Do you ever feel as if you can’t spend another minute taking care of a loved one who’s suffering from dementia, mental illness or other debilitating condition? That you can’t endure another frustrating visit or irrational argument? That you’re simply too tired to do everything that’s being asked of you?
Chances are if you’re a caregiver for a struggling loved one, you feel all of those things at one time or another. And chances are good that when you feel those emotions, you also think that you’re the worst person in the world for feeling them.
That’s caregiver guilt, and it puts an emotional weight on the shoulders of most caregivers, a weight that can be extremely harmful. Guilt, if allowed to feed upon itself, takes a toll on a caregiver’s mind and body that can lead to depression, self-destructive behavior and physical symptoms.
It can help, though, to understand why you’re feeling guilty and to know that caregiver guilt is a normal, manageable state that nearly every caregiver passes through at some point. If you know how you’ve arrived at the emotional state you’re in and what you can do to lessen its effects, you can stop caregiver guilt from doing real harm.
What Is Caregiver Guilt?
Caring for a loved one is an emotionally and physically taxing responsibility that inevitably wears us down and exposes our limitations. We’re only human, and the demands of caregiving regularly set us up to feel inadequate in a variety of ways. When we feel inadequate, guilt nearly always follows.
It’s important to recognize how caregiver guilt manifests itself because if you can see the signs for what they are, it’s easier to believe that you’re not alone. Take a look at these common manifestations of caregiver guilt and think about whether they apply to you:
- You feel guilty for not being able to do everything. You feel as if you’re pouring all of your energy into giving your loved one everything that he or she needs, but it’s still not enough. There’s always something more to do, and you can’t keep up. Worst of all, you suspect that it’s your own weakness that prevents you from doing what other caregivers could do.
- You feel guilty because your loved one’s condition is not improving. No matter what you do, your loved one is still suffering, and his or her condition might even be getting worse. You feel guilty because you can’t make everything better.
- You feel guilty because you sometimes resent your loved one. You are exhausted by everything you do as a caregiver, but your loved one doesn’t appreciate everything you’re doing. He or she may be irrationally critical or demand more and more from you as time goes on. You’re frustrated and resentful, and you feel awful about it.
- You feel guilty for enjoying yourself. While your loved one suffers, you feel as if you have no right to be happy or to have good things in your life.
Left unchecked, excessive feelings of guilt and self-criticism can lead to real consequences for the caregiver. Studies have found that caregivers for dementia patients, for example, are twice as likely to suffer from clinical depression as the general population. If you’re feeling guilty, be alert for other signs of depression, including:
- Feelings of extreme sadness or hopelessness
- Changes in eating patterns, including weight gain or weight loss
- Changes in sleep patterns, including insomnia or oversleeping
- Consistent fatigue
- Loss of interest in pleasurable activities
- Trouble focusing your thoughts
- Increased use of alcohol or drugs
- Suicidal thoughts
Why Is Caregiver Guilt So Common?
We like to think of ourselves as being up to any task, and we have a tendency to assume that other caregivers are unfailingly competent. When we perceive ourselves as falling short of our expectations, guilt is sure to result.
The problem is that caregiving introduces stresses that hinder everyone’s productiveness, and caregivers are virtually guaranteed to fail to meet unrealistic goals. Consider these challenges that caregivers face:
- Caregivers spend less time with their families.
- Caregivers get less sleep.
- Caregivers are more likely to struggle with their jobs.
- Caregivers are more often exposed to conflicts and stress in their relationships.
- Caregivers have little time left to do things that make them happy.
All of these factors set up a situation that makes a caregiver feel inadequate, and it’s crucial for you to realize that it’s not just you. Every caregiver faces these obstacles, and every caregiver experiences guilt in reaction to them.
How to Overcome Caregiver Guilt
If caregiver guilt is such a fundamental part of caregiving, how, then, can you manage it and keep it from doing real harm to you? The answer lies primarily in acceptance, but there are some very concrete ways that you can think about your situation that will help keep the most harmful consequences of guilt at bay:
- Accept guilt as inevitable. First of all, dispense with the notion that you’ll be able to care for your loved one without sometimes feeling guilty. We all will feel guilty, and there’s nothing we can do to make it go away entirely. What we need to do instead is to manage our guilt so that it doesn’t hurt us or our loved ones.
- Don’t expect to solve every problem. No one, not even the most competent caregiver, can do everything perfectly. You won’t be able to end your loved one’s suffering, and you won’t be able to accomplish every task that’s put in front of you. No one could, and you shouldn’t hold yourself to an unrealistic standard.
- Understand that negative feelings are normal. Caring for someone with dementia or mental illness is frustrating, anger-inducing, and sometimes demoralizing. Anyone in your situation is going to feel negative about their responsibilities and their loved one’s demands sometimes. Accept that you’re not a bad person for feeling this way.
- Live your life. Don’t give up on the things that make you happy. You’re not helping your loved one by being miserable yourself, and taking care of yourself is important, too.
- Get help. A caregiver support group can remind you that you’re not in a unique situation and that other people have experienced the same challenges that you’re facing. Seek out support when it feels like you can’t do it alone.
Caregiver guilt takes a foothold when you indulge in the fantasy that you can make everything perfect and good for your loved ones. Hoping for such an unrealistic outcome, however, is counterproductive. You can help your loved ones and yourself much more effectively when you acknowledge that you’re human and imperfect and that you can’t prevent the situation from being difficult sometimes. When you do that, you can spend more time focusing on the moments of joy and satisfaction that are still a big part of your life.
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