3 Common Guilt “Triggers” That Caregivers Face

When you understand and acknowledge this crippling emotion, you can begin to move on from it.

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Posted in , Feb 17, 2021

An adult son with his aging parent; Getty Images

Michelle Palmer is the Center for Research and Education’s Sales and Marketing Associate at Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging

Of all the feelings you experience as a caregiver, guilt may be one of the most misplaced. Selflessness goes hand-in-hand with this journey. Caring for a loved one who has a long-term health condition draws on the very best parts of yourself. You pour countless hours and untold stamina into giving this person all that you can—on a physical, mental and emotional level. So, why is it that you often feel you’re not doing enough or that you’re not doing things as well as you “should” be?

You’re not alone by a long shot. The majority of caregivers report that they often have feelings of guilt. According to experts, guilt creeps up when we feel inadequate somehow. All humans have limitations. As a result, we can tell ourselves we’re falling short as caregivers even when we’re doing the best we possibly can for our loved ones.

Guilt may rear its ugly head when you feel that caregiving duties have robbed you of time with other family members, distracted you from your job or allowed you to neglect your own self-care. In turn, you may spiral into negative thinking and even begin to resent the loved one you care so deeply about. You may feel overly stressed or depressed and begin to approach your regular tasks under a dark cloud of anger or boredom. So what can you do about this?

Meet Your Guilt Head-on
Guilt is common on this journey because the emotional side of caregiving can easily induce negative thinking and feelings of inadequacy in anyone. Yet guilt is among the most crippling emotions we can experience. According to Psychology Today, unresolved guilt can have debilitating effects on you, leading to:

  • Reluctance to enjoy life
  • Self-punishing behaviors
  • Avoidance of the person you feel you’ve wronged

Because of the toll it can take, it’s important not to ignore your feelings of guilt. When you acknowledge them and understand their cause and meet them head-on, you can begin to minimize their impact on your physical and emotional well-being.

Recognize your guilt “triggers”
Even though each person’s circumstances are unique, certain common emotional threads associated with caregiving can spark negative thinking. Following are three common triggers of caregiver guilt, and strategies to keep them from getting the better of you:

Trigger #1: You can’t do it all, so you have to make the “right” choices
As a caregiver, you’re being pushed and pulled from all sides, and there are only so many hours in the day. About 60 percent of caregivers work in part- or full-time jobs, and “sandwich generation” caregivers also have families and children to care for in addition to their loved one. Because it’s impossible to do it all at once, you have to make choices, and these can lead to guilt.  

Should you go through photo albums with your loved one or help your daughter with her school assignment? Get the jump on an important work report or clean the kitchen and fold the mounting piles of laundry?

The challenge is that although any of these choices would be good – you feel guilty about those you didn’t make.

Problem solved:  Reaching out to other family members or friends may seem like a no-brainer, but many caregivers are so caught up in the belief they have to do it all that it doesn’t occur to them to ask for a hand.

“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.” 

Consider writing down all the tasks that you handle every week and pick those you think could be taken over just as effectively by another person. You might just surprise yourself. Make another list of possible recruits for those tasks – a family member, friend, neighbor or even a professional organization.

Trigger #2: Some of your thinking is “bad”
It is not unusual for caregivers to sometimes resent the loved one in their care. If you feel this way, it may be due to issues in the past, or it may stem from being unable to take part in activities that matter to you because of your caregiving duties. This can lead to anger and frustration, and result in lashing out at your loved one because you’re on a short fuse.

Problem solved: Understand that it’s completely normal to have these emotions once in a while. It’s okay to wish you could focus on your own errands or simply have some fun, or to resent having to finish some of the tedious chores you’re responsible for. Acknowledge these emotions. Doing so will enable you to explore strategies to work through them. Make sure you don’t ignore your own health or emotional issues. When you’re run down, tired, stressed or physically drained, your feelings of resentment and anger can mount. Giving yourself permission to take a nap, do some quiet yoga stretches or walk in the park – anything that brings you back to your center – might actually help decrease your feelings of anger and resentment.

Trigger #3: You’re trying to do all that you “should”  
Even the best caregiver isn’t perfect. Although you’re doing your utmost, you may worry about things you should have done or more that you should do. What’s wrong with this picture? The word “should.” Some therapists believe that, to be emotionally healthy, we should ban the word “should” from our vocabulary. It plagues most of us from day to day -- especially hard-working caregivers.

Problem solved: Change your thought patterns. Rather than obsessing over everything you should be doing, shift your thoughts to what you want for your loved one. Rather than beating yourself up because you “should” take your loved one to the grocery store every week, ask yourself what you truly want, which is for your loved one to have healthy meals and a good stock of food in the kitchen.

You can accomplish this in a variety of ways. Maybe a family member or neighbor could go to the store for you, or you could buy the necessary items when you do your own grocery shopping. When you shift your thinking to what you truly want to achieve, you can find solutions that work better for everybody.

It’s inevitable that as a caregiver you will occasionally experience feelings of guilt, but the important thing is to manage them effectively. If you feel like you cannot handle your emotions on your own, know that that there’s no shame in turning to others for help, whether it be family, friends, support groups or professional care consultants through services like Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging’s WeCare…because you do. When you acknowledge and understand your emotions, you’ll be much better able to keep them from overwhelming you on your caregiving journey.

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