How irrational guilt is dictating your decisions

The majority of caregivers fall into caregiving by circumstance, not by preference. Does anyone really want to change adult diapers? Perhaps you are the only child to aging parents or your schedule means that you are the only one available to look after grandpa. Perhaps you were offered as tribute by your family system?

However you came to be in your position is irrelevant. You are in it, we are here, and this is what you do now. But it does not mean you have to love every moment. And it does not mean you are a horrible/selfish/bad/ etc. person because you don’t wake up feeling overcome with joy looking at your task list for the day. More so, feeling guilty because you’re under stimulated by the day to day tasks of medication management, meal prep, and baths is more the norm, in the caregiving universe, then a unique experience. So why the guilt? And a better question, is this guilt dictating the decisions you make?

Research is very clear, guilt is one of the most prevalent emotions experienced by caregivers and it is often irrational. Feelings of guilt are associated with symptoms of depression, anxiety, and a decrease in self-care (Losada, Gonzalez, and Romero 2010). Guilt is defined as a feeling of deserving blame for offenses, real or imagined, and often stems from feelings of inadequacy. Because of this, guilt tends to affect our decision making abilities differently than other emotions. In regards to caregiving, allowing guilt to dictate important decisions affects not only you but also the person receiving care. Let us explore how.

You are a caregiver because you feel guilty.

Why you chose to stay on this journey is important. Some of us are in this for the long haul (I am on my 10th year). Think about your quality of life 10 years from now. What does it look like? Caregiving duties often progress and increase as time passes and guilt will keep us in circumstances longer than what is healthy for us or the person we care for. Research estimates that 1 and 10 elders have experienced elder abuse by their inner circle. Abusers are not, statistically speaking, horrible mean people, but people suffering from their own mental health issues like depression, addiction, and anxiety. Things we are all susceptible to, if we are not mindful. 

What is this job for you? Is this making you a better person? Are you more compassionate and empathetic as a result? Are you able to spend more time with this person you are caring for? Doing this job out of obligation will not keep you in the game long term. If you are doing this solely out of guilt, then perhaps you need to re-evaluate your options.

You think you have no options.

You might not have fallen into your caregiving role by choice, but you do have the responsibility to determine if it is the right choice to stay in this role. Your choices may be limited, your choices may be difficult, your choices may be deemed “selfish,” by onlookers, your choices may be between two crappy options. But you do have a choice. You are not trapped. You are not a victim of circumstance. Understanding that you are making a conscience decision to do this job impacts your ability to provide care, compassion and empathy, especially during the hard times. Staying in a caregiving relationship because you feel like you have no other options breeds’ anger, resentment, and can result in compassion fatigue or burnout. Being cared for by someone who views and treats you like a burden can’t feel good. What kind of life would that be for the both of you?

You think you’re an Avenger

You cannot be everything to everyone and guilt has a way of telling you that you can be and you must be.

A consequence of irrational guilt is the idea that you can be all things to everyone all the time. That’s the thought process straight to burnout and it is dangerous thinking. You cannot be everything to everyone and guilt has a way of telling you that you can be and you must be. Even Captain America was a disappointment to someone.  

Caregiver expectations can be unreal. You’re expected to be a secretary, a financial analyst, a driver, a personal chef, a pharmacist and also carry on with your regular life duties like being employed, being a student, being a parent or being a spouse. You are only capable of so much, and when you become realistic about what is expected of you and what you can realistically do, everyone is better. Get help with that laundry or transportation to the doctors. Get help with that meal prep. Ask for what you need and accept the help you are offered.

You can’t or won’t consider yourself?

A well rounded satisfying life gives you fuel to do your job well.

You’re mental, physical and financial health will impact your ability to successfully take care of someone else. Of course there are a million reasons why it will be hard for you to engage in self-care activities, have a social life, have a career, and have successful relationships, but these things are vital if you seek to thrive as an individual and caregiver. Emerging research indicates that the amount of time a caregiver spends on leisure activities has a direct correlation with a reduction of depressive symptoms. Think of your life as a cheeseburger combo meal. What makes the meal satisfying is not just cheese, meat and bun, but condiments, fries and an Oreo milkshake. A well rounded satisfying life gives you fuel to do your job well.

Irrational guilt tells you not to spend time on yourself. Not to go out with friends. Not to work for that promotion. It tells you that you will have “your time” when your caregiving job is over. It tells you not to consider yourself because you are less. There is a reason they say “put your oxygen mask on first.”

The Take Away

Irrational guilt can keep us in cycles of addiction, depression, anxiety and a host of other physical and mental health issues. Guilt is a natural emotion that develops from your own personal values and beliefs. You may feel guilty hanging out with a friend, taking a walk, or working a little over time (if you can). The idea is to do these acts of self-care IN SPITE OF guilty feelings, be realistic about your expectations, recognize that you do have a choice, and choose what kind of caregiver you can realistically be.

Losada, A., Marquez-Gonzalez, M. and Romero-Moreno, R. (2010). Development and Validation of the Caregiver Guilt Questionnaire. International Psychogeriatrics, 22, 650-660.

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