at the home of a parent’s friend.  I remember reading from a prayer book, matzoh crackers, and gefilte fish at that Seder.

Yet, I have known and worked with people whose memories of holidays and their personal issues as related to their faith beliefs or upbringing were more emotionally charged.  The man I know who, at age ten, went to confession and was told by the priest that he was “a very disturbed child”.  (He hadn’t confessed thoughts or deeds of harming anyone, just that he was curious about how the Universe worked from a scientific perspective.)  The boy recalled that in later years, the priest became increasingly negative during services to the point that his entire family changed to another church.  This boy later became a scientist, and he never returned to any form of organized religion, though he remained personally spiritual. He credited his openness to spirituality to his mother, who told him the priest was a human who did not know everything, and to a more open priest that he knew later in life.  On the other hand, there are the positives:  The girl whose warmest memories were of going to church with her grandmother, who she loved, and playing with the other children afterward, every Sunday. The young teenager whose Rabbi was able to hear his agnosticism and, because of this, felt heard and decided to continue learning about Judaism.  It is often the people we are attached to who influence our beliefs, for better or for worse.

Religious holidays in particular can trigger issues we have around our closest relationships, especially with regard to the people who raised us, be they parents, aunts and uncles, or other guardians.  Or maybe issues come up based on experiences we had with faith leaders in our community, like the little scientist I described. If you were raised in a Catholic area, you are aware that it’s now Lent, and soon it will be Easter.  What memories does that trigger, be they positive or negative?

How much do you identify with the faith you were raised with?  I want to emphasize that there is NO judgment in this question, just curiosity.  And if you went a different route than how you were raised, how did that affect your relationship with your family?  Did this cause a rift, was your path accepted, or was it a more winding road with a little bit of both?

Are you from a faith tradition (or lack thereof) that is not commonly understood, validated, or acknowledged by our larger society?   What comes to mind for me are people who grew up in a home that was atheist, agnostic, or perhaps Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Wiccan, or Evangelical Christian?  Or were you a religious minority in your hometown, aka, Jewish in a neighborhood of mostly Catholic residents? What was that like for you?  Or, maybe your family was of mixed faith backgrounds, like those described in the book, Being Both, by Susan Katz Miller.  How did this affect you and your relationships with family, friends, classmates, growing up, and what about now, if you are an adult?

And taking this a step further…What do you wish you could tell your therapist about this?  Do you want to discuss your religious beliefs in therapy?

Therapists are guided by codes of conduct, so we work with where you are on this.  In other words, we do not (or are not supposed to) dismiss your belief system or issues you might be having. Nor are we to push our beliefs about faith, at least, not intentionally.  We have codes of ethics about this, and therapy is about you, not those of your therapist.  More on that here:  

We may not be as informed about your faith tradition as you might like. Sometimes, this allows for more objectivity, but it may also mean we might miss how important a faith-related issue is to you.  If you feel that way in therapy, it’s a good idea to let your therapist know this.

Also it’s important to throw in that, for most therapists, the focus of the therapy is not to provide specific spiritual guidance, such as a Pastoral or Christian Counselor  might do.  If that is what you are looking for, a faith community, such as a church, bereavement, or religious study group might be a good place to start.

But we can listen to how your beliefs are affecting your emotions, your functioning, or your relationships. Sometimes, that objective “sounding board” on its own can help you understand more about what’s bothering you and how to cope with it.

Which brings me to another question.  Because therapists are varied, and human, they differ in how they might decorate their offices.  Have you ever walked into a therapist’s office and seen an image or sign of a religious nature that triggered a reaction in you?  Maybe the object was something affirming to you, and it made you feel more of a common bond.  Or maybe it had the opposite effect, that it was a big turn-off.  What was it, and why did this particular object affect you?  Again, no judgment, just curiosity.  Did you mention it to your therapist?

Or maybe there was no reaction, and you felt neutral about it.   It is not an issue, or at least not one that is relevant to your therapy.  That is to be respected, too.   But if it is on your mind in any way, what would you want to discuss?  Please feel free to comment on this.

And whatever your belief system is, may you have a great start to Spring!

Finding a therapist

Finding a good therapist

How do you find a good therapist?

