People who provide care for individuals who are stroke survivors, have Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other long-term progressive and degenerative diseases often experience feelings of guilt that are not appropriate to the situation. Many caregivers have unrealistic expectations of themselves. They want to do the right thing. They always try to put their care receiver’s needs before their own, and then they berate themselves when they’re not as loving, patient, and kind as they think they should be.
If you intentionally inflict physical or emotional pain on another person, you should feel guilty. That’s an appropriate emotional response. But if you are caring for someone who is aging, disabled, or living with a progressive and degenerative disease such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, you may be experiencing feelings of guilt that are not appropriate to the situation.
Sometimes caregiver guilt is self-inflicted. Sometimes it is imposed upon caregivers by other people. Regardless of the source, it is important to remember guilt can be a cruel and controlling emotion that often leads to feelings of anger, resentment, and depression.
Why Do We Feel Guilty When We Haven’t Done Anything Wrong?
It is puzzling how people who are giving so much time and effort to care for someone who is aging, chronically ill, or living with a cognitive disorder are so often willing to ignore their own physical, mental, and emotional needs, and still experience crippling feelings of guilt. If this sounds familiar, maybe it’s time to consider that guilt may not be an appropriate emotional response.
Without over-thinking your answers, take this quick self-assessment test to get a measure of your feelings of guilt:
Yes ___ No ___ I feel guilty because I sometimes lose my temper with my care receiver.
Yes ___ No ___ I feel guilty because I don’t have enough time or energy to take care of everyone who needs my help and attention.
Yes ___ No ___ I feel guilty because my care receiver is so unhappy and I can’t make things better for him/her.
Yes ___ No ___I feel guilty because I resent the amount of money his/her care costs.
Yes ___ No ___ I feel guilty because I don’t enjoy spending time with my care receiver.
Yes ___ No ___ I feel guilty because our relationship has changed.
Yes ___ No ___ I feel guilty because I promised I would never put him/her in a facility, and now I think there may come a time when I won’t have a choice.
Yes ___ No ___ I feel guilty because there are days I wish he/she would just die and get it over with.
If you checked “Yes” to three or more of the statements, I’d like for you to consider the possibility that you are either guilt-tripping yourself, or you are being manipulated and/or controlled by a “Guilt-Tripper” who knows how to get what he or she wants by making you feel guilty.
How Do You Recognize a Guilt Tripper?
A guilt-tripper is someone who is very skilled at making you feel like you are responsible for his/her happiness and well being. If you don’t do what they want you to do, they will not be shy about telling you how you have let them down. Their tools, just to name a few, include anger, disapproval, criticism, shaming, and sadness. If they can make you feel bad about yourself, their chances of getting you to do what they want increases exponentially.
You will never be able to give enough, do enough, or be enough to please a guilt-tripper. They will always demand more, and they will not change.
So if you want to stop feeling guilty when you haven’t done anything wrong, you will have to be the one who changes.
You may be wondering why you need to change if someone else is using anger and guilt to manipulate you. Shouldn’t they change? Of course they should––but they won’t. They will never say, “You need to take care of yourself.” Or, “Let’s figure out how you can get a little more time to yourself.”
Three Steps to Overcoming Feelings of Guilt
- Identify your Guilt-Trippers. Is your guilt internal or external? In other words, are you guilt-tripping yourself, or do you allow other people to use anger and guilt to manipulate you into doing what they want? Once you know who your guilt-trippers are, you can start to change how you respond to guilt and how you feel about yourself.
- Get in your own shoes and stay in them. This is a practice of managing your own feelings and allowing other people to manage theirs. It requires you to release your need to make everything okay for someone else. It may feel unnatural at first, but with practice, it becomes incredibly freeing.
- Change Your Emotional Vocabulary. Unless you intentionally inflict physical or emotional pain on another person, I’d like for you to consider adjusting your emotional vocabulary and changing the word “Guilt” to “Regret.”
The dictionary defines guilt as a sense of having done something wrong or having failed in an obligation. When you internalize this emotion, you feel ashamed. You beat yourself up for being selfish, and you feel like you are a bad person.
“Regret” is a sense of sadness or wishing that things could be different. It doesn’t imply a personal failure.
The next time you feel guilty about something, start your self-talk sentence with this set of words, “I regret . . .” You might be amazed at how that small change of perspective can make a huge difference in your emotional wellbeing.
(The videos in the guilt module of the CaregiverHelp Support Group Program help caregivers change their emotional vocabulary, stand in their own shoes and stop feeling guilty when they haven’t done anything wrong.)