The help desk: 'Guilt and feelings of failure stop me living my life'
Q. My life has become very busy, with a full-time job, two children, an increasingly frail mother and one child going through exams. My mother needs frequent visits and I also help deal with all the admin and paperwork that she can no longer manage. I appreciate that, unlike some, I do have a husband to share the load and have no major money problems, and I'm very much aware there are others with a lot more on their plates and much greater difficulties to deal with.
But I feel as though everyone else is somehow coping, whereas I'm in a panic all the time and I constantly worry that I'm letting ill friends and relatives down. It's hard to catch my breath and just live my life, as guilt and feelings of failure stop me. I feel reluctant to take medication, as my GP has suggested, but I feel stuck. My mind just seems to work overtime.
A. I notice you say that it's your sense of failure and guilt that stops you living your life, rather than your considerable workload. That's a good thing, because I'm guessing there's not much you can change about the workload. The question is whether you can change the way you feel about yourself.
You currently have the sense that everything depends on you. But for your mother, friends and children, being ill or lonely or struggling with a maths paper are unfortunately part of the situations they find themselves in. You can help them deal with these burdens to an extent, but you need to understand that you didn't cause them, nor can you completely cure them. So while the practicalities can fall to you, the responsibility is not all yours. If they continue to struggle (and they will), it doesn't mean you've failed.
What happened in your life that you make such demands of yourself? Is this a pattern with you? Perfectionism has probably served you well at times – when you were sitting exams or building a career. But when applied to matters beyond your control, it will just lead to feelings of powerlessness and is a recipe for self-flagellation.
The view of yourself as a lynchpin on which everything depends sounds typical of anxiety and perhaps OCD, both of which are treatable, with or without medication, so do let your doctor help. I feel bound to say that getting help is not failing either – on the contrary. And OCD is thought to be genetic in origin, so good luck trying to beat yourself up about that.
A GP once explained to me the mechanics of anxiety – how the mind's feverish thoughts and the body's fight-or-flight response feed off each other in an agonising vicious circle. You just need help breaking the cycle.
Things will move on and the strain on you will ease. Meanwhile, realise you're doing something difficult – never mind that others appear to be coping with the same thing, or even fleeing war zones or suffering hideous bereavements. Instead of castigating yourself for not coping, give yourself a massive round of applause for keeping all the balls in the air.
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