Most people don’t know, if they’ve never been to see one. 

And even if you have, you might be in a different place in your life right now, with different issues, than the last time you were in therapy.

So how do you decide? Here is a brief guideline to figure it out.

 

What problem to do want to work on?

Let’s start with you. What is the main issue that you want to find a good therapist to help you with?

Are you going through a difficult life issue right now?   A rough patch in your relationship/s?

What is the main thing causing you stress? Your job, your significant other, an elderly parent or child with health needs, and you are the main caregiver/helper to this person?

One way to narrow it down is to figure out what you DON’T want.  Are you up to your ears with people giving you advice and problem-solving?  Do you just want an outside person to lend an ear to what you are going through, especially at the start? Then you probably don’t want a person who comes off as pushy or giving you yet more recommendations before hearing you out. 

Or is it the opposite? You need to make decisions, you are very anxious about something, and you really could use an objective party to listen and help you lay out your options.  In that case, you might want someone directive.

But it’s hard to figure out someone’s personality and treatment approach before you’ve even met them.  That’s where it can help to talk to people that you know have done counseling already and find out who they have seen. If it is for a similar issue, that might be a good person for you, too.  (Keep in mind some boundaries here, though. You might want to avoid seeing the same therapist that your mom, brother, or close friend has seen, especially if you are having issues with that person.) 

Having said that, another good place to look is on therapy directories online, such as Psychology Today.  You can look at the professional profiles of many therapists, as well as what insurance they take (if any), where they practice, and what is their area of interest and expertise.  This will save you a lot of legwork in trying to find someone who fits your needs.  It might be good to jot down the names of three therapists you found this way, and call them to set up an appointment with each of them, before deciding on the one for you.

Expectation management:

Keep in mind one thing:  No matter what, a therapist is there to listen to your situation and help you come to decisions that work for you.   But they will not make the decision for you. At least, they are not supposed to.  That will be up to you.

 50 warning signs of bad therapy shows a pretty complete list of what to look for and what to avoid in a therapist.  And so does 25 signs of a bad therapist: You deserve better.

Even with this, keep in mind that what works for someone else may not work for you, and vice-versa.  It doesn’t mean that one of you is right or wrong, just that you are individuals with your own needs and likes.

Another thing:  I once had a client who was looking for a marriage counselor for himself and his wife.  He had a history of substance abuse (now clean), and was having intimacy issues, along with trauma, which he was actively treating with an individual therapist.  So I referred him to an excellent therapist who works with intimacy issues.

He didn’t want to see this person because he wanted someone well-versed in couples work and sexuality, but also someone who worked with trauma and substance abuse.  I don’t think he was aware of it, but this was a pretty tall order. 

It’s understandable that you would want someone good at what they do, and it’s good to do your homework and find out if this person is well-respected and has experience in your issue. But if you find that you are passing up every therapist you come across, it could mean that, at some level, you are afraid that your problem will not be understood or handled well.

Think of looking for a doctor.  The more specialized they are, the fewer specialties you can demand of them. So if you want a cardiologist, you can narrow down what KIND of cardiology they do (adult/child, surgical/non-surgical). But it is unlikely that you will find a cardiologist who is also an orthopedist and a gastro-enterologist.  Likewise, you might find a therapist who works with teens on anxiety and does substance abuse, but they might not have too many other specialties than that.

That’s ok.  The main thing you want to focus on is, what is the BIGGEST issue for you right now?  If it is your relationship with your spouse, and you both want to see a marriage counselor, then that is the top “specialty” you need:  Someone who specializes in, and likes to do, couples’ work.   

If the next pressing issue is that one of you has trouble focusing, and that impacts your relationship, then that person may need to get screened individually, by a doctor and by an individual therapist, for any underlying conditions, like Attention-Deficit/Hyperactive Disorder 

(ADHD).  Once you have a diagnosis, they can get individual treatment for the ADHD, and then the two of you can do couples’ work around communication with someone who has some familiarity with ADHD, too, and its impact on relationships.

 

It isn’t always about their degree, but their passion.

