When family won’t cooperate (Episode 67)

What do you do if you’re a person with family caregiver responsibilities – and your family refuses to cooperate with what you want and need? And what if the person who refuses to cooperate is the person you care for? That’s what host Kay Coughlin is talking about in this episode of the podcast. As always, there’s no guilt and no judgment here!

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Transcript of episode is below.

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Transcript: When family won’t cooperate (episode 67)

Hi there. I’m your host Kay Coughlin. And you’re listening to From One Caregiver to Another. I am a life coach for family caregivers and sandwich family caregivers, like me, who want to get some rest and feel less lonely. I taught myself how to navigate all of my responsibilities and get into the mindset I need so that I can set boundaries, have self-compassion and prioritize myself so that my needs get met too. And that’s what I help my clients do also. And if we can do it, I know you can, too.

This is episode 67.

Today, what I want to talk about is what to do when your family won’t cooperate. Okay. Having responsibilities as a family caregiver include…well, it includes having family. So for most of us, there’s just a lot going on for us when we talk about our relationships and our history. You know, the things that we learned from our first family, those things are with us, our entire life. And those people are with us and they even stay with us in our heads after they’re long gone, maybe after we don’t have relationships with them anymore.

So whether it’s the person that you care for who’s your family, or maybe it’s your parents and your brothers and your sisters and your aunts and uncles. Everybody is going to have an opinion about what you’re doing and that’s based on their life. And they’re also going to have opportunities to help you out. Or maybe not, maybe they’ll choose not to help you with things.

And they’re going to have beliefs about who does what and who gets what, and who’s entitled to what, and who’s in a family and who’s not in a family. And, and you have these beliefs too. That’s just the way that we work as humans. Every family has its own stories.

You know, there are some really common stories that certainly I hear a lot in my work. One of these is that the oldest son gets the inheritance. That’s a big one I hear a lot. Another one that really has come back to bite me a lot during my own life is that the oldest girl is supposed to be the caregiver for anybody who needs it. Another one is that unmarried children have to be the caregivers first. Another one that we carry around is that maybe that your mom or dad is always going to help the troubled children first. So the kids who have the most problems get the most help. And then another big one is that everybody is supposed to enable the alcoholic and not rock the boat when it comes to talking about who’s an alcoholic.

And I’m sure that your family has their own stories. My family certainly does too. And if you’ve got any significant others, so if you have a spouse or a partner, well, then you’re going to have to deal with the stories from that family too.

In fact, for me, I have an in-law story that I’ve had to come to terms with, and that in-law story for me is this idea that was imported. Really, that I became a caregiver because I wanted to set myself up to get something. That there was somehow some way that I was going to come out of this a winner, by putting myself in a situation where I was going to be the caregiver for my parents. Originally, both my parents, of course, and now just my mom. And that’s not something that really anybody in my immediate family believes, but it is something that has come in along with in-laws.

And even if you don’t have any family, other than the person you care for, well, this is still relevant, what I’m talking about today, because they’re still your family.

And what we know is that as family caregivers, the people we care for, don’t always cooperate with us either, unfortunately.

So one of the things about family members is that sometimes, it may be often, they just don’t cooperate with what we want and what we need. And in my work with caregivers, honestly, I see a lot of conflict and a lot of tension when family members just can’t seem to go along with whatever we, as the caregivers think is best, or maybe what the people we care for really need.

I see a lot of broken promises and it’s things like your sister promises to cover for you so that you can take a vacation. And then at the last minute she decides she wants to take her own vacation. And of course it has to be that same week. And then she backs out on you.

Or maybe your brother promises to drive mom to the doctor for her appointments once a month. But then he can’t ever manage to actually make that happen. And, and he tells you, oh, at the last minute.

Also, and I do see a lot of care receivers, those are the people we care for, I see a lot of care receivers who refuse to cooperate with us. You know, they won’t take their medication, they won’t do their physical therapy. They won’t use their walker to be safe. They refuse to go take a look at a new bed or a new piece of equipment for the bathroom that could make their life better and easier and safer. So there’s a lot of cooperation that doesn’t happen there as well.

Another thing that I see a lot of is family members who can only see one side of the story, or maybe they just refuse to see both sides of the story.

So if we’re talking about mom refusing to use the walker, then you’ve got a family member who looks at you and says you are a bad daughter for being so mean to your mom and forcing her to try to use the walker. And that’s a one-sided story.

