Y'know, you can't please all the people all the time...and last night, all those people were at my house for dinner. —With apologies to Mitch Hedberg
Originally, Mitch was talking about people at one of his comedy performances. But the same sentiment can apply to family gatherings.
That’s when you see that cousin who, right after saying he doesn’t know anything about diabetes, can’t wait to tell you the latest thing he heard about how to cure it. Cinnamon? Okra water? Chromium? Which one will it be?
Then there are the times when it seems like the only way your mom can show her concern is to question everything. Everything on your plate. Everything about what your doctor told you last. Everything you say, do, or think. It’s like having a fly buzzing in your ear and that fly is constantly second-guessing you.
Family. They can be the best people in your life. And the worst. They can make you feel truly loved and deeply judged. Often in the very same moment.
It helps in these situations if you can keep your head and your heart. Setting boundaries can also help minimize the tension. And a sense of humor helps too. Being able to see the irony in the situation can help keep it light.
With the Holiday Season upon us, here are four tips a person living with diabetes may want to reference as they navigate the tricky minefield of family dynamics:
Tip #1: Set some personal boundaries
Aside from keeping a good sense of humor about diabetes, do you know what also works? Setting some personal boundaries. Boundaries create distance which can help you manage your stress levels in the situation. Distance, whether emotional or physical, helps you avoid getting overwhelmed.
Personal boundaries are guidelines or rules about how you expect other people to treat you. They create distance aimed at keeping you safe physically, mentally, and emotionally. Setting boundaries is one way to effectively manage your mental state and emotions when in stressful situations.
But boundaries only work if the people on both sides honor them.
That means you have to be clear about what you will and won’t tolerate or accept. And you have to be consistent in that.
If you don’t want to be put on the spot about your diabetes in front of a group but you’re willing to talk about it one-on-one, you still have to make the time to have that private conversation.
You have to accept other people’s boundaries as well.
So, if seeing you take a shot of insulin at the dinner table makes Uncle Lou queasy, maybe take your shot in the other room instead.
Tip #2: Agree on a code of polite behavior
For some people it’s easier to talk about how they’d like to be treated in terms of etiquette, or a code of behavior.
A few years ago Behavioral Diabetes Institute published a diabetes etiquette card for people who don’t have diabetes. The card lists some do's and don’ts for talking about diabetes and includes:
- Don’t offer unsolicited advice about my eating or other aspects of diabetes.
- Do realize and appreciate that diabetes is a lot of hard work.
- Don’t tell me horror stories about other people with diabetes you’ve heard about.
- Do offer to join me in making healthy lifestyle changes.
There’s a second etiquette card aimed at parents. While it’s intended for teens to use with their parents, some of the suggestions can still apply even when you’re all grown up.
- When my glucose levels are high don’t assume I did something stupid.
- Stop trying to scare me with diabetes statistics.
- Recognize that I’m never going to be perfect in my diabetes care, no matter how much you want this for me.
- Please acknowledge when I’m doing something right.
These etiquette cards are great conversation starters. It gives people specific starting points when faced with uncomfortable situations.
Tip #3: Acknowledge the impact your diabetes has on your family
Like it or not, your diabetes has a tangible impact on your family. That impact might be due to the cost of medicine, medical care, and lost work. It can also be based on the emotional burden of worry, fear, and anger that comes along with chronic illness.
The best way to deal with these impacts is with honesty and mutual respect. In order to manage life with diabetes effectively you need to establish a new normal. One that makes allowances for the care and attention diabetes requires without totally destroying family life.
This can look like you politely declining your auntie’s prized sweet potato pie at Thanksgiving, or just taking a small sliver.
This can look like you getting home an hour later in the evening so that you can get to the gym. Maybe not every night, but on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays.
This can look like missing a family reunion because you can’t afford the plane ticket and your insulin at the same time. And it can look like family members pitching in a few bucks so that you can both go to that reunion and have the medication you need that month.
Tip #4: Find what works for you and your family
Every family is different. So there’s no one set of practices that will make living with diabetes easier for everybody.
Managing diabetes is challenging. There will be times when everything will seem to be humming along. And there will be times when nothing seems to be working well.
Managing family relationships is also challenging - even for people who DON’T have diabetes. Family can sometimes provide the emotional support you need to face the challenges that come along with managing diabetes. Remember they can’t read minds, you’re going to have to ask for help and let them know when they can stop.
It’s going to take honest communication and conscientious effort to decide what works best for you and your family when it comes to diabetes. It’s work well worth doing.
After all, when family relations get tense there’s a lot of truth in this old joke.