Nowadays, a therapist should have at least a Master’s Level Degree in Counseling, Social Work, or Marriage and Family Therapy. Sometimes they will have a Doctorate (PhD, DSW, or PsyD), which are all varying levels of expertise.  Someone with a Doctorate is often able to do or has done research in their area of expertise. They can also provide extensive diagnostic testing, which a Master’s level therapist usually is not trained to do, for example. That’s important if you need your child tested for school accommodations, but maybe not so much if you are looking for talk therapy.  And definitely, any mental health professional you see should have a current, active license to practice in the state where you are seeing them.

Beyond that, you’d want someone who has an interest in your particular issue. For instance, it’s much better to get a  Masters Level clinician who has a special interest in couples, than a PhD professional who does not particularly like working with couples, if you and your spouse want help together.  If you find that therapist who is familiar with and loves working on issues related to ADHD? That person will likely give you more meaningful help than the one who is not all that into ADHD.

 

The relationship is important.

It took courage for you to come see this person, and to tell them what’s going on with you.  Did they seem to be listening to you? That’s important. Did they seem to care?  Also big.  Are you not quite sure?  That’s ok.  You also may want to give it about six sessions with someone before deciding that they are or are not for you, unless something they said or did seemed so judgmental or irrelevant to what you are working on, that you really have no desire to come back.  Even if that is the case, do you think you could tell this person how you felt when they said that?  Therapists are human, too. They might not have realized that what you said hit them that way.  And how they handle your upset will be important. Did they dismiss it, or did they at least acknowledge that you got upset? If they did the second part, well, points for them.  If not, it may be time to look for someone else. 

 

Make therapy a priority. 

I really do get it. Life is busy.  There are a million things that need doing, and sometimes it feels like coming in to talk about yourself is the one thing you want to put on the back burner.  But trust me:  Therapy is like working out. The more you stick to it, the more your chances of success and effective changes. You went to the trouble of coming, so keep it going! Come to your appointments regularly, and only cancel if you really had an emergency, which yes, does happen on occasion.   And think about it:  If you are not willing or able to prioritize therapy, how can your provider do it for you?

If you have issues that make regular sessions difficult, talk to your therapist. Perhaps you can both agree to postpone sessions until that big exam, trip, or operation is over.  Or, if you have chronic health issues or a situation that makes coming into the therapy office difficult, look for a provider who does teletherapy, which is becoming more available.   Whatever you do, most providers would prefer that you are honest about your situation than habitually miss sessions or keep cancelling. No shame, no blame. 

 

All this being said, congratulations on thinking about what you are looking for in therapist. It says a lot about you, that you are giving this some thought.  So, best of luck, and may you find a good therapist for you!

 

Paycheck to paycheck: Emotional vs. Mindful Spending

Paycheck to paycheck:  Emotional vs. Mindful Spending

Welcome to February and Midwinter!  This time of the year brings all kinds of things that can make us want to go outside or just burrow inside, depending on your tendencies.  The snow and cold…School closings.  Oh, and you can always get started on those taxes (ick), and spending habits.

Yes, here it is:  You just got the credit card (or cards) with your purchase summary from December’s Holiday Season, in all its messy glory.  It also shows you all your other purchases, from home maintenance to clothes to restaurants to whatever else.  It is definitely NOT my favorite thing to do, looking at my credit card!

But loading it up is another story.   Who doesn’t enjoy buying things, or at least, getting satisfaction when we pay for something that needs doing?  Money makes the world go ‘round, and now that we can buy almost anything online, consumer culture has more power than it ever did for most of us. And when we shop for pleasure, wow, what a rush!  This “rush” is a real thing, involving Dopamine and other neurochemicals. After a while, our brains start to look forward to the rush.  Come back to that enough, and we get addictive behaviors.  (This is a basic explanation, but I’m not a scientist.) You can read more on https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/wired-love/201507/the-dopamine-reward-system-friend-or-foe, and https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/women-who-stray/201701/no-dopamine-is-not-addictive, among other websites.

And how is this affecting us?  Well, it depends.  I am struck by how many people who come to see me tell me that they are living paycheck to paycheck.    “Fifty-five percent of Americans are living paycheck-to-paycheck…Actually…36% are living paycheck-to-paycheck, 19% are actually worse off than that – accruing debt.” (https://20somethingfinance.com/percentage-of-americans-living-paycheck-to-paycheck/)  A survey by CareerBuilder put the paycheck-to-paycheck cohort at 8 out of 10 Americans.  How can this be?