And, you know, as I was putting this outline together for this episode today, the one thing that I just kept coming back to was how, if you can relate to this, if you’re hearing what I’m talking about, and it feels painful to you because you know in your heart that this is a situation that you’re in, that you have a family member, or maybe more than one family member who won’t cooperate. I just wish that I could grab you. And if you’re a hugger, I would give you a big hug. And if you’re not a hugger, I would take you out for a cup of coffee.

And I would just sit with you. I just want to listen to you as you spill your guts about all of this, because look, I know it can be a giant problem and it can be so painful and it can feel like it’s never going to end. It can just feel like it goes on and on and on forever. So if we were having coffee right now and you said to me, this is horrible for me. I feel like everybody is just throwing grenades at me and it’s open season on me.

And if you said to me, people that I love and people I used to respect are dumping their anger on me, and they’re being so nasty to me. I’d look right back at you and I’d say you’re right. I believe you. That’s probably exactly what’s going on. I, I just, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if you told me that you feel frustrated. Or betrayed and used and taken advantage of. That you feel hurt and angry and unloved and exhausted from trying to just figure this all out all of the time.

 It does feel that way. It really does feel that way. When somebody you love just acts like an ass or when somebody totally ignores your needs or when somebody is suspicious of your motives. Or even accuses you of mistreating somebody or of neglecting somebody else’s needs. This just feels like a slap in the face. It feels like a sucker punch right in your gut, after all you’ve done and all you’ve given up for somebody to accuse you of not caring or, or for somebody to just abandon you.

Okay. So we are sitting at coffee and here’s what I’m going to tell you. Here’s why this happens. It’s because families are complicated and individual people are complicated. And  not only that, but we just aren’t taught how to handle the conflict or how to manage the tension. We are not taught how to recognize our own needs and tell other people what we need. We’re not taught how to hold people accountable for the promises they make to us. We don’t know how to handle what comes up when we do tell people what they need.

Oh. And then they push back, because that does happen all the time. And we just don’t know what to do. Okay.

So when emotions run high, particularly in families where the stakes are high, or when somebody feels confused or left out and they just don’t think they know what’s going on. Or maybe they feel guilty or a little ashamed that they aren’t helping.

Okay. One of the things they’re going to do is try to deflect that emotional pain and they might check out and they might stop cooperating with you because they’re on emotional overload. They don’t know that’s what they’re doing, but it’s actually emotional sabotage. It seems like it’s going to protect them from having to deal with their own pain, even when it’s at your expense. So just when you need them the most, they flake out on you. Now, of course it doesn’t protect them at all. All they’re doing is shoving down their pain and it’s going to come up again, you know, later in a situation when it’s not going to be helpful at all, but that’s, what’s going on.

I want you to know that one of the places this is all coming from is this ancient set of beliefs called Human Giver Syndrome. And even though it’s ancient, it’s still alive and it’s still with us today. It is kicking and it affects, especially for those of us who are caregivers, it affects our lives every day.

If you haven’t heard the term Human Giver Syndrome before, I want you to know I’ve done a few podcast episodes on it. And if you want to, you can go listen to those. So I’m not going to talk about it a lot in this episode today, but basically I want you to know that Human Giver Syndrome is the belief that some people have to sacrifice everything for the sake of the people around them that they care for. No matter what it costs the person who’s doing the caring. Okay.

Unfortunately, if you are the person who has primary caregiver responsibilities, what Human Giver Syndrome means is that your family probably sees you as a human giver now. Even if that’s not the way they saw you in the past, and even if that’s not how you think about yourself. And what happens is that this Human Giver Syndrome beliefs, this set of beliefs really lets them off the hook because if you’re a giver, that means it’s your job to do everything.

And another part of this set of beliefs is that it’s okay for the ones who aren’t the primary caregiver to micromanage the caregiver, to tell the caregiver exactly what it is that they think they’re doing wrong. Shame and blame can be a really big part of this particular relationship dynamic. That’s another one of the reasons it’s so painful and what’s really going on here is that this set of beliefs means that everybody feels totally justified and absolutely like they have the right to go to town on the caregiver because they see that the caregiver’s job is total sacrifice. And their job is to make sure that that caregiver sacrifices  everything.

