Caregiving and Its Rollercoaster Ride of Emotions

Once you acknowledge and accept your feelings, you can learn to channel them in positive ways.

Posted in , Mar 16, 2021

A mother and daughter talking on the couch; Getty Images

Lisa S. Weitzman, LISW-S, is the WeCare Manager of Business Development at Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging

Whether you’re on the giving or the receiving end, the caregiving experience is a part of life. For each person, however, the path is unique and dependent on particular circumstances. You may choose to become a caregiver as part of a very natural progression when a beloved parent or partner needs you to step in and help. Or you may be called out of a sense of duty to a family member. Maybe you’ve become a caregiver because no one else can handle the needs of your loved one. You may have specific professional training that this person needs.

Although circumstances, expectations and responsibilities vary, we are each touched by caregiving at some point. Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter remarked, “There are four kinds of people: those who have been caregivers; those who are currently caregivers; those who will be caregivers; and those who will need caregivers.”

Unique as your caregiving journey may be, the following points likely ring true for you:

  • You face ever-shifting responsibilities, and you are frequently required to handle needs far outside your comfort zone.
  • You are often physically and emotionally exhausted.
  • The road ahead is unknown and or you’re not sure what to expect along the way.
  • The role brings up a range of emotions—feelings that are often considered taboo—and it can be uncomfortable to acknowledge them.

These emotions that accompany caregiving can range from ambivalence and resentment to anxiety, grief, loneliness, fear and even joy—often within the same day. You may be conditioned to believe, as one family caregiver expressed, that you “must always smile and never complain…It feels that if you complain, you’re inadequate or wanting to give up, which is never the case at all.” (Cori Carl, What do you wish other people understood about caregiving? The Caregiver Space, 10/8/2017) What’s important to know is that these feelings are normal and healthy, and they need to be identified, acknowledged and channeled. Let’s flesh out a few of them:

1. Ambivalence
Caring for your loved one can at times leave you with the sense that you’re blessed. This journey has given you a special opportunity to go through an intimate experience together and to spend more quality time with one another. It can feel like an honor. It can also feel at times like an overwhelming challenge. This sort of ambivalence is an indication that you recognize the reality of your situation and is your mind’s way of acknowledging all of the conflicting emotions you are trying to process.

2. Anger
It’s normal to also grapple with anger. This emotion can be frightening. Consider why that may be. A primary reason is that it can feel shameful. You tell yourself that you should have more self-control. Anger can also leave you feeling selfish. You think that your loved one’s needs, rather than your own, should always come first. Anger can also be frightening because it feels dangerous. You’re convinced that in order to be a good caregiver, you should always avoid conflict. It’s important not to let shoulds block you from acknowledging and processing emotions such as frustration, resentment, sadness and worry. For caregivers, these are all natural responses. As the philosopher David Whyte once wrote, “We’re angry because we love, because we’ve lost something precious…and we are left to pick up the pieces and rebuild.”

3. Guilt
Guilt is another common emotional byproduct of caregiving. It arises from the jury in your head that tells you that, regardless of how much you do, it will never be adequate. It accuses you of imagined or wholly unavoidable crimes of character. As a caregiver, you likely struggle to meet the expectations of your family, your culture, and your faith – and then serve as your own harshest critic. In truth, though, caregiving requires you to make difficult decisions on an on-going basis. Decisions such as these are easy to second-guess, leaving you with doubt, internal conflict and regret.

4. Grief and Loss
Grief is commonly associated with the loss of someone – so it can feel strange to mourn a person who is still alive. Yet, a loved one’s chronic illness does actually come with its share of loss. You may feel a loss of control over your own life. You may feel that the partner or parent you knew is gone. Perhaps you have lost your independence, or perhaps you grieve the loss of your plans for the future. While you haven’t physically lost your loved one, these feelings of loss are real. Mourning a person who is still alive can be even more painful in the sense that people around you may not recognize your grief. This can leave you feeling isolated, which then breeds anger, which leads to guilt, and the negative cycle perpetuates itself.

Challenging as these emotions may be, it can help to channel them in the following ways:

Learn to acknowledge and identify these emotions to create personal boundaries. Feelings such as these can motivate you to say “No,” even when you are conditioned to say “Yes.”

Use your feelings as a springboard to become a better advocate for your loved one when it comes to medical providers, social service agencies and policymakers.

Understand that these feelings may be warning signs that you are ignoring your own self-care.

There are other immediate steps you can take to better handle the emotional rollercoaster ride of caregiving:

Be realistic: Put your attention on what you CAN do.

Be practical: Make a list of small, achievable goals.

Create a care team and accept a hand: Explore community resources, friends, and family.

Trust your feelings: They are valid and serve as good signposts.

Forgive yourself: Remember that you’re human.

Don’t forget the importance of self-care.

Access programs like WeCare…Because You Do, which offer support and resources for family caregivers and their loved ones.

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