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We Can Only Mend Our Own Lives


This week I read a wonderful reflection on self-compassion by writer, activist, and educator Parker Palmer from the On Being website:

None of us can “mend” another person’s life, no matter how much the other may need it, no matter how much we may want to do it.

Mending is inner work that everyone must do for him or herself. When we fail to embrace that truth the result is heartbreak for all concerned.

What we can do is walk alongside the people we care about, offering simple companionship and compassion. And if we want to do that, we must save the only life we can save, our own.

Only when I'm in possession of my own heart can I be present for another in a healing, encouraging, empowering way. Then I have a gift to offer, the best gift I possess — the gift of a self that is whole, that stands in the world on its own two feet.

Writer Parker Palmer (Photo via On Being)

When a Loved One is struggling with addiction, it is incredibly hard to let go of the need to fix things—we pay the rent, we offer unsolicited advice, we try to control things, we shield our Loved Ones from the consequences of their behavior. But Palmer reminds us that our efforts are misguided, for it is impossible to “fix” another person. We can only change ourselves and our own actions and responses. 

This is why our program emphasizes the importance not only of self-care, but also the need to step away and allow your Loved One to suffer consequences when they are using. You cannot “mend” your Loved One, but you can reward non-use, communicate more effectively, and take care of yourself so that you are in the best frame of mind to practice the skills you are learning in the AiR program. 

As Palmer writes, “anything one can do on behalf of true self is done ultimately in the service of others.” In other words, self-care is not selfish, but instead, allows us to help our Loved One more effectively. A car cannot do its job if it has an empty gas tank, no transmission fluid, and flat tires. The human body is no different.

In his post Palmer shares the following poem by Mary Oliver called “The Journey.” He says that years ago he had trouble with the poem, for he thought Oliver was advocating we live a self-centric life. “But life experience — hard experience — has led me to see the wisdom here,” Palmer explains. 

It is easy to lose ourselves when we are continually focused on a Loved One with an addiction problem. But to step away and find time to understand our own needs and desires keeps us grounded. We are less angry, resentful, and anxious when we take the time for reflection and self-care. We must not forget to love ourselves.

As Thich Nhat Hanh writes, "It's like a mother, when the baby is crying, she picks up the baby and she holds the baby tenderly in her arms. Your pain, your anxiety is your baby. You have to take care of it. You have to go back to yourself, to recognize the suffering in you, embrace the suffering, and you get a relief.” 

The Journey by Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice —
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations —
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice,
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do —
determined to save
the only life you could save.

(Photo via Pixabay)

Journal Exercise

Take a moment to record your own thoughts on self-care. What does the word mean to you? How well have you been taking care of yourself over the past week? Have there been times this past week when you felt flustered or angry and felt the desire to “fix” your Loved One? How has this impulse manifested itself? What specific actions can you take in the days ahead that will be restorative for yourself?  Write these ideas in your journal.

You may want to revisit our five-part sanctuary series on self-care. You can read  part 1, the introduction, here,  part 2 on caring for the body  here,  part 3 on self-care for the mind here,  part 4 on nurturing the emotions here, and part 5 on self-care for the spirit here.)  Also, don’t forget to use our Track Your Progress tool to monitor your emotional well-being. 



In your comments, please show respect for each other and do not give advice. Please consider that your choice of words has the power to reduce stigma and change opinions (ie, "person struggling with substance use" vs. "addict", "use" vs. "abuse"...)