Should I Rely on Loved Ones for Diabetes Support?
By Adam Brown
How do I talk to family and friends about diabetes? Is this MY burden to bear? Are loved ones a “diabetes bright spot” or “diabetes police”?
A few diaTribe readers have emailed me recently and shared comments like this:
“Adam, I agree with everything you share in Bright Spots & Landmines except one thing: relying on loved ones for diabetes support. I don’t ever do this – it’s MY diabetes and MY burden to bear.”
This brings up an interesting and potentially loaded question: what role should family and friends play in my diabetes? Is this condition my burden to bear? How do I get support from loved ones, but avoid “diabetes police” territory?
See below for my perspective, focused on in-person interactions. As always, this is what works for me, so if you have a different approach, please share!
If you’re interested in more mindset topics, including how to find peer and online support, get Bright Spots & Landmines as a free PDF here. You can also get the paperback here for just $5.99.
Rely on loved ones and friends for support, remember my diabetes affects them too, and honestly communicate about what is helpful
One of my major mindset Bright Spots comes from loved ones, family, and friends: they lift my motivation when I feel deflated, help me make better food choices and avoid unhelpful options, provide a sounding board to vent frustrations, exercise with me, and even gently nudge me to relax (“Adam, it’s just a number; don’t be frustrated. I still love you”).
On the beach with my five younger siblings
Unfortunately, these same individuals can also turn into “Diabetes Police” quite easily: “What’s your number? Did you go for a walk? How could you mess up again?” I’ve found diabetes co-exists positively with relationships when at least four things are in place:
1. A strong understanding of how hard it is to live with diabetes. When loved ones are surprised by an out-of-range blood glucose (BG) value, I often talk about all the factors (over 22!) that affect each blood sugar. Sharing just how much complexity goes into every number brings an appreciation of how much work diabetes requires and how frustrating it can be. (Pages 120-124 in the book discuss this, as well as finer points of “perfectionism” in more detail.)
2. Do not use BG numbers to finger point. The value on the meter or smartphone is for learning and action, not a performance evaluation or “test.”
3. Open communication. Nothing is worse than when one person is angry or frustrated and doesn’t let the other person know.
4. The person with diabetes should set and communicate clear boundaries and acceptable ways of interacting. For example, “I don’t appreciate when you comment on my food choices; please leave those to me” vs. “Yes, please help me with my food choices, and please stop me from eating junk food.”
It also helps to clarify when someone has crossed the line: “I know you mean well, but when you comment or judge my numbers, it makes me feel like a failure. Instead, what about helping me with the action step? ‘Let’s take a walk’ or ‘Here are some glucose tablets.’”
Those around me cannot read my mind – I need to give clear and honest feedback. Where do I need the most help? What is unhelpful?
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
– George Bernard Shaw
I find support is most helpful around eating and hypoglycemia. Food is such a social activity that the people around me can make a truly meaningful difference. For example, I give my girlfriend full permission to prevent me from eating junk food. It also helps that we don’t buy “Landmine” foods when going to the store, and we cook low-carb dinners together at home. These are meaningful changes she has made to keep me healthy. And support matters in small ways too: whether it’s asking if I have glucose tabs before we leave the house, or waking me up to a CGM alarm at night, I know she has my back.
Even still, I constantly have to remind myself that there is no badge of honor for doing diabetes alone. As Dr. Brenè Brown says beautifully in The Gifts of Imperfection:
“Somehow we’ve come to equate success with not needing anyone. Many of us are willing to extend a helping hand, but we’re very reluctant to reach out for help when we need it ourselves. It’s as if we’ve divided the world into ‘those who offer help’ and ‘those who need help.’ The truth is that we are both.”
1. Be brave and have an honest conversation with loved ones, family and friends:
What can they start or stop doing to help me, even in small ways?
What does a loved one say that is super motivating and helpful? What is harmful or de-motivating?
2. Where am I struggling the most with my diabetes right now, and how can loved ones support me? Do I need help with food choices, an exercise partner, stress reduction, etc.? Where can a friend or family member help with an action step? What can we commit to together?
3. Encourage a loved one or friend to do a “day of diabetes” – taking fingersticks, taking medications (e.g., injecting saline, taking a fake pill), wearing a pump or CGM (if you do), doing diabetes math, resisting tempting foods, exercising after meals, using the same apps (if you use any), etc.
“This book is like carrying around an educator, a friend, and a safety net all in one…I have highlighted and flagged more pages in this book than any other book I’ve ever owned (and I graduated from college).” – Shannon, living with diabetes and 5-star Amazon review of Bright Spots & Landmines. If you don’t have your copy yet, get it here for free or name your own donation price. You can also purchase it in paperback for just $5.99 or on Kindle for $1.99. The print book is priced at cost to ensure widespread access, and 100% of proceeds from digital downloads benefit The diaTribe Foundation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit.
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