How to deal with the guilt of moving upwards and seeing those you love stay behind
I received a message from a friend the other day. The question that this person asked me was one that I asked myself for a long time. And I hadn’t realized that I had the answer until I wrote him back. I want to share this conversation with you today, with my friend’s permission and anonymity, in the hopes that it might help you too.
I grew up surrounded by poverty and addiction. So when I dug myself out of that hole and attained middle class-ness, I found that I couldn’t bring my whole family with me. I can’t even help them with money because it only feeds their addictions. So I watch as they slowly kill themselves through awful decisions – medical, or drugs or alcohol, or abusive relationships – and I can’t help because they won’t accept what I can offer. No amount of money, even if I had it, would solve the problems of a lifetime of habitual behaviour. When this happens, Mel, how do you deal with the guilt?
I can definitely relate to this. Although I was lucky enough not to grow up around true poverty and addiction, my family barely made the middle class title most of the time. My mother was a teacher who worked tirelessly to ensure some form of financial stability, and my father, well, let’s just say he had many careers and learned how to do pretty much anything. That’s the up side. The down side was that raising 3 kids with an unstable income, wasn’t easy. As the youngest, I grew up mostly wearing my sisters’ hand-me-downs until I was old enough to start buying my own. We shared bedrooms for a long time. And I remember my mother splurging on extra milk (which she froze – have you ever drank thawed milk? It’s cold but lumpy) and meats when times were good because she never knew when the money would run out. There were many spam sandwiches for school lunches and fried bologna dinners.
She tried her best to hide it from us, and as a tiny munchkin I didn’t get it, and I didn’t mind because we had a happy family. Besides, I liked fried bologna!
But no matter what our financial situation was like, we always had each other. We always had love.
That’s why I consider myself lucky.
My father wasn’t a bad man. It’s just that he, himself, came from a difficult background and never finished high school. He had a hard time in social situations and often ended up burning bridges with the worst choice of people (like bosses). But he worked hard and in his own way, he cared about us.
Now that we are adults and have kids of our own, it’s our turn to take care of our parents. My mother, now long divorced, is doing well and hardly needs our help yet. My father, on the other hand, went in a different direction. His health is abysmal. He has multiple chronic medical conditions and takes over a dozen different medications. He was forced to stop working about 2 years ago because of his failing health and he now lives below the poverty line, with only what the government provides, because he has no pension, no savings. We thought having him move back here so we could take care of him would be the best idea. He seemed to think so too. But our version of that and his didn’t turn out to be the same.
Hours spent on the phone searching for a good place for him to stay, dealing with government forms, learning about and applying for local subsidization programs. Constantly having to take time off work to take him to every medical appointment (the man had 4 specialists PLUS his regular check-ups at his general physician’s) so that we could always be aware of how he was doing, not to mention the extended trips to the hospital when his health really tanked. And thousands of dollars spent on groceries and helping him get to the end of the month because his money would mysteriously disappear. He often wasn’t honest with us and we still don’t know if that was intentional or if dementia is slowly starting to set in.
The reason I’m sharing this is because a few months ago, my father was living in a retirement residence, where he was getting 3 meals a day, and his medication was kept in order and administered properly. It was by no means the Ritz, but it was the best we could do with what we had, and his health finally seemed to be going uphill… but it wasn’t good enough. So my father decided to take the few possessions he had left (including his baby – his truck), and went back to his hometown, where he had been happiest.
For all his faults, we love our dad. And we did the best we could for him; went above and beyond to help this man who had run away to a different part of our province when my parents separated. He never paid child support to my mother and we lost sight of him for years. By all accounts we shouldn’t even care; but we do – because he’s our dad. And my mother taught us that when family needs you, you’re there.
But there comes a time when you need to let go of the ones you love and let them follow their own journey on their own terms. As a mother I understand that so much more now.
What I’ve come to understand in the last few years, is that words don’t teach. Funny enough though, it seems that you have to experience this to truly understand it.