You know, I think it helps to explain this if we realize that this used to be the main way that America thought about motherhood. I mean, it’s not so much like this anymore, and it’s definitely not so out in the open anymore. It’s not as culturally acceptable to think that mothers have to sacrifice everything. So a lot of people still do believe it, but it’s more hidden today. But this is a good parallel, I think to describe this prevalent storyline about the role caregivers ought to play. When we’re caring for someone who is sick or who is older, it’s that the idea of total self-sacrifice, without thinking about what it’s going to cost us.

Oh, and by the way, it’s also part of the story that we are supposed to want to do it. We’re supposed to be say, I’m happy about giving up everything to be a caregiver. So not only do our family members feel all of their big emotions about the caregiving situation and any guilt or shame they might have for what they do or didn’t do or have, or haven’t done there. But they also feel totally vindicated and utterly justified in thinking that you, you as the caregiver, you have to figure it all out on your own and they can tell you what to do.

Now I did a podcast and it was number 61 about emotional labor. When it comes to this idea that family members don’t have to cooperate with you. Part of it is the belief that the emotional labor of being a family caregiver is totally one-sided. In other words, that the caregiver is expected to do all of the emotional labor that has to do with making any decisions about the caregiving situation.

And then of course, there’s also an expectation that the family caregiver will do the physical labor as well, so that the caregiver is going to be willing to give up all of their time and put all of their physical energy into caring for the person who needs the care.

And all of this, all of it has been going on for literally thousands of years. This idea that family members are going to stop cooperating or not cooperate in the first place, or totally flake out when you need them the most. This has been going on for as far back as we know. So this is nothing new.

And that’s why I wanted to talk about it today. I hear about it so much. We don’t talk about it outside of any safe environment, like maybe when we’re talking to other caregivers. Because people just don’t understand and they do tend to get upset with us when we talk about it. I mention it to people quite often, and they always seem really confused. And in fact, one of the things that I hear a lot when I talk about it is, “oh, my sister is the caregiver for our father and that’s not the way we treat her.”

So it’s just hard for everybody to understand how bad this can be and how hard it can be on the people who have the caregiver responsibilities.

So, because I’m a really action oriented myself. I want to also talk to you about what you can do if this is your situation.

I’ve got some good news here for you, and I’ve got some bad news and I’m going to start with the bad news and it’s this. You cannot change another person. You absolutely can’t change somebody else. It just doesn’t work. Family members are going to do whatever they want to do. That is what adults do. Okay. It is human to know and understand that you can’t control another person and you can’t change another person. That’s the bad news.

And I wanted to get that out of the way, because now I want to talk about the good news. And this is that you do get to choose what you do about all of this. You get to make choices for yourself and make changes in your own mind, make changes to what you think and believe and how you act. And you can make changes in your life if you want.

Even when your situation seems impossible, you still get to choose what you think and how you behave. And I know that’s hard to believe, but please trust me on that.

Now, I’m not saying that any of this is easy to handle or easy to learn or easy to do, but I am saying that you do have a choice and you can do it. Every person on this planet, I’ll say every adult on this planet, has the ability to take control over their own mind and over their own actions. And that’s all I’m talking about today. That’s what I’m talking about that you can do when you’re in a situation where your family won’t cooperate.

So let me tell you now I’ve got a list here of nine things. There’s no magic number, it’s just what I came up with. These are things that you can choose for yourself and that you can do, and nobody else can force you to stop doing these things. Nobody can make you choose not to do these things for yourself. You have complete control over all of these.

The first one here. Learn to notice what’s going on without judging yourself. Before you can change anything or make any choices. You really do have to be able to see exactly what’s going on and what your specific situation is and what people are doing and what you think and believe about it. That’s just always the starting point.

You’re never going to hear me give you another first step, because this is the place to start. If you can’t see what’s really going on, you don’t have any hope of changing anything. I’ve got a great tool to do this, and it’s called a Thought Download. It’s totally free. And I will put a link to that in the show notes. If you’re already a member of my Boundaries Community, you’ll find the Thought Download over there. Uh, it’s in the library area.

Doing a thought download is a written mindfulness practice. And if there are other mindfulness practices that you already do, there are a lot of them out there that can also help with this learning to notice what’s going on. But without judging yourself.

