The dictionary defines guilt as a feeling of having done something wrong or having failed in an obligation. If you have intentionally inflicted physical or emotional pain on another person, you should feel guilty. That’s an appropriate emotional response.
However, if you are caring for someone who can no longer care for his or herself, you may be experiencing feelings of guilt that are not appropriate to the situation. If you’re like a lot of other caregivers, you may have unrealistic expectations of yourself. You want to do the right thing, which means you often put you care receiver’s needs before your own, and then you berate yourself when you aren’t as loving, patient, and kind as you would like to be or think you should be.
But here’s the truth – you’re human. And when your own needs aren’t being met, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to meet the needs of those who cannot take care of themselves.
Whether guilt is self-imposed or imposed on us by others, it is important to remember that it can be a cruel and controlling emotion that often leads to feelings of resentment and depression.
Before you accept feelings of guilt for some action or inaction, examine your motives, your physical and emotional condition and other circumstances around the event, and then ask yourself these questions:
- Did I intentionally cause harm to another person? ❑ Yes ❑ No
- Could I accept, explain or forgive that behavior in someone else? ❑ Yes ❑ No
- Is this feeling being imposed on me by someone else? ❑ Yes ❑ No
- Can I change what happened? ❑ Yes ❑ No
- Does my guilt benefit my care receiver? ❑ Yes ❑ No
- Is feeling guilty benefitting me in any way? ❑ Yes ❑ No
If you’d like to stop feeling of guilty about situations in which you did not intentionally hurt another person, try changing your emotional vocabulary. Replace the word “guilt” with the word “regret.” Regret is a feeling of sadness or disappointment over something that has happened. We regret a loss or a missed opportunity.
Here’s how it works. Think of the situations that have caused you to feel guilty. Write them down, and then delete the word “guilt” and replace it with the word “regret.” If you’re like a lot of other caregivers, you could be writing down statements like:
- I regret that I lose my temper with my care receiver and I’m not always as kind or patient as I’d like to be.
- I regret that I resent the amount of time it takes to meet his/her needs.
- I regret that I sometimes think about how much something will cost before I think about how it will benefit my care receiver.
- I regret that our relationship has changed and that I don’t always enjoy being together.
- I regret that I am tired of being a caregiver and that sometimes I wish it would all just end.
It’s perfectly normal and acceptable for caregivers to regret how their care receiver’s lives and their own lives have changed as a result of an illness or injury. It’s natural to feel tremendous sadness and disappointment over the progression of a disease, but it is not healthy for an individual to stop living her life and accept the responsibility for her care receiver’s condition.
It’s important to remember that being a caregiver is one of the most incredibly difficult and generous acts of love any of us will ever perform on behalf of another. It is extremely stressful. You will get angry. There will be times when you say and do things that you wish you hadn’t. And there will be times when you don’t like the way you feel toward your care receiver. This is a normal part of the caregiving experience, and it doesn’t mean you are a bad person.
Give yourself permission to be human. Apologize when it’s appropriate, express your regret over the event or emotion, and then move on. Changing the way you describe your emotions toward a situation won’t change the circumstances, but it can help you stop experiencing unwarranted feelings of guilt.
If you have intentionally caused physical or emotional harm, or if you are afraid that you might cross the line and hurt someone, seek help immediately. Call 1-800-677-1116 or visit this website.
About Elaine K. Sanchez: Based on her own experience of caring for family elders, Elaine K. Sanchez developed a passion for helping others cope with the emotional stress of caregiving. She is the author of the unflinchingly honest and uproariously funny book, “Letters from Madelyn, Chronicles of a Caregiver.” She is the co-founder of Caregiver Help, an online, video-based caregiver support program, and host of Caregiver Help Radio a weekly program hosted on WebTalkRadio.net. She frequently speaks at caregiving conferences and to healthcare organizations across the U.S.