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How Community Expectations Influence your Reality

by Ann Novick, The Jewish Press
April 1, 2009 

"Doubt comes from many sources and very often in the form of innoculous comments from friends and family. Perhaps it is because well spouses are fragile, that the questioning works so well in causing self doubt."

(Names and circumstances have been altered for confidentiality)

Doubt is a very powerful force. It slowly erodes what we know to be true. It can undermine our self-confidence and even change our reality. Doubt comes from many sources and very often in the form of innocuous comments from friends and family. The comments that may cause the most doubt may not be the loud ones. They may be whispers, simply asking why we made the decision we did about our loved ones care or why we aren't afraid of an undertaking. Though said quietly, the effect is the same as if they had yelled, "you're wrong!" and suddenly you begin to rethink the decision you were so sure of moments ago.

Perhaps it is because well spouses are fragile, that the questioning works so well in causing self doubt.

Or perhaps it is that each decision you make about the care of someone with a progressive, chronic illness will have consequences that are always new and certainly difficult for everyone in the family. Or maybe it is just universal for all of us to second-guess ourselves when our decisions are repeatedly challenged. Miriam had a week to herself when her husband was taken to a facility for respite. It was winter and her friend offered to let her use her Florida home, which happened to be empty. Even though Miriam knew no one in the area, she couldn't wait to get out of the cold. That was until a friend quietly asked, "Aren't you afraid to be by yourself? After all, you don't know a soul there. What if something happens to you?"

At first, Miriam said she was fine, but soon another friend - and then, a relative asked the same question. "Aren't you afraid to be by yourself?" Soon Miriam began to wonder. Maybe this trip was a mistake. Should she be afraid? Miriam made the trip anyway, but instead of the relaxed week she dreamed of, she jumped at every noise. Instead of taking in the sights, she feared going out at night by herself and read or watched TV, hiding under the covers each time the house creaked.
 
Riva had just given birth to her first child just two weeks earlier when her husband's chronically ill mother was hospitalized. Riva was fine with her husband traveling to another city to see his mother. She felt confident enough in her new parenting skills. Her confidence quickly eroded, however, when each concerned friend told her that she couldn't be left alone with her newborn. Many went so far as to admonish her husband, insisting he could not leave his wife right now, even if his mother was critical. With each unsolicited and unwelcome suggestion ranging from, "He must get you a baby nurse before he leaves!" to "Hire someone to stay with you," Riva very quickly began to think she had overestimated her ability as a new mother.
 
Clearly everyone knew something that she didn't or had learned, by experience, something dangerous about being alone that she was unaware of. Was she being a negligent mother to encourage her husband to visit his mother? In the end, they hired a baby nurse to help for the week and though the week went without incident, it took Riva months to regain her confidence as a new mother. Shayna picked up two passengers for a fundraiser they were all going to. Though she had never been to this location before, she felt pretty confident in her ability to follow the directions she had been given. However, it seemed to Shayna that every time she tuned a corner one of her passengers would say, "Why are you going this way?" or "Why are you turning here?" By the time they got to the location of the fundraiser Shayna began to question her driving competence, wondering if she needed a navigational assistant.

Most of us are vulnerable to criticism, even in areas in which we feel competent. But when we are unsure of ourselves or when the situation is a new one for us or when we hear implied criticism (all of which apply to a well spouse's situation) we become even more vulnerable and the criticism takes on great power in eroding our confidence. We make plans. They are plans we are comfortable with. They are plans that will work for us and for our spouses - chronically ill or healthy. Suddenly our plans are questioned. "Are you sure you can leave him? Are you sure you should make the trip? How will she be able to manage while you're gone?" or simply, Why are you going this way?" And suddenly, everything you painstakingly put into place doesn't seem quite right and you begin to second-guess yourself. As important as it is for each of us to fight against these doubts that come packaged in unsolicited questions, it is equally important for those making the comments to realize that they are doing much more than asking a question. The confidence they are eroding may take a very long time to rebuild.

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