You can’t help someone who doesn’t want to help themselves.
There is a quote from Abraham Hicks, and it says “You can’t be sick enough to help a sick person get well, and you can’t be poor enough to help a poor person become prosperous.”
In other words, giving away what you have worked so hard to gain or accomplish will neither help yourself, nor the person you love. All you can do is teach through the clarity of your own example.
So here are 3 things you can do to help relieve you of the guilt you may feel of not being able to help a loved one.
The first thing I learned to do, was to retreat from the negative people in my life. Stop spending time with the people that bring you down, even if they’re family; not forever, just for a little while. Some people talk of cutting those people out, and that’s hard enough to do if you’re talking about friends. But when it’s family, it’s much easier said than done. But you can choose to reduce the amount of time you spend with them. Again, not forever, just a little while.
During this time away from those negative people, I worked on myself – personal development through books, blogs, YouTube audios, positive podcasts, TED Talks. I just filled my noggin with every possible amount of content that felt good, inspiring or was interesting to me.
At the same time, seek out the kinds of people that are fun, positive and successful. Surrounding yourself with the kinds of people that are like the person you want to become is SO SO SO SO important (did I mention how important this is?). Basically you’re removing negative people that bring you down from your life and adding positive ones that boost you up. The point of doing both these things is to slowly begin changing your mindset.
Let me put this in a different way. When you hang around poverty and addiction, then poverty and addiction feels normal to you. But when you choose to surround yourself with positive, passionate, inspiring, happy people, then all those things become normal to you.
And so this work needs to be done constantly and consistently; almost obsessively. You have to really work to fill every possible free minute of your time absorbing positive, inspiring content and being with people that light you up.
I cannot stress this enough, so I’ll say it again.
- Remove yourself from the presence of negative, difficult people
- A) Seek out people who are fun, joyful, inspired, ambitious and successful
B) Be a sponge and absorb as much fun, joyful, inspiring content as you possibly can
3. Be unconditional
Then, after a few months of really working hard on this, you can begin trying to reconnect with those people you left behind, if you feel the desire to do so. Treat it sort of like an experiment to see if you’re strong enough in your new vibration, your new mindset. And if you find that you’re not quite there yet, or you fall back into old patterns of behaviour, don’t worry. Just remember that your emotional reactions are just sources of information. Then go back to steps 1 and 2 and keep working at it.
What you need to do in those situations with those difficult loved ones is make a conscious effort to love them unconditionally.
Sometimes we try to “teach” people about the great stuff we’ve learned and applied in our lives. But again, you can’t teach someone that doesn’t want to learn – which is why I say that you should teach through the clarity of your example.
What does that even mean?
Well, by then, you are accustomed to being the wonderful, shiny happy person that you truly are. So when you see those loved ones again, you just make every effort to be that person when you are with them. They might ask you why you’re so happy and instead of trying to teach them what you’ve learned, you can just say “No reason. I’m just happy to see you”.
Try to picture this: there is a difference between who people “really” are, and who they are choosing to be in any given moment. This is easier to see if you are looking at someone you’ve known a long time, like a family member or a very old friend.
Take my father for example. I know that who he really is, is a man who loves being out in nature where no one is asking anything of him and there is nothing to do but BE. Hunting and fishing are his passions. He loves figuring out where the fish or the moose might be. He loves having to face nature’s forces and being prepared no matter what happens.
But who he is choosing to be is a grumpy old man who is constantly physically and emotionally in pain and thinking he is trapped in this body that’s trying to kill him.
So if you can just focus on loving the True version of them, regardless of who they are choosing to be and how they are choosing to behave, then you will find relief.
You may never be able to help them live a better life. But the best gift you can give them is to remember who your own wonderful True Self is, and be that person as often as possible.
Everyone’s journey is their own; and you have to respect that, and love them regardless of their choices.
I hope this helps.