Tuesday, November 29, 2011

How Do I Motivate My Family to Help Around The House?

It has been a bit since I’ve written but this morning brought an all-too-common problem.

My patient, I’ll call her Jane, is middle-aged, she’s in a long-term marriage and her 30ish son, daughter-in-law and grandson live with her. Jane has her own medical concerns which are not minor. Her concern is not unusual. She is consternated that she seems to be the only one to do any work around the house. Everyone in the home is either unemployed or on disability.

The other adults in the home are entirely able to be responsible for a division of household chores – but Jane tells me that they are indifferent to the clutter, dirty dishes and trash.

Jane feels guilty that she is so often “nagging” others and it seems to have no effect on anyone else’s behavior.

As I already said, Jane has her own medical problems which probably make her LESS able to do the household labor, “…but if I don’t do it, it won’t get done.

How often have you been in a similar situation?

Like many others in her place, Jane feels angry and defeated. She frequently reflects that the situation is not “fair”. I think most of us are well aware that life is not fair, but why should we have to endure the kind of inequity that Jane lives every day?

The Solution
The solution is very simple but also very difficult. The solution involves developing the ability to TOLERATE (not enjoy) one’s anxiety. When I use the word “anxiety”, I refer to a general discomfort. When a person feels extremely hungry, it is a feeling of anxiety. When one wants to buy something but can’t afford it, they experience anxiety. Sometimes when my wife is in the passenger seat of my car, she experiences anxiety.

It is entirely natural that we all would avoid anxiety if possible. The problem is, it cannot be avoided – and if we try, our sphere of existence will become smaller and smaller until we cannot tolerate even the smallest perturbations. The difficult task is to learn to tolerate anxiety.

In Jane’s case, her anxiety is greater than everyone else’s at home. The clutter and trash accumulate and Jane’s anxiety triggers her to control the anxiety by cleaning. Unfortunately, this leaves Jane feeling used and resentful – it leaves the rest of the family to be do-nothing lumps. In order to change, Jane must be able to tolerate her anxiety. The expression of tolerating anxiety may take a variety of forms.
  • In the extreme, Jane may choose to move out of the home for six months. Jane might object to this. (Why should I have to move?) If, however, Jane left, she wouldn’t have to see the clutter and probably the other’s anxiety would rise to a level that motivates them.
  • Jane did try another method which showed some effect. She dumped the trash, dirty dishes and laundry into each one’s bed. This worked for a brief time but Jane had trouble tolerating her anxiety about such “mean” behavior – the result was predictable. Soon after the beds stopped being a trash cans – the husband, son and daughter-in-law reverted to their thoughtless slovenly behaviors

You may have heard of similar behaviors being characterized as “learned helplessness” or enabling. At the heart of both is a RESCUER who hasn’t developed the ability to tolerate his/her anxiety.

Is it “fair” that Jane needs to tolerate more anxiety? I’m not sure. All of us (if we will continue to become more mature) will learn to tolerate more anxiety because there is so much over which we have no control. Not having control leads to anxiety and attempting to escalate our control tactics lead only to more anxiety.

A former patient told me, “Life is hard, get a helmet.”

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