When people only see you as a caregiver (Episode 68)

Do you ever feel like other people only see you as a caregiver? Does it feel like they’ve forgotten about all the other things that are important to you, too? In this episode, your host Kay Coughlin names this for what it is – an identity crisis – and talks about how to overcome it. 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 people only see you as a caregiver (episode 68)

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.

So, what I want to talk about this week is what’s going on when other people only see you as a caregiver and they can’t see or refuse to see all of the other identities that you have. And we all have other identities beyond being a family caregiver.

You know, the first one is that each of us, in our own right, is a person. I am a person separate from anything else that I do. And that’s my first identity.

We also have a lot of other identities, maybe spouse, employee, athlete, parent, entrepreneur, maybe you have an identity as a gardener or a dancer or writer or nature lover or birdwatcher or whatever. Anyway, the point is we all have multiple identities and we need these as people, we are three dimensional people with so many things going on in our lives. Even when caregiving responsibilities are intense.

Why do people want us to focus only on those caregiver responsibilities and hold us into that narrow role. I am going to talk about that. And before we’re done today, I’m also going to talk about what you can do about it if the people in your life really are trying to shove you into that little box labeled caregiver.

I think the most important thing to understand about what’s going on here and the reason that it feels so difficult if you’re going through it, is that this is an identity crisis. And I think the first thing that I need to do is really answer the question: What is an identity crisis?

I actually did look this one up. So according to dictionary.com, here is the definition. There’s two here. The first one is a period or episode of psychological distress, often occurring in adolescents, but sometimes in adulthood, when a person seeks a clearer sense of self and an acceptable role in society. And then the second one, there is confusion as to goals and priorities. I think these two parts of this definition when you put them together are really fascinating.

I mean, look at that second part, that confusion about goals and priorities. That is a great description of what can happen in a relationship when two people, or more than two people have different ideas about what someone’s identity is. Because if somebody really wants to keep you focused on being a caregiver, then I think it’s pretty clear their idea of what your goals and priorities are or should be is going to be different from yours.

So identity crises can happen because of something that you’re going through because of you and some choices that you made. Like when you feel the need to change careers or change life partners, you’ve had an experience. You’ve thought about something that is or isn’t right to you. And so you want to make some changes.

They can also happen because of something that happens to you or in your life that causes other people to question your choices or want you to be different than you want to be. And I think becoming a family caregiver, and certainly becoming a parent, can fall into that category.

I did have an identity crisis of my own back in 2008. Now it’s not the first identity crisis I had. I’ve had a lot of them throughout my life, but this was a situation where something actually did happen to me. Something that I had no control over. There aren’t many things we have control over anyway. But what happened back in 2008 is that I was the victim of a car accident, a very serious accident.

And what I mean by that is I did not cause the accident. I was hit on the highway on my way to work in the morning. And this led to an identity crisis for me. Because as I was healing from that accident, I realized that for most of my life, people really had been trying to get me to hide my true self so that they could be more comfortable and less challenged and less called out for the old ways of thinking, or maybe the old relationship patterns that we’d had.

Now I have to say this is funny because most people in my life already thought that I was outspoken before my car accident. But after my accident, I just realized that one of the things I liked so much about myself was that I question everything. I always have. I know I used to drive my teachers and my professors crazy. And I still drive some people crazy with the amount of questions that I ask. It’s just a part of who I am, but people used to try to convince me that that was a bad thing, and I shouldn’t actually do that. And I should try to kind of keep that tucked away so that people didn’t realize how much of part of me that is.

And I realized I didn’t want to do that anymore. And that led to an identity crisis. And eventually I found a new job and my family moved to a different city and it led to a whole lot of changes because I just couldn’t be the person I had been before my car accident, or I guess I should say I couldn’t continue to hide who I really was.

Today, one of the things that I think is true is that my clients would say that my willingness to question everything sometimes probably aggravates them too. But I think that they would tell you it’s one of the best parts about our relationship as coach and client, is that I really am a willing to ask those hard questions.

So what I’ve learned about identity crisis is that it really can be, for a lot of us, a time of a lot of conflict. And this is conflict that happens in your own mind and in your relationships. And any other ways that you interact with the world around you, because when you’re going through an identity crisis, it doesn’t affect only you. It’s like a ripple effect. It starts with you, but it affects everything and everyone around you as well.

There are a lot of signals that you might be going through an identity crisis. So this is things like you might find that you’re losing sleep or maybe you can’t eat, or you’re eating more than you typically would. You might feel restless and you’re probably going to feel uncomfortable. It’s possible that you are going to know exactly what you want. But maybe not. You might find your interests changing. I mean, maybe you’ve always enjoyed a hobby or a sport that you just don’t like as much anymore. You might find yourself drifting away from some friends and toward other friends, you might question your spiritual beliefs and really find that you’re drawn to exploring something else.

It can also be a time with a lot of confusion, stress, questioning everything around you, even if that’s not your natural state like me. You probably are going to feel unsettled a lot of the time and you might even feel some anger. And that’s because you really might think that all of this is not fair that you had everything figured out just fine. And you were going along with no problem, happy with the way your life was. And then – wham – along comes this identity crisis. And you feel unsure and you feel lost and like you just can’t get your footing and like the ground underneath of you isn’t even solid.

