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Caregiver Guilt: When the "Ideal You" Isn't You

Take a moment to think about your caregiving journey. Was every step planned and coordinated, or were you thrust into the role unexpectedly? Have you had help from family, friends, loved ones, or have you been walking the road solo? Maybe the journey started out one way, but you now find yourself in a completely different situation.

Many caregivers reflect on this journey and find themselves with the conflicting thoughts of “Wow, I’ve come a long way,” but also, “I could be doing better.”

If you started out with an image in your mind of exactly how your journey may progress or how you would handle the circumstances, by now you probably realize the journey is bumpy, unpredictable, and no matter how vigilant we may be, accidents happen. As caregivers, we are not perfect. And when we do something wrong or have a thought that isn’t in line with the “image” we have of our journey, we experience guilt.

Dr. Vicki Rackner, an author and former surgeon at the University of Washington School of Medicine, wrote an article for, “Eight Tips to Managing Caregiver Guilt.” She describes guilt as being either immobilizing, or as a catalyst to moving forward: For caregivers, painful feelings — such as guilt, sadness and anger — are like any other pain. It’s your body’s way of saying, ‘Pay attention.’ Just as the pain of a burned finger pulls your hand from the stove, so, too, guilt guides your actions and optimizes your health.”

There are many other feelings wrapped up in guilt. Anger, resentment, and even grief walk hand-in-hand with guilty feelings when they arise. Together, these feelings can be overwhelming, especially if you don’t have any mental or emotional support to help you process them. Understand that to be the best caregiver you can be, you must ask for help and seek support, whether it’s from family, friends, a support group, or professional counseling.

For those struggling with this support, you may be thinking: “What can I do for myself?” Here are the “Eight Tips for Managing Guilt” that Dr. Rackner shares:

1. Recognize the feeling of guilt: Unrecognized guilt eats at your soul. Name it; look at the monster under the bed. Identify other feelings. Often, there are feelings under the feeling of guilt. Name those, too. For example, say to yourself, “I hate to admit this to myself, but I’m resentful that Dad’s illness changed all of our lives.” Once you put it into words, you will have a new perspective. You will also be reminding yourself of how fortunate you are to have what it takes to take care of loved one.”

2. Be compassionate with yourself: Cloudy moods, like cloudy days, come and go. There’s no one way a caregiver should feel. When you give yourself permission to have any feeling, and recognize that your feelings don’t control your actions, your guilt will subside.

3. Look for the cause of the guilt: What is the mismatch between this “Ideal You” and the real you? Do you have an unmet need? Do you need to change your actions so that they align with your values?

4. Take action: Meet your needs. Needs are not bad or good; they just are. If you need some time alone, find someone to be with your loved one.

5. Change your behavior to fit your values: For example, Clara felt guilty because her friend was in the hospital and she didn’t send a card. Her guilt propelled her to buy some beautiful blank cards to make it easier for her to drop a note the next time.

6. Ask for help: Call a friend and say, “I’m going through a hard time. Do you have a few minutes just to listen?” Have a family meeting and say, “Our lives have been a lot different since grandma got sick. I’m spending more time with her. Let’s figure out together how we’ll get everything done.”

7. Revisit and reinvent the “Ideal You”: You made the best choices based on your resources and knowledge at the time. As you look to the future, you can create a refined vision of the “Ideal You.” What legacy do you want to leave? What values do you hold dear? Then, when you wake up in the morning and put on your clothes, imagine dressing the “Ideal You.” Let this reinvented “Ideal You” make those moment-to-moment choices that create your legacy.

Remember, guilt can be unavoidable when we hold ourselves accountable to caring for a loved one and when we truly desire to do our best. It’s a common experience on the journey for many caregivers no matter how compassionate they try to be. The most important thing to remember is to extend that same level of compassion to yourself. The more we take care of ourselves mentally, emotionally, and physically, the better we can care for our loved ones.

For more resources and finding and creating support, check out the summer edition of the Caring Together newsletter.

Follow-up articles on difficult emotions:

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