Number two, find a healthy, supportive community for yourself. One of the number one problems that I hear caregivers talk about is that they feel isolated and lonely. This is not good for us as humans, it doesn’t help us change things. It doesn’t help us become healthier people. So what I did is I have actually created a monthly membership and it’s also called From One Caregiver to Another.

I created it for exactly this reason, to give us a place as caregivers that is safe to talk, but it’s also safe to grow and change. If you haven’t already checked out the membership, go do that. There’s a link for it in the show notes.

Another thing that you can do is you can also find a therapist or a life coach. I am a life coach. What you want to find is a safe place where you can talk about all of this, but where you’re not going to be encouraged to wallow in it. You want to find a place where you’re understood. But then you’re given tools to help you get out from under all of this. Tools to make it so that you’re not a victim of the way your family thinks about what it means to be a caregiver and a place where you are empowered to take care of yourself and your needs too. That’s why I created my membership. I don’t mean for this to be a big advertisement for the membership, but please go check it out. It’s a community, but in there we also have weekly group coaching calls so that you can get the exact help that you need. It’s really, really inexpensive to join the membership. So just go check it out. If you’re a caregiver, it’s something that can help you right now.

Number three, learn to stop reacting to the drama around you. There seems to be a lot of drama in family dynamics. And certainly there can be a lot of drama if somebody decides they don’t want to cooperate with you anymore. There’s this amazing quote from Victor Frankl that goes like this. It says “between stimulus and response, there is a space and in that space is the power to choose our response.” I’ve got a graphic of this in my community. And I’ve also, uh, I post it over in my Instagram feed as often as I remember to do it.

And I think this is absolutely beautiful because it reminds us that we can always take a breath. So somebody comes at you with an argument or they blame you for something or, or they’re telling you that they said they could help, but now they’ve decided they can’t help you. And instead of just reacting to that in whatever is your typical response or your habit there, you can take a breath and you can decide instead what you want to do. And that’s really what I mean when I say you can learn to stop reacting to the drama, you can learn to start reacting intentionally instead.

Number four, decide to take care of your needs too. Here’s the truth. You do not have to neglect the people around you in order to take care of yourself. I know that’s so hard to believe, and we’ve all been taught that it’s one or the other, but this is actually a situation where there’s an “and” there. You can take care of somebody else and you can take care of yourself. You can learn to give yourself at least equal claim to your own energy and to the resources that you would use to care for someone else.

Number five, set boundaries. This one is hard. In fact, it’s so hard that I have my free Boundaries Community, where anybody can come and learn about boundaries. So I’m not kidding in my commitment here to talking about boundaries and how important they are.

It is one of the absolute best things I know of when you have to dig out from under an avalanche of expectations that you can’t possibly meet. Boundaries is going to be the way to get started on that and to make it sustainable so that you can take care of yourself and your own life in the short term, but also in the long term.

Number six, then, let other people see the real stuff. Oof. This is a big one. We have to stop shielding people from how hard things are and how demanding your caregiving situation really is. Or maybe how demanding your whole life is. We have to let other people see the real things that are going on. One of the things that you can choose to do is to stop putting on a show to protect everybody else from the reality of life.

Look, if the person you care for has dementia and starts to decline at the end of the day, let people see that. If it takes a week of spending time with the person you care for in order to see the big picture and how hard things are and how bad things really are, let people see that entire week. If you can’t lift somebody off the floor when they fall, call for help when it happens, don’t try to do it yourself.

And if there’s somebody like a doctor who is constantly dismissing your questions or telling you that things just aren’t as hard as you’re making them out to be, or that you’re making too big of a deal. Take notes about that and share that with those family members who accuse you of, you know, not caring enough or not being aggressive enough with the healthcare workers who are helping you out. Let people see what’s really going on.

Stop trying to sugarcoat everything. Nobody’s going to understand, unless you let them see, what’s really going on.

Number seven then is share the load, learn to ask for help, and then actually receive it. I know that one of the things that goes with this is that you have to believe that you deserve to share the load and you probably have to learn the skill of asking people for help. That’s okay. You can learn to do that. Those are skills that you can learn and anybody can learn. I promise you.

Number eight. Stop being willing to take responsibility and blame for everything. There are all kinds of systems out there from healthcare to insurance and churches and social service agencies and yeah, even our families and these systems are part of your situation. And if your family and these other systems are trying to make you responsible for everything, those are unreasonable demands. Those are expectations you can never hope to meet. You do have a right to know what you can and can’t do. And also what you can and cannot be responsible for. Okay.