Don’t get me wrong.  The government shutdown left 800,000 government employees without a paycheck for over 30 days. Many of them still had to show up for work.  Now there is a collective, qualified sigh of relief as the government has reopened for at least the next two weeks.  Even for many folks who are not employed by the Federal Government, money worries are significant for people who have mortgages, college payments, health care and household expenses. 

But I’m talking about something else, another kind of paycheck to paycheck. Yes, you may have household expenses, a mortage/rent, or other payments, BUT it is less than one-third of your budget.  You bring in a high-five- or six-figure salary.  You don’t have caregiver expenses, kids, student loans.  So…What gives?  (At this point, you want to stop reading because you think I am going to lecture you.  Hang on.)

What’s likely is that we don’t have a spending plan or budget. What is even more likely is that we are spending impulsively, or emotionally.  I’m not saying, completely turn into Mr. Spock from Star Trek and only spend “logically”.  I’m talking about something in between, which is called, spending mindfully

Here is a guide to get started.

 

Take a step back and observe.

 

Before making any changes, start by tracking where your money has been going, just this month. No need to rewrite all of history. Just this month.  Is it on hotels, take-out food, Starbucks?

No shame, no blame.  Many people avoid number one.  They hate it, they just start to feel overwhelmed, awful, and whatever other negative adjectives they can throw at themselves.  Stop. That’s judgment and blame. What we are talking about is, just observe the amounts and items. Repeat to yourself, “It’s a process, and I am doing something important.  Taking hold of things is not blaming myself.” Repeat as necessary.  Want some tech help?  There are some great apps that help you track your spending, or even notify you if your spending has reached a certain level.  Check out this website for some tips: https://www.forbes.com/sites/samanthasharf/2016/03/02/12-free-apps-to-track-your-spending-and-how-to-pick-the-best-one-for-you/#76c3de185445

Look at the connection between trigger events and your spending.  Yes, emotional spending is a thing.  Basically, it means we spend money to feel better.  (https://www.goodhousekeeping.com/uk/consumer-advice/money/a575009/how-to-stop-emotional-spending-money/)  That $200 bill from late December’s outing with your friend Mary?  Oh yes, that was the day I had a lousy day at work and she had had a fight with her boyfriend.  We got together and said, “Forget this, let’s go party tonight!” It definitely helped and you wanted the outing.  There’s your $200 on dinner, drinks, and the club.  It was emotional spending, which we do to feel better.  Some of this might be ok, but too much is what gets us into the hole, and it may not always be the best way to cope. But, just the fact that you observed the connection is already a change.

What deeper need do we have that spending seems to be replacing?  There’s the million dollar question, no pun intended.  Are we spending because we miss our son, who went away to college this year, and now we are empty nesting?  Or are we lonely for a partner that is deployed or otherwise working long hours?  Or do we want deeper purpose to our life, outside of our own selves, and we find it in what money can buy us? What emotional void does spending seems to fill, at least temporarily? 

A few years ago I remember reading a psychological study about the effects of poverty. It said something to the effect of, people may BE poor, but in the United States, where they are often surrounded by affluence, they FEEL poor more than their counterparts who live similarly in a developing country such as India or Bolivia. Some of this had to do with the social isolation that can accompany lack of finances.  Are we spending money to combat this feeling of isolation or disconnect from others?  How might you be doing this in your life?  

Make a small, concrete change.  “What, now I can’t go out with my friends when I feel bad and want some fun?”  I’m not saying “never” but tweak it:  A more affordable place for dinner, two drinks.  A walk around town instead of a club. Instead of that third drink, donate the money to a cause you care about. Or, the week after clubbing, brownbag your lunch and watch something good on TV so as to balance out the spending.  One of my other preferred methods is, “set it and forget it”.  Set up your bank account to automatically deposit a certain, manageable amount of money into a savings account that you will not touch. That way, you start accumulating something into savings without much effort.  Smaller still:  If you get a Starbucks coffee almost every day, you decide you will do this just on Tuesday and Saturday. Or get a Tall coffee instead of a Grande.  Want to get even more basic? In the mornings before work, instead of flipping through shopping emails, go stand outside for 5 minutes, observe a tree, a bird or a corner of the street, and breathe deeply.  Trust me, this is still something! Small tweaks are more likely to stick than huge plans that are harder to maintain.   The point is, you are doing SOMETHING, and you went into it mindfully, with intention.  Notice when you do this.  

