Many family caregivers report feeling guilt at some point during their labor of love. It’s such a common phenomenon that “caregiver guilt” is now a widely used and understood term in the caregiving world. For some caregivers, these feelings can be especially difficult and frequent.
The potential causes of caregiver’s guilt are many. As family caregivers, we may feel that we’re not trying hard enough for mom or dad, or that we’re not doing things right, or that it’s wrong of us to take a moment to ourselves. We may blame ourselves when our loved one falls or takes a turn for the worse. We may feel guilt because we believe that we’re neglecting the rest of the family by focusing so much on one person. Or we might feel like we’ve let mom or dad down when we have to transition them to professional care at a senior community.
Guilt occurs when we don’t live up to our own expectations. Sometimes the expectations that we hold ourselves to are realistic, but often they are not. When our expectations of ourselves as caregivers are realistic, guilt can serve as a motivator to act differently the next time a similar situation arises. But when our expectations are unrealistic, guilt can be a crippling and unproductive emotion.
Here is a three-step strategy to coping with your guilt as a caregiver:
- Identify the feeling — The first step to coping with guilt, or any “negative” emotion, is to recognize you’re having the emotion.
- Identify your expectations — Once we recognize guilt, we must ask ourselves, “What expectation of ourselves have we failed to live up to that is causing this feeling?”
- Scrutinize your expectations. Are they realistic? — If your expectations of yourself or your expectations of the world are not realistic, let the guilt go. If your expectations are realistic, think about how you will act differently next time.
So if you feel guilty about missing your child’s dance recital or baseball game because you are the only one able to remain at home to care for your elderly parent, remind yourself that you simply cannot be two places at once. Or if you feel guilty because your loved one has taken a fall, remember that you did everything you could to make that person safe, and that it is not possible to be by anyone’s side all of the time. If you feel guilt after moving your parent to a care-home, recognize that you did so out of love, and that sometimes people in their twilight years simply get to a point when professional care is required to keep them comfortable and safe.
Chances are you will never rid yourself of guilt entirely. Even with coping strategies like the one outlined in this post, strong emotions don’t always bend to rational analysis. You may find that talking about your feelings with a friend, a therapist, or at a caregiving support-group also helps you understand and move past unproductive guilt.
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