Here’s one. If a doctor yells at you, and I have heard this story many times before, I am not making this one up, if a doctor yells at you, because your father refuses to take his insulin, that is not something you can control, and that doctor is wrong and you have a right to say so. And if you have a family member, like an uncle who yells at you or blames you because your mother refuses to take a bath anymore. You actually don’t have to take the blame or the responsibility for that.

That’s why I like to talk about the fact that there are systems, because if your caregiving situation has gotten to a point where the person you care for simply won’t cooperate and won’t do something like take medications or won’t bathe. You need help. And it’s time to ask those systems to take responsibility for what they can and to step up their game. And that includes your family.

And then the last one that I’ve got here, so this is number nine, is start holding people accountable for the promises they make. If somebody agrees to help you out, but then they don’t show up, put it right back on them.

I know this one can be extremely difficult to do, and it might even make you a little anxious or a little afraid to think about it. But here’s the thing. If your sister agrees to give you a vacation, but then she backs out, you have options. Can you hire someone and ask your sister to pay for it? Or could you change the week of your vacation so that she can still help you.

The important thing here is to value yourself and prioritize yourself enough to be persistent about this and not give up. Now, if your sister still refuses to help out, no matter what you do. And that could happen, that will probably lead to a different issue coming up that you’ll have to deal with between the two of you.

Let yourself handle this one issue at a time. Don’t hold yourself back from asking someone to be accountable because it might cause tension later. Ask people to be accountable one thing at a time for the things that they have promised to do for you. One thing at a time.

I know that was a big list. And if your brain is fighting you on all of this, and if you feel anxious and if your brain is making a million excuses why the things I’ve talked about today just aren’t for you and this can’t ever be possible for you. And there’s no way that your situation can ever get any better if your family won’t cooperate. I want you to know that I hear you. I see you. You are normal. Your brain is reacting in a very normal human way.

Do not give up on yourself though, do not give up on your own needs.

I want you to remember that you always have a choice about how you show up in the world and you always have the right to think whatever you want and to take care of yourself.

The reality is that for most of us, we have family members who won’t always cooperate. That is just the way people are. And it is just the way relationships work. That is a normal thing to happen between humans. That is why it is so important to hear me now, when I say I see you, and I believe you, this stuff does happen.

It happens a lot and it is hard to deal with. And I know that you probably don’t know how to deal with it, right. So it’s important to remember that you have a choice about what you think and what you believe and how you act and react. You do not have to be alone. You can set boundaries, you can get help and you can hold other people accountable to their promises. Even if you don’t know how to do it. You can learn it. I promise you.

Keep coming back to be with me here on the podcast. Join me over in the Boundaries Community. Or if you’re a family caregiver, join the monthly membership. This is the kind of stuff that we talk about over there all the time.

And you just don’t have to be alone, whatever pain you’re in. You don’t have to handle it all by yourself.

If you liked this episode, you have to go check out my monthly membership for family caregivers, and that includes parents, who want to get some rest and feel less lonely. It’s the place for emotionally safe community, brave self-development and self-compassion. You’ll find the link to it in the show notes and over in my Boundaries Community. I can’t wait to be with you again in the next episode, From One Caregiver to Another.

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your guide

Kay Coughlin, CEO of Facilitator On Fire, is a business coach for the non-profit sector and social justice businesses. She is also well-known for being an advocate for family caregivers.

In every forum she can find, she shouts that it's OK for every human to earn a living, set and enforce boundaries around their bodies, thoughts, feelings and actions. You can join Kay's free, private online community to talk about boundaries here.

Kay also teaches about emotional labor, how to rest, and Human Giver Syndrome, and is the host of the "From One Caregiver to Another" podcast and author of "From One Caregiver to Another - Overcoming Your Emotional Grind."

Kay is well-known for her public speaking on boundaries and self-care. 

Facilitator on Fire is a subsidiary of Donor Relations Mindset LLC, which Kay founded in 2015. She lives with her husband and children in central Ohio, and is the primary caregiver for her own mother, who lives right next door. Kay can be found on LinkedIn and Instagram.

Copyright 2024. All rights reserved, Julia Kay Coughlin and Facilitator On Fire.

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