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3 Common Causes of Caregiver Guilt, and How to Manage Them

By Michelle Palmer | 04/15/2021

A grandfather going on a walk together with his son and grandson

The concept of “caregiver guilt” is an odd one. Providing care for a loved one with a long-term health condition is a wonderful, selfless act, and caregivers undoubtedly devote considerable time and energy to provide the physical, mental and emotional support their loved one requires. And yet, the majority of caregivers report that they frequently experience feelings of guilt.

Experts explain that guilt plagues us when we feel inadequate in some way. Even when we’re doing the best we can, we all have limitations that can make us sometimes feel as though we’re not doing everything we can or should do on behalf of those we care for. 

We may also feel guilty for the time and attention caregiving takes away from our families, for the focus it often takes away from our jobs, and even for the lack of attention we’re able to provide to ourselves. This may lead to thinking negative thoughts or having feelings of resentment toward our loved ones, and feeling angry, bored, stressed or depressed about our daily duties.

Ignoring Our Guilt Makes it Worse 

There’s an emotional side of caregiving that brings forth negative thoughts and feelings of inadequacies in all of us, so feeling some level of guilt may be inevitable. 

But guilt is one of the more crippling emotions we can encounter. According to Psychology Today, unresolved guilt can have debilitating effects on our lives, such as

  • Making us reluctant to enjoy life.
  • Causing us to self-punish.
  • Making us avoid the person we feel we’ve wronged.

It’s important not to let guilt get the better of us. By acknowledging these feelings and understanding their cause and meeting them head on, we can begin to minimize their effect on our physical and emotional health. 

Understanding our guilt “triggers”

While everyone’s individual situation is different, there are some commonalities in the emotions associated with caring for a loved one that can spark negativity. Here are three common triggers of caregiver guilt, and how we can help to reduce the effects of these feelings. 

Trigger #1: Because we can’t do everything, we have to make choices – and often there is no “right” choice

Caregivers are accustomed to feeling stretched paper thin and recognize that time is a precious commodity. About 60 percent of caregivers are employed at part- or full-time jobs, and “sandwich generation” caregivers also have children to care for as well as their loved one. Since we can’t do everything at once, choices must be made. And that’s where the guilt comes in.  

Should we stay and keep a loved one company, or help our children with their homework? Should we prepare for a meeting at work tomorrow, or wash the dishes that are piling up in the sink? 

The problem here is that even though both choices are good – we feel guilty about the one we didn’t choose. 

Solution:  Enlisting the help of other family members or friends may sound obvious, but many caregivers are so embedded in the “get it done” zone they don’t consider soliciting outside help. 

“Women in the ‘sandwich generation’ tend to be professional jugglers,” says Rachel Cannady, a scientist with the American Cancer Society Behavioral Research Center citing an eight-year study of cancer caregivers. “Guilt typically goes hand-in-hand with being overwhelmed. In order to restore a sense of meaning about the caregiving experience, it is extremely important for caregivers to prioritize their own emotional and physical needs, so they are better able to provide quality care to the survivor.”  

We can try making a list of the activities that consume our time each week and consider which could be accomplished just as effectively by someone else. We may be surprised at what you come up with. We might also consider making a list of possible substitutes for those activities – a relative, friend, neighbor, or even a paid service. 

Trigger #2: When we sometimes think “bad” thoughts 

It is common for caregivers to at some point feel resentment toward the loved one they’re caring for. Resentment could come from issues in the past, or it may come from not being able to do the things that providing care keeps us from doing. We may sometimes feel angry about it, and that frustration results in emotional outbursts where we find ourselves being short-tempered or irritable with a loved one. 

Solution: We should understand that it’s completely natural to feel this way from time to time. It’s normal to wish we could be doing something more personal or more enjoyable, or to resent having to complete some of the tedious tasks associated with our role. 

We should acknowledge our feelings. This allows us to explore methods of dealing with them. 
Equally important, we shouldn’t neglect our own health or emotional issues. When we’re run down, tired, stressed or physically drained, our feelings of resentment and anger can multiply. Allowing ourselves to take a nap or take a yoga class – whatever makes us feel stronger and more centered – may actually help reduce our angry and resentful thoughts. 

Trigger #3: Trying to keep up with all we “should” do 

We all want to do our best but, unfortunately, we’re not perfect. Many of us second-guess what we should have done and stress over what more we should be doing.
And the problem with that? The word “should.”  

Some therapists believe that, to be emotionally healthy, we should strike the word “should” from our vocabulary. It haunts most of us in our daily lives -- and busy caregivers in particular.

Solution: We can start by changing our thought patterns. Instead of thinking about all the things we should be doing, we can think of what we want for a loved one. Instead of feeling bad because we “should” take a loved one shopping each week, we can think about what we really want – which is for a loved one to have nutritious meals and a supply of groceries in their house. 

There are many options to achieve this goal. Perhaps a family member or neighbor could pick up groceries, or we could pick them up when we shop for ourselves. By focusing on what we really want to accomplish, we can find solutions that better accommodate everyone’s needs.

Feelings of guilt are inevitable from time to time, but the key is to manage them effectively. If we feel like we cannot deal with them alone, we can remind ourselves that there’s no shame in turning to others for support, whether it be family, friends, support groups or professional care consultants through services like Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging’s WeCare…because you do. By recognizing these feelings for what they are and dealing with them openly, we’ll be in a much better position to keep them from causing distress in our already-busy life. 

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