In retrospect, during my daughter’s battle with mental illness, I wasted a lot of energy worrying about things I couldn’t control. When I learned about a framework called Three Concentric Circles at work, I realized this was a powerful approach I could use to improve my effectiveness in my personal life as well as at work. The concept is to proactively focus on what you can control or influence, and stop stressing over things you cannot change. I’m sharing this framework in hopes that it brings parents of children struggling with mental illness a new outlook on their challenges, inspiration, and renewed hope.
Here is how it works. Draw and label three concentric circles, a large circle (Circle of Acceptance), a middle circle (Circle of Influence) and a small circle in the center (Circle of Control).
Next, think about the things that weigh on your mind and cause you and your child stress, anxiety or frustration. One at a time, decide how much control you have over each and place it in the appropriate circle. Research shows that people spend most of their time worrying about things that really belong in the outer circle—things they can’t control. You can contribute to things in the outer circle, but changes occur over a long period of time. The concept is that if you accept things you cannot control, you will experience less frustration and stress, and you will have more time and energy to spend proactively on things that you can actually impact.
My child’s mental illness
Rather than accepting that Sadie had a mental illness, I spent a lot of mental energy wishing she didn’t, thinking she would outgrow it, thinking she had beat the illness every time she was doing well—all the while asking, “Why Sadie? Why us?” Yet her mental illness really belonged in the outer circle—Acceptance. If we truly accepted it, we could have shifted that mental energy to things in the Circle of Influence—such as exploring a long term treatment strategy, helping her cope with the negative aspects of the illness, and figuring out how to leverage her strengths.
I felt very alone dealing with Sadie’s mental illness, as did Sadie. We let the stigma interfere with us finding the best help for her and getting the support we needed from friends and family. Sadie didn’t want people to know about her illness—she thought people would think she was “crazy,” so she asked that we would not share it with anyone. We worried about how the stigma would impact her life—yet we didn’t control the existence of the negative stigma. We should have put our worries about stigma in the outer circle and accepted it.
Had we done that, and shared our story, I believe we would have found community that we didn’t realize existed and fully gained the support that we needed from friends and family. Our story became public after Sadie died by suicide at age 18. I was astounded at the number of people that came up to me and shared their or their family’s struggles with mental illness. I had no idea so many people we knew had been impacted by mental illness, because they had been suffering in silence too.
Accept that the stigma is prevalent, and focus on finding the community that does not carry the stigma. Seek support through friends, IBPF, NAMI, and other reputable organizations. You may find help in unlikely places. Put “finding community and support” in the Circle of Influence.
My stress level
This belongs primarily in the Circle of Control. You can’t control whether or not your child has a mental illness, or whether there is a top-notch mental health professional in your town that is taking new patients and covered by your insurance; however, you can control how you respond to your situation. You can also influence your own health. Take a little “me” time each day; get some exercise, meditate or do yoga, get regular sleep, and eat a healthy diet. It is vital for parents to take care of themselves so they can help their child. This reminds me of the instructions you receive on an airplane—if the cabin loses air pressure, put your air mask on before you help to put your child’s on. Same concept.
These examples demonstrate how the three concentric circles framework might help you develop a fresh outlook, reduce your stress, and help you better navigate the mental health system and your child’s condition. If you are a parent of a child with mental health challenges, I encourage you to give this technique a try.
Karen Meadows, Author of Searching for Normal: The Story of a Girl Gone Too Soon.