It’s about self-care, not punishment.     If you see this as what you are depriving yourself of, you’ll come at it with a negative mindset and a feeling of being “without”, which will just annoy you and make you want to spend more.  Which is, of course, what consumer culture relies on, the feeling of never having enough.  Instead, visualize meeting your goal of spending down your debt.

Pair the change with a cost-free reward.  Yes, there are ways to self-care without much cost.  Such as a warm bath, a self-manicure in front of a good movie, a brisk walk in nature or under the stars near your home or work, a park. If you are seeking affordable or free fun as an outing, check out https://culturecapital.com/feature/7/festivals-in-metro-dc/ or https://washington.org/visit-dc/free-things-to-do-events-festivals .  One great thing about DC are all the free museums.

Even more tools: Still having a hard time doing this on your own?  You can see more help and guidance from a CFC, or Certified Financial Counselor.  One such place to search for one is https://afcpe.org (click on “Find an afcpe”). This type of Finance Professional is someone whose priority is YOUR financial health, not on getting commission for another party, like a bank or stock.   Typically you’d meet with this person to go over your spending habits and goals, and they would help you structure your spending toward that. They charge a fee for the service, but unlike some splurges, this money invests in health, so think of it as mindful spending.

“But I’m not trying to get rich; I just want enough to live how I want to”, you might say.  That’s ok; just keep in mind, it’s good to have some savings for an unexpected life event.  No matter what your intention is, it’s taking action toward that intention, even in small ways. 

While I looked at spending in this particular post, we can apply some of the same principles to many areas of life, be it working, drinking/substance use, or other areas.  My point is, sure, we all like to have fun. But when that fun gets us “stuck”, it’s like overusing a muscle in our body. Time to use a different set of behaviors, or muscles, to cope with boredom/frustration/isolation/sadness.

The point is, look at this process as taking responsibility, NOT blame.  And, most importantly, of becoming more aware.   Being mindful of what you are doing in the moment can move mountains. 

 

Other resources:

Prince Charming Isn’t Coming; How Women Get Smart About Money, by Barbara Stanny, https://www.amazon.com/Prince-Charming-Isnt-Coming-Women/dp/0143112058

“Ten Red Flags of Financial Infidelity and What to do about It”, by Trent Hamm,

https://www.thesimpledollar.com/ten-red-flags-of-financial-infidelity-and-what-to-do-about-it/

Why You Should Hire a Financial Planner Even if You’re Not Rich”, by Liz Schumer, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/20/smarter-living/why-you-should-hire-a-financial-planner.html

 

 

 

 

 

 

Opening Bridges Blog

Coming Soon:  “Opening Bridges” Blog

I’ll be posting on the first Tuesday of every month about a new topic regarding relationships, the challenges of daily life, and strategies for coping.  

About Irene Ilachinski, MSW, LCSW:

I am a Licensed Clinical Social Worker practicing in Occoquan, Virginia, just outside the busy Beltway of Washington, DC.  I am passionate about helping people examine and move the obstacles that keep them stuck, and in helping them build connections in ways that feel supportive.  I also have a lifelong interest in storytelling, art and creative therapies, as well as mind-body work in many forms. While I am better with words than with numbers, I am connected to plenty of  STEM folks, so I appreciate the scientists and engineers as they appear in my personal and professional life.

Disclosure: Yes, I am a therapist, but I’m not your therapist, and this blog and the posts herein do not create a  therapist-client relationship. I am licensed to practice clinical social work in Virginia and have based the information presented on US practices. This blog is for informational purposes and should not be seen as therapeutic intervention. You should consult with a therapist, medical doctor, or expert in the field referenced before you rely on this information.

 

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