During the ten years while my father battled Parkinson’s Disease, I learned a valuable lesson about respecting boundaries and giving unsolicited advice. Witnessing his decline and was fraught with many emotions. It was scary to see someone who was once so physically strong and independent relying on others and devices (a walker and later, a wheelchair) to navigate the world. I had such a powerful desire to help. To do anything I could to stretch time so he could be with us for as long as possible.
There were moments of tension when he didn’t seem too open to hearing about the latest study or practices that could improve or prolong his life. He always humored me by politely listening but promptly returned to business as usual. Business as usual typically involved a fall, hospital stays and distress for those of us that loved him. I had all sorts of ideas and opinions on how we could prevent the next catastrophe and perhaps avoid the impossible, his eventual death.
My love and presence in his life, which I now see was more than enough for him to endure whatever came his way, compelled me to overstep. I didn’t want him to suffer. I wanted him in my life. He needed my help. I now see these beliefs as justifications for inappropriate behavior. There were times when he had specific needs and asked for help—rides to the doctor, could I make him a sandwich, assistance with his sweater or pills. I was more than happy to lend a hand. However, all that unsolicited advice and judgment about what he was or wasn’t doing. Not asked for and not helpful.
After he passed I was completely torn up by but the circumstances of his death. I felt a choice he made about his care hastened his decline and none of us said or did enough to prevent it. Deeply grieving, I shared my guilt about the situation with my uncle. He lovingly reminded me that my dad lived the life he wanted. It was all on his terms. It was then when I realized that loving and caring about the outcomes for someone does not give me permission to meddle in their choices. It was a hard lesson to learn.
Like most lessons, they repeat until you really get the point. As I went on to build my health coaching practice, I worked diligently and deliberately to empower my clients to make the best choices for themselves—no advice, no quick fixes, no judgment. My role is to shine a light on blind spots, share information and allow them to make their own decisions. How could I possibly know more than they do about what’s best for them? This practice has worked well for me in my professional life. It’s also helped me uncover a huge personal blind spot—loved ones.
I have room for improvement when it comes to over stepping and “helping” my loved ones. It’s hard for me to see them suffer. I want to lighten the load. Soften the road. Offer solutions. I get caught up in their struggles. I feel their pain. This became apparently clear with two close friends recently. Both are navigating some gnarly personal transitions. There have been hours of conversation dissecting the nuances of each situation. Their sustained struggles were making me uncomfortable. Instead of continuing to offer supportive listening, I shifted to judgment. It was subtle at first but when I realized what was going on, I felt terrible.
Although appalled by my behavior, I was grateful for this opportunity to cement a lesson that clearly needed reinforcement. Everyone has a right to make decisions about their life at the time and pace that is appropriate for them. No amount of care and concern gives anyone the right to impose their views upon their journey. The fact that I was lecturing my friends about boundaries, while at the same time disrespecting boundaries made this an especially bitter pill to swallow.
Here’s the next level learning of the lesson I needed to reinforce. Suffering doesn’t always need a solution. Sometimes people need to struggle. No amount of love, support or solutions will alter their path. Only their ability to choose something different will open up new possibilities for them. It’s not my place to persuade or prod them along. The bumps and bruises along the way are all part of the process–their process. A good daughter, friend and coach withholds advice (unless solicited) and judgment while standing beside their loved ones in silent solidarity.