Caregiver Guilt Relief Tips

Caregiver Guilt Relief: 5 Tips To Manage Guilt So Guilt Serves You, Not Imprisons You

Guilt is a common feeling in the landscape of care giving.  Guilt can propel you to be the best you can be or it can immobilize you.

For Alzheimer’s family 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.

Old emotions that you may have had as a kid growing up may show up. 

Caregiver Guilt

Unresolved issues with siblings and/or your parents are likely to rear their ugly head again, even if it’s been decades since it last appeared.  Things like sibling rivalry that you may have thought was behind you may come to the forefront and cause you to feel guilt.  Perhaps making you feel guilty that it’s even showing up again.

Emotions you had as a kid around something your parent (that you’re now caring for) said or did that made you feel bad are likely to show up again.  They did for me, and it was like they were magnified even more.  I think it was because my parents were now living with me.  When I left home as a young adult, I was able to put those feelings aside.  And then, over the years, I could manage being with my parents for 2 or 3 days at a time, and it was ok.  I loved them, but particularly with my mom, spending more than 2 or 3 days with her seemed to create tension between us.  Now, I was taking care of her every single day.  Those old memories have a way of creeping up on you and suddenly, you’re faced with dealing with those old emotions that you thought were long gone.

You have a picture of the “Ideal You” with values you hold and how you relate to yourself and others. Guilt often arises when there’s a mismatch between your day-to-day choices and the choices the “Ideal You” would have made. The “Ideal You” may be a parent who attends all of your kid’s soccer games. Miss a game to take your dad to the doctor, and you think you’re falling short.

You may have needs out of line with this “Ideal You.”

Now, you may believe that your own needs are insignificant, compared to the needs of your sick loved one. You then feel guilty when you even recognize your needs, much less act upon them. A mother may ask herself, “How can I go out for a walk with my kids when my mother is at home in pain?” (A hint for this mother: she can give more to her mother with an open heart when she takes good care of herself.)

You may have feelings misaligned with the “Ideal You.”

Feeling angry about the injustice of your loved one’s illness? You might even feel angry at your loved one for getting sick! Recognizing those feelings can produce a healthy dose of guilt. Yes, you may even feel guilty about feeling guilty.

Why did my loved one get sick? you may ask. Perhaps, if the “Ideal You” acted more often, your loved one would be healthy. What if you served more healthful meals? What if you called 911, instead of believing your husband when he said his chest pain was just a little heartburn?

If you’re the kind of person prone to guilt, learn to manage guilt so that guilt serves you rather than imprisons you. Here are 5 tips for managing your caregiver guilt:

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 dads 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 your loved one.

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 recognized that your feelings don’t control your actions, your guilt will subside.

Guilt Relief Tip #1:  Look for the cause of your caregiver 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?  Once you can identify the cause of the guilt, then you’re ready for the next step.

Caregiver Guilt Relief Tip #2:  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.  If you need a hug, ask your loved one for a hug. Chances are, they need a hug, too.  It let’s them know they are dear to you, and will make them feel like they are doing something useful to help you, too.

Guilt Relief Tip #3:  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.  Another example might be that you overslept, and your loved one was an hour late getting their breakfast.  Setting an alarm on your phone would be a good way to change your behavior to be sure you’re up at the right time each day.

Caregiver Guilt Relief Tip #4:  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”.  Other family members can offer a different perspective from yours, so brainstorming with them can help resolve issues you may be feeling guilty about not having a resolution.

Guilt Relief Tip #5:  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.

A note about guilt and forgiveness. 

Once you’ve gone through the steps, you should recognize a direct correlation between guilt and forgiveness.  You can’t forgive yourself of guilt feelings unless you take some corrective action to prevent them in the future.  So don’t beat yourself up for having guilty feelings.  Simply take the steps to manage them correctly.  The only person you need to forgive then, is yourself.  But that’s often the hardest person we have to forgive.

Understand that you will be a more effective caregiver when you care for the caregiver first. Loved ones neither want nor expect selfless servants. As a caregiver, when you care for yourself, you increase and improve your own caring. Yes, guilt is part of care giving, but this guilt can help you become the caregiver you and your loved one want you to be.

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