Blog post written by Mary Brintnall-Peterson, Ph.D., MBP Consulting, LLC, Professor Emeritus, University of Wisconsin-Extension
When I find myself in a caregiver role, due to my husband’s chronic medical condition, feelings of guilt are often with me. When I lash out at my husband or when I don’t react in a kind and loving way I feel guilty. When I go through my list of “what ifs”, “if onlys” and “should,” guilt surfaces. I learned in a caregiver class that guilt is natural for caregivers, but knowing that doesn’t take my guilt away! In fact, I think as caregivers, we have a tendency to feel guilty when anything goes wrong. It’s natural for us to feel responsible for what is happening to our loved one, even if we have no control over or responsibility for the situation.
The instructor of the caregiver class went on to explain that many times what I thought was guilt was really regret. Guilt involves saying or doing something that causes someone to be hurt or wronged. Guilt occurs when you have some responsibility or control over the situation. Regret is wishing that things or the situation could be different. It is a feeling of disappointment or distress when a situation is not the way you would like.
Here’s an example – a friend called me last week and said she was feeling guilty because John, her husband who was recovering from an infection in his amputated leg, fell while she was at the grocery store. I asked her if she had caused John to fall and she responded NO. Next, I asked her if going to the grocery store made John fall? She said, “of course not” – so my response to her was “why are you feeling guilty?” I explained that she was actually feeling regret about John falling and not guilt as she had nothing to do with his fall.
The class I took taught me that guilt can be a difficult and painful emotion and that too much can be harmful, therefore I need to correctly identify guilt. When I feel guilty I ask myself two questions:
- Is there a direct cause and effect relationship between what I did or failed to do and the resulting harm to someone?
- Did I do something wrong or say something I shouldn’t have said that resulted in someone being hurt?
If the answer to these questions is yes, then I explore ways to react to my guilt feelings by doing one or more of the following:
- Admitting responsibility for what I did or said.
- Apologizing and/or asking for forgiveness from the person I’ve hurt, harmed or wronged.
- Attempting to make the situation better.
- Talking with a friend who can help me come to terms with my feelings by being understanding and supportive.
- Identifying and understanding my responsibilities as a caregiver. I try to make sure I have realistic expectations of what I can and can’t do.
- Focusing on what I have done that is positive, good and right. By doing this, it helps me counter balance my feelings of guilt.
- Learning from my experience and trying not to make the same mistake again.
- Realizing I am human and make mistakes, especially when I am under a lot of stress.
- Seeking professional help if my guilt persists and consumes my thoughts.
I hope that what I’ve shared makes sense to you and is helpful as you figure out whether you’re feeling guilt or regret and how to deal with your guilt. The bottom line is that taking care of our guilt is one way, as caregivers, to take care of ourselves. You are not alone on your caregiver journey, so hang in there and remember you are doing the best you can!