Are You Too Hard on Yourself as a Caregiver?

Check out these 8 tips—from a licensed clinical social worker—on how to overcome this common, self-defeating mindset.

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Posted in , Mar 18, 2021

A silouette of a woman looking up at a colorful sky; Getty Images

It isn’t easy to be an imperfect perfectionist. Despite your best-laid plans, dust can collect, dinner can come from a frozen box and your to-do list can lie woefully in wait. And despite all that you do juuuuust right, one of the people you love most in the world may have Alzheimer’s disease or another chronic condition that you just can’t make… go away.

By its very nature, perfectionism is a set-up for failure, and among caregivers, it’s an all-too-common mindset.

“I’ve had quite a few clients over the years who are caregivers and who I work with on a lot of caregiver burnout,” said Janice D. MacKenzie, a licensed independent clinical social worker for Catholic Charities New Hampshire’s Mental Health Counseling Services. “We talk a lot about what are the roots of their caregiving stress. So often, they’ll say things like, ‘I feel like I just have to do more, and from what I’m doing, I’m not seeing the positive outcomes with my loved ones. I must not be doing enough.’ They find themselves striving to do things perfectly.”

If only I could do enough, if only I could do things perfectly. If this sounds anything like your inner dialogue, you may be living under this form of self-sabotage. But there are ways to move through it. MacKenzie shared the following tips to help release you from the yoke of caregiver perfectionism:

1. Get to the bottom of it. “Self-education and awareness are number 1,” MacKenzie said. “It’s helpful to know why I am like this. Why am I so hard on myself, why do I always feel like I never do enough? Why can’t I just tell myself I’ve done my best and that’s good enough?” Perfectionism can be rooted in a number of factors—having a type A personality; competing in an area like sports; culture; birth order; or serious psychological stress that drives a need to feel in control. A caregiver may already have the perfectionism trait, but the demands of the job can also bring it about. Consider what may be behind your need to be perfect as a caregiver and try to develop an awareness of the pitfalls. “This mindset creates barriers for a healthier lifestyle,” MacKenzie said. “It just adds more anxiety and burdens to caregivers when they’re already very anxious and very burdened in everything that they have to do.”

2. Live in the moment. “For caregivers, oftentimes their mind is either in the future or in the past. They’re thinking about, ‘Oh my goodness, what am I going to do next, how do I take care of this problem? I’ve got to do this, I’ve got to do that. I can’t ask somebody to help me because they don’t know how to do it,’” MacKenzie said. “Or they’re worrying about the things that happened yesterday.” MacKenzie teaches her clients “grounding skills” as a way to move their minds out of the past and future and into the here and now. You don’t necessarily need counseling to do this, she said. Simply go online and search for mindfulness practices. “It helps to see and accept things as they are, to say, ‘Okay, I may not be able to control my thoughts or control what’s happening right now, but I can control how I react to it,’” she said. (Remember that there’s no shame in asking for help. Friends and family may be more than willing to pitch in on caregiving, or you may consider hiring an in-home care aide or healthcare worker who is trained to handle exactly the sorts of caregiving tasks you’ve been going alone.)

3. Take a nonjudgmental stance. “Perfectionists are hypercritical of themselves,” MacKenzie said. Stop chronically judging yourself. “You can put the facts on the table and say, ‘The situation is what it is. I may not like it, but I’m going to accept it because I’m doing the best that I can do.’” Replace your shoulds with coulds. “If you say, ‘I should be more productive today, I should have done this and that,’ you’re constantly telling yourself you’re not good enough.” Coulds allow you to take a non-judgmental stance. “You’re saying, ‘You know what? I made the choice that I made in the moment for this reason. I’m human.’”

4. Learn anxiety management skills. These fall into two categories: self-soothing skills and distraction skills. To self-soothe, draw on one or more of your five senses to help calm yourself. “Listen to music, take a hot bubble bath, use aromatherapy oils,” MacKenzie said.” It’s engaging your senses, helping your neurological system to actually relax.” To distract yourself, focus on a good book or film, take a walk, cook if you enjoy it—anything that helps take your mind off the situation that feels out of control.

5. Address harmful self-sabotaging thoughts. “This is a biggie that I help folks with—harmful self-sabotaging thoughts that actually feed a perfectionistic mindset,” she said. “Common ones might be, ‘I’m not doing enough’ or, ‘What I’m doing as a caregiver doesn’t matter. I’m doing everything I can and my mom is getting worse. Challenge these thoughts. Say, ‘You know what? I love this person. I’m doing everything that I can, but the fact is that they have a debilitating medical condition— something that’s out of my control.’”

6. Be realistic. Set healthy, realistic expectations for yourself and for others. “Are you asking for help as needed? Are you accepting that you’re human? You have an incredible sense of freedom when you allow yourself to be imperfect and to be human,” MacKenzie said. “That can be really powerful.”

7. Practice your spirituality. “Being too hard on yourself can be like a ball and chain,” she said. “Sit down and say, ‘God, I give this to you. Take this from me. I’m doing the best I can do.’ It helps to let go of the need to control.” Say the serenity prayer.

8. Find your power. “People with a perfectionistic mindset experience significant feelings of powerlessness—especially caregivers,” MacKenzie said. Things aren’t working as planned, you’re underappreciated, you’re ineffective. But striving to be perfect can actually make you feel more out of control, and lead to what she calls a spiral of powerlessness. After accepting that you’ve done all you can to the best of your ability, shift your focus to what you can change and master. One of MacKenzie’s caregiver clients, for example, turns to her two favorite activities when this happens. “When she starts to feel like, oh, this situation is so hard, she says, ‘Okay, I’ve got to find my power here. I’m going to call the doctor’s office, I’m going to get some more help ...’ And then she goes into another room and plays video games for a while because it’s just fun, or she sits down and knits. She’s knitting a blanket for her daughter. It shifts her over and gets her mind out of that place. She’s at least able to accept and let it go and focus on something that she can control.”

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