A Surviving and Thriving Toolbox: The Self-Care of Patience
How letting go of wasted grief helps you cope with difficult feelings
Posted January 17, 2020
When my son was diagnosed with autism, all my energies went into finding services and resources to support him. But it didn’t take long to realize that I needed help too. I was in a constant state of hyper-vigilance. I was exhausted, frightened about the future and constantly feeling guilty that I wasn’t doing enough. I was often distracted when I was with my daughter or husband. And I began see my son as a project, rather than as a fully realized human being.
My search for some kind of balance led me to Mussar (pronounced Moo-sar), a centuries-old Jewish spiritual practice that addressed the struggle I was having as a caregiver.
The central premise behind Mussar is simple: If you don’t take sufficient care of yourself, you won’t really be able to help anyone else.
Mussar helps you create balance between self-care and care-giving with a toolbox of character traits, including patience, calmness, order and equanimity. Each character trait gives you new ways to understand self-care, as well as what it means to fully show up for the people you want to help.
The practice has been invaluable for me, so much so that I often share what I have learned in my clinical work with special needs parents and grandparents. So I am bringing the Mussar toolbox into my blog, beginning with patience.
At first glance, patience doesn’t seem like something you need to be reminded about. After all, every parent gets daily practice with patience. This is especially true if you raise a child with autism or other special needs.
But patience is a critical character trait when it comes to self-care, because patience helps you navigate difficult emotions. And when you are a special needs parent, you find yourself riding a veritable roller coaster of intense feelings.
Here is Mussar’s definition of patience: When something bad happens to you and you did not have the power to avoid it, do not aggravate the situation even more through wasted grief.
In other words, bad things happen. And when they occur, you will experience difficult emotions. Self-care begins when you can make room for the feelings that arise. But wasted grief gets in the way of this process. Wasted grief are the judgments or distorted thoughts that change an emotion into a storyline. Suddenly, for example, instead of feeling bad, you believe that you are bad.
After my son’s diagnosis, I was flooded by many powerful emotions. I was angry. I was scared. I felt helpless. But when I learned about the notion of wasted grief, I began to recognize the way I tended to kick myself when I was down. For example, when I would feel sad or overwhelmed, I would have a thought like, “I must have done something wrong, or this would never have happened.” And rather than just experiencing sadness, that thought would leave me stuck in the quicksand of hopelessness and guilt.
When it comes to emotions, just being able to acknowledge what you are feeling is self-care. Practicing patience helps you recognize the thoughts that stop you from experiencing those feelings. Here are just some examples of wasted grief:
“My emotions are too much for me to handle.” When I was dealing with my son’s diagnosis, l feared that my sadness would overwhelm me, like a well I would fall into and never emerge from. The first time I really let myself cry in the company of a good friend, it felt like I would never stop. But I did, of course. And afterwards, I realized how much I had been numbing myself to keep my emotions at bay. Expressing your emotions feels like a risk, but it opens a space for you to be able to think, to process where you are in the moment, and, most importantly, to be present with your child.
“Good parents don’t express anger (or jealousy or sadness) concerning their child.” After a bad day with my son, I might feel disgusted or envious or furious. And then I would think, “How could I feel this way? What kind of parent has these feelings?” But the truth is that these emotions don’t negate other feelings I have for my son. I can hate an aspect of caring for my son, and feel great love for him at the same time. We all hold seemingly opposite feelings, especially for the people we are closest with. Ambivalence is a normal part of everyone’s experience, including parents. When you can make room for even your most un-parent-like feelings, remembering that they are only part of the picture, you feel more grounded.
“If only I had done something differently.” Difficult emotions are often accompanied by the search for a more perfect past. You might find yourself going through a long list of missteps you have made, or ways that you “caused” your child’s problems. But patience helps you recognize these thoughts as wasted grief. There are usually strong emotions lying underneath these thoughts, and being with the feelings is important.
While emotions can feel difficult, they are never wrong. They just are. Feelings are really your GPS, showing us where you are at any moment, and what support you might need. By being able to accept what arises, you are giving yourself a moment of compassion. When you work with patience to tease out blame and self-judgment, you are practicing the kind of self-care that helps you bring the best of yourself to your child.
Mendel Levin, M. (1845). Cheshbon Ha-Nafesh (An Accounting of the Soul).New York, NY: Feldheim Publishers.