So there’s one really subtle way of knowing that you might be going through an identity crisis. And I want to call it out for you here because it’s probably something you’ve never heard about or thought about it. Certainly it wasn’t something that I had ever thought about and this really subtle clue is when you’re spending a lot of time trying to prove yourself or hide things about you. So that’s proving and hiding, and they’re really two halves of the same coin.

To be honest, sometimes we do this proving and hiding around other people or with other people, but sometimes we do it in our own mind with ourselves. One example of that is before my car accident, I really tried to hide away the part of myself that likes to ask questions. That was something that I tried to keep out of view of everybody around me. I was trying to hide literally.

Here’s some examples of things that you might do to prove yourself. You might try to prove to your family that you’re a good mother, doing something like staying up until two o’clock in the morning to decorate a cake. Or you might want to prove your loyalty to your church community by taking on another volunteer job in the nursery at church, even when that’s the last thing you want to do.

I know that one of the ways family caregivers tend to hide is really trying to hide away their desire to have a paid job, something that takes you outside of the house so that you can have something to look forward to other than caregiving. And we want to hide this so that other people will think we’re a good person, and, whoever “they” is. And I know that I can really relate to this one.

As a parent too, after my older son was born, everybody had told me that I was just going to want to stay home with him and that I was going to want to give up my career. And, and that was just going to be what would happen. And that wasn’t the case for me. And I tried to hide that from people for a long time. I went back to work, but I pretended that I was going back to work kind of reluctantly. And that maybe I really would rather be home with my son. And that wasn’t the truth at all.

Now, in case you haven’t heard me mention it anywhere else, I am a perfectionist. And I’ve talked about this a lot in my work. I know you’re going to hear it in other podcast episodes among other places. But because I’m a perfectionist, this idea of proving and hiding? Ouch. This is like second nature to me. It’s – I do it – I wear it like it’s a second skin, to be honest.

So I have found that it’s a really interesting question to ask. And the question you ask is, what am I proving or hiding in this situation or in this conversation or in this relationship? It is such a hard question for me. When I ask it of other people, it’s hard for them too, and I’ll be honest. When I ask it of myself, I, I do oftentimes find that I cause myself some pain by asking the question.

But seeing the answers that I come up with, well, that’s always a way that I grow, so I’ve learned not to avoid it. And I’ve learned just to come to expect that it’s going to be a little bit painful for me. And it’s probably part of some identity crisis for me, whether it’s a big one or a small one. It comes up a lot.

I learned this idea about proving and hiding. I learned to ask this question from the work of a coach who I know, and his name is Chris McAlister. He wrote a book which is called “Figure That Shift Out,” which I think is one of the best book titles ever. And I’m going to leave a link for that book in the show notes, in case you want to learn more about proving and hiding and what that has to do with identity.

So let me say for the record that I do think going through an identity crisis really is usually a sign of healthy growth, which means there’s nothing wrong with you. If you’re going through an identity crisis, it just means that you’re learning more about who you are and what you want and need.

But growth, it just doesn’t often feel comfortable, does it? Sometimes growth is quite painful. It comes with a price and that price is usually your discomfort and maybe the discomfort of people around you. And that’s all really normal and natural. So nothing has gone wrong. Okay.

All right. That is what an identity crisis is and how you might know you’re going through one yourself.

Why is this relevant to being a family caregiver? I think that there are a lot of reasons we, as family caregivers go through an identity crisis. One of them I put in the name of this podcast episode, it’s that all of a sudden you become a caregiver and people only see you as a caregiver.

As much as possible in my work, and this has worked with family caregivers, but also outside of that, when I am in a setting where I can educate people about what it’s like to be a family caregiver. I try to say, instead of “family caregiver,” I try to say “person with caregiver responsibilities.” It’s a reminder to everyone, including myself, that there’s a lot more to me than my role as a caregiver.

And of course I have to give credit to the folks who started using people-first language, decades ago in describing people with different kinds of abilities, maybe people in wheelchairs or people who have different kinds of sight abilities. So thank you to the people who pioneered that so many years ago. I’m really glad now that we can start to use people first language also, when it comes to what it’s like to be a family caregiver.

It can be really difficult when you question your own identity, like when it happened to me because of my car accident. And that alone might be enough to make you want to crawl out of your skin, but it can be equally hard and challenging, or maybe it’s more challenging, when other people disagree with you about your identity.

And I think this is where we see this idea of the identity crisis coming together with what it means to be a family caregiver, because there are so many other people who have a stake in what happens with the relationship between the caregiver and the person that we care for.

So because the people in your life really have such a big stake in what’s going on, they might actually tell you that you are wrong to want something else. They might blame you if it means that they have to make some changes in their own life. And they might even tell you that you’re letting them down or maybe letting yourself down by wanting something else.

