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Written by: Mary Brintnall-Peterson, Ph.D., MBP Consulting, LLC, Professor Emeritus, UW-Extension

As a professional, you hear over and over again caregivers expressing how guilty they feel about something that happened or didn’t happen. Their guilt is told in stories of being unkind, ugly or short -tempered with their care receiver. They wish they hadn’t reacted the way they did, had been kinder, more loving or hadn’t done what they did. Their guilt surfaced as “what ifs,” “if only” and “should.”

As someone who caregivers turn to for insights, you can help caregivers understand that guilt is natural.  It involves saying or doing something that causes someone to be hurt or wronged. Guilt occurs when they have some responsibility or control over the situation. It is a reactive emotion to something that happened in the past which violated the caregiver’s moral perspective. Guilt often bothers the caregiver for a long time and if not dealt with can cause sleepless nights, unhappiness and depression.

Sometimes what a caregiver describes isn’t guilt, but regret. 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 they would like.  Here’s an example—a caregiver shares they are feeling guilty because John, her husband (recovering from an infected amputated leg), fell while she was at the grocery store. Did she cause John to fall? Was it because she went to the grocery store that John fell? The answer to both questions is no—she is feeling regret about John falling (not guilt) as she is distressed about the fall and wishes it hadn’t happened.

Understanding Guilt

As you work with caregivers help them understand that guilt can be a painful emotion and too much can be destructive.  It’s critical for them to know whether they are feeling guilt or regret.

The following two questions are key in determining if someone is feeling guilt:

(1.) Is there a direct cause and affect relationship between what they did or didn’t do resulting in harm to the care receiver?

(2.) Did they do something wrong or say something they shouldn’t have said that resulted in the care receiver being hurt?

If the answer to these questions is yes, then they are experiencing guilt. So the next step is to find positive ways to react to their guilt.  Some suggestions include:

  • Admit responsibility for what they did or said.
  • Apologize and/or ask for forgiveness from the person they have hurt, harmed or wronged.
  • Attempt to make the situation better.
  • Talk with a friend who can help them come to terms with their feelings by being understanding and supportive.
  • Identify and understand their responsibilities as a caregiver. Make sure they have realistic expectations of what they can and can’t do.
  • Focus on what they have done that is positive, good and right. Doing this helps them counter balance their guilt feelings.
  • Learn from their experience and try not to make the same mistake again.
  • Realize they are human and make mistakes especially when under a lot of stress.
  • Seek professional help if their guilt persists and consumes their thoughts.

As a professional who works with caregivers be on the look-out for signs of caregivers dealing with guilt. Help them figure out whether they are feeling guilt or regret and how to deal with it.  The bottom line is help them understand that addressing their guilt is one way they care for themselves. Remind them they are not alone in their caregiver journey and to hang in there.