Two psychotherapists offer suggestions to honor the year you’ve had and move forward with fresh resolve.
Posted in , Nov 19, 2021
As the year closes, offer a toast to yourself. You are a caregiver and you’ve come through 2021. Think of all you have done for your loved one. Do you recognize the enormous contributions you’ve made? Do you look back with any sense of regret? At this time of resolution setting, you may wonder how best to move beyond this year and into the next. To help guide you, two mental health professionals have offered suggestions on how best to serve both your loved one and yourself as you take on 2022:
Sharon Givens, psychotherapist in Columbia, SC, and founder of Visions Counseling and Career Center:
Reach out for support Develop a clear plan of how to take care of yourself—physically and mentally. Caregivers get so immersed in taking care of the person that they don’t take care of themselves. Caregivers should have a strong circle of support. That can include professional support, connecting with support groups or actually getting therapy. Also make sure that you’re keeping up with your own doctors’ appointments and working out because if your body and mind are not capable, then you’re not able to take care of that person. Any support that you can get to alleviate particularly day-to-day duties is always helpful. People are not always in the financial situation to get professional help but if that’s available to you, then absolutely do it. There are lots of services available that may have not been years ago, that have really good screening programs where you can find good people, in addition to family and friends.
Take respite Get away for a couple of days to separate yourself from the environment and all the emotions that are within that environment, at least every six weeks or so. Take at least a couple of days to have some degree of separation from the situation and to process and explore your own feelings in terms of what’s happening. That can vary when you’re a caregiver—is it short-term or long-term? Is this somebody who has cancer, is it someone who has dementia? The details can play a major role. It can be either taking a vacation or a staycation. Stay somewhere for a few days and just do nothing. Or if you want to take a mini-vacation and get out of town, a weekend getaway is always good. You tend to be more refreshed when you return.
Practice stress management Participate in mindfulness activities or meditating. One stress management technique that I think is really helpful is journaling. You can use that opportunity to express your feelings, but also to capture the journey of what’s happening during this process.
Get help to process your feelings Be conscious that your behaviors and actions are not ones that will lead to regrets, particularly if the person’s in a terminal situation. Everyone can benefit from therapy but I always suggest that caregivers get therapy. Individual therapy can help with your own unique needs. Grief and loss tend to be a major component in many cases for caregivers because typically we’re taking care of a person who once took care of us. So, there’s a sense of loss there because the roles have changed and the person is no longer the person they were years ago, in some capacity—whether it’s physical or mental. Support groups are also very helpful because you recognize that you’re all going through the same thing, and I think that can be very validating as a caregiver.
Give yourself some grace We all make mistakes. There’s no perfect situation. But look at all the things that you’re doing well. Let’s take a look at what’s working in this situation. It’s no different from whether it’s a job or anything else that you’re embarking upon—you’re going to make a mistake and you move on in terms of, is it something you can fix? Many of the things caregivers kind of ruminate about are things that they can’t change. That’s the biggest thing. If it’s something you can change, change it. If it’s something that you can’t, then you have to move forward from that.
Sharon Martin, psychotherapist in San Jose, and author of The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism:
Avoid self-criticism Caregivers give so much to others, but they’re often very hard on themselves. They hold themselves to unrealistic standards—to be perfect caregivers—and then end up criticizing themselves when they can’t do it all or do it the way they want. But self-criticism is rarely warranted and it adds more stress to an already stressful situation.
Forgive yourself If we can be more self-compassionate and accept our imperfections, we’ll be able to stay physically and emotionally healthier. We can start to do this by forgiving ourselves when we’re less than perfect. For example, you might say to yourself, “I forgive myself for losing my temper with Mom. Taking care of her is really hard and sometimes I’m going to make mistakes. That doesn’t mean I’m a bad daughter.” When we do this, we acknowledge our struggles, that everyone makes mistakes, and that we still have value even though we’re not perfect.
Look at what you’re doing right Another way to combat self-criticism and caregiver burnout is to intentionally notice what you’re doing right. Mistakes tend to stand out in our memories, making them seem bigger and more frequent than they really are. But caregivers do dozens of caring things every day that no one acknowledges. They focus on what they’ve done wrong and discount their hard work and effort. This isn’t fair or motivating!
Take stock of your hard work At the end of the day, I encourage caregivers to jot down a few things that they put effort into. This isn’t a list of things they did perfectly or that went perfectly. It’s a list of things they put effort into. It’s not fair to judge yourself by outcomes (e.g., if Mom ate all her dinner) because you can’t control that. But you’ll probably feel better if you recognize and appreciate the hard work and effort you put into your loved one’s care – and remember that even good caregivers are imperfect.