And some people are even going to try to convince you that the things that you want and need and believe are wrong. They might try to talk you out of changes that you want to make or changes that you need to make. And they might even tell you that you are not allowed to make those changes.

So, here’s what this looks like. You might admit to someone that you never really intended to take on the role of caregiver for someone, like let’s say your father, and that person might say back to you, you really ought to stop telling yourself that – it is time to grow up and accept this responsibility and learn to love it and stop whining about it.

Well, what they’re really doing there is arguing with you about your identity. They are essentially telling you that you don’t have a right to your sense of self, that you don’t have a right to want what you really want and to be who you really are. That person is telling you that they’d really prefer that you pretend everything is just.

And I find this to be so infuriating when somebody wants me to fit into their mold of who they think I should be.

And I have to say, not everybody does this intentionally, not everybody is self-aware enough to know that this could be coming across as cruel or coming across to you as not wanting to be your own person.

I don’t want to excuse this behavior, but I do want to let you know that it does take some self-awareness to be able to look at a situation, like between a caregiver and a care receiver, and look at that from the outside and have compassion about what’s really going on.

So, if you haven’t heard me talk about it before, there is this set of beliefs called “human giver syndrome,” and this is the set of beliefs that’s been going on for thousands of years that tells us some people, the givers, have been assigned by somebody in the culture or society or family to take care of the needs of other people and not worry about their own needs.

That’s what it means to be a human giver. And we have to talk about it because it is one of the main reasons that other people, that other people feel that they have the right to be so demanding of us and outspoken with us about how we ought to fill the roles they want us to fill. They’ve been taught to see the world as givers and the people who the givers care for. And as I said, it’s been going on for thousands of years.

If you look at the modern world today, there are a lot of people and systems that reinforce this point of view. If you’re really curious about this, or you want to learn to see this going on around you, you might want to go listen to my podcast called human giver system.

Essentially what’s happening here is that people look at you and they’re looking at your responsibilities through their lens, the way they see you as a giver who’s supposed to take care of somebody else. And they like to tell you what they think they would do or that they would think in your situation. And that person might not be mature enough to handle the situation if they were put in it. And they might be unwilling to grow and that scares them, or maybe they don’t like that about themselves. And so they keep pushing you to go deeper into that role, that identity of caregiver, because it spares them from having to do it.

It’s probably just easier on them to see you in the role of caregiver. It might not even be personal about you. Of course it is personal about them, because who really wants to be inconvenienced. They might be dealing with their own stuff, like trying to stuff down their own guilt or shame or anger. I mean, it is way easier to criticize you then for them to deal with their own problems.

And that’s just the way human beings are. Especially when we’re talking about family relationships, like a mother or father or siblings, where we have decades of practicing high emotions and things that are really emotionally charged. It’s just really complicated. It’s complicated for you. And it’s complicated for them.

Now, as I said, I am not telling you all of this to make excuses for the people in your life who are trying to keep you focused a hundred percent of the time on your caregiver responsibilities. The real reason that I’m telling you this is that it’s important to know for your own sake that the more you understand where this other person is coming from, this person who’s trying to keep you inside of that caregiver box, the less energy that you are going to pour into trying to change them.

They’re just being who society has taught them to be. And again, that’s not an excuse, but it is not your job to change them. That is not possible anyway, and that is not the way humans work.

Your job. Okay, your job then as the person with the caregiver responsibilities and the person who has other identities as well, is to remember that you have other identities and that that’s important to you. And to learn to notice your own needs and tell the people around you about it. And that’s it.

Now you’re probably going to have to keep repeating yourself and learn to speak up with people who are taking you for granted or trying to keep pushing you back into that caregiver identity because that’s easier for them. But if you don’t want to be just the caregiver and nothing else, then your job becomes to learn to be uncomfortable speaking up for yourself and learn to let other people be uncomfortable when you do.

Maybe part of your job becomes that you’re going to have to learn how to handle your own anger or process, whatever comes up when somebody tries to put a guilt trip on you, because that might happen.

Or maybe you’re going to have to learn how to manage some of your own fears and anxiety about what could happen when you are not the 100% caregiver, 100% of the time. What’s going to happen if other people help you, maybe you’ve got some anxiety about that and you’re going to have to learn to deal with it.

These things are all okay. As long as you can remember that your job is to remember what all your other identities are and speak up so that other people remeber that too. Then you’re going to be moving yourself in the right direction.

If you are going through an identity crisis right now, if you feel like the people around you are trying to push you into roles that you don’t want, or don’t like, I just want you to know, and please hear me when I say this, you are not alone. There are a lot of us going through this.

Also, you really can learn all of the skills that you need to set boundaries, speak up for yourself, get some rest and ultimately claim whatever needs you have for yourself. You can do this. I’ve done this work in my life. I help my clients do it. Just please know you’re not alone.

Okay, that is it for today. It would be great if you could leave a review wherever you’re listening to this episode and also tell a friend about the podcast. And by the way, if you prefer to read and you want to read the transcripts of any of my episodes, those are always available in the show notes for every episode.

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 2022. All rights reserved, Julia Kay Coughlin and Facilitator On Fire.

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