Someone recently asked me a question about a relationship with a close friend.
I find that most impact falls on the person with the arthritis, and there is a tendency to project that disappointment and imagine that others are feeling let down and hurt or upset. Usually this just isn't true.
This person was feeling guilty because plans were made and, once again, she suddenly wasn't feeling well. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) symptoms took over, and the pain and fatigue meant that she had to cancel.
"I keep disappointing people I love," she said. "How can I figure out how to do this better?"
Several answers came to mind — and she told me it was OK if I shared my thoughts with you. I hope you'll also send in any reactions you have and successful ways that you deal with this common but irritatingly repetitive issue.
First, I wondered who was the most disappointed by the cancellations. It is possible that the person who has the flare-up is really the one most upset — usually our friends and family love us and want to help. Some parents feel anxious about letting their children down. That's natural — we want to be reliable for our children. But even small people are amazingly resilient and they are usually eager to be helpful and supportive. I find that most impact falls on the person with the arthritis, and there is a tendency to project that disappointment and imagine that others are feeling let down and hurt or upset. Usually this just isn't true.
But what if it is? This leads back to my familiar refrain, one I keep saying because it is hard to practice: You won't know if it's true until you ask. You must talk about what's going on.
We love to be mindreaders, though none of us is very good at it. Instead of saying, "I feel lousy today, and I feel even worse because I'm not going to be able to follow through on what we planned," we use whatever our favorite fallback is.
Maybe you withdraw, or you are the kind who anticipates a negative response — so you get defensive before anything even happens. Some of us play out scenarios in our minds, but never have the actual conversation. You know your typical style.
A healthier way to go is to start the real conversation and acknowledge that you own disappointment — and ask for feedback about where the other person is. Some folks are trying their hardest not to let their RA have any space in their life — but really the denial doesn't serve you, or your tribe. Let them in. Gather up your courage and state how you feel. Let those who love you tell you how they feel. Then you can move on.
A final practical suggestion: You can build in "back-up" plans. This requires some advance thinking, but it can help ease some of the pressure you may put on yourself.
If you find you have to postpone outings with a child, keep some good activities on hand. These may be games, DVDs, books, — things that your child loves, but only gets to do when you have to change plans. Some of these things might be activities you can do when you're not feeling so well, and some might be things that are done alone.
You can adapt this idea for grownups, too.
What might you choose to do with a partner when you have to shift activities? Maybe she likes particular TV programs or movies that you don't ordinarily like to watch. A treat could be keeping her company during that sporting event or agreeing to sit close for a chick flick. Letting the other person pick their favorite takeout, or being willing to sit outside with them when they garden — or even play cards or a board game if that is something they like to do, and you ordinarily wouldn't join in — can be fun and nourishing for your relationship.
I know one mother who couldn't attend her son's soccer game. I suggested that she would watch him play a computer game and learn about it. She really didn't like computer games at all, usually trying to avoid the whole subject when he talked about it. But her son was passionate about computer games, and enjoyed demonstrating how proficient he was. More was built in their relationship when she set aside her prejudice — and sat beside him learning about this world he loved — than could have been gained by her sitting on the sidelines, where she felt a "good" mother should be.
The object of the exercise is to know that at times you may need to shift course, but you still want to do something together.
Thinking of some alternatives ahead of time can make you feel more in control, and the person with whom you want to be feel your caring presence. Along with that flexibility is the willingness to talk about how you feel and invite the same in response. This practice will make your life much richer than mindreading ever could!