Unload the Baggage of Unhealthy Guilt

If you are a family caregiver, you are an incredible person, in my estimation! Being a caregiver for a loved one diagnosed with dementia is at times emotionally and physically exhausting, especially as the disease progresses.  Your life doesn’t need any additional burden.

Unnecessary Baggage

Unnecessary Baggage

To be blunt – no caregiver can afford to carry around the baggage of  “caregiver guilt.” It is a toxic, consuming emotion that only drains and wastes one’s energy needed for other tasks. Let’s take a closer look at what it involves.

Guilt is a complicated emotion. Just to clarify from a psychological perspective, there is “good” healthy guilt and “bad” unhealthy guilt. Healthy guilt serves as an internal moral compass that alerts us that we have done something wrong, acting against our own values or convictions. When our guilt is healthy, we take responsibility for the choice we made. We are accountable for our action, and then try to do what we can to remedy the situation. Sometimes asking forgiveness will be necessary on our part.

Unhealthy guilt is an exaggerated sense that we have done something wrong. It serves to overwhelm and burden us. This tends to happen whenever we take care of our own needs and say “no” to someone else’s. Saying “no” has nothing to do with loving or not loving. It usually has to do with the reality of the situation. Unhealthy guilt also saddles us when we constantly berate ourselves for an imagined wrongdoing, apologizing excessively beyond what is necessary.

From time to time, we may feel resentful because the illness has changed our lifestyle. From time to time, we may become crabby, short-tempered, or frustrated. From time to time, we may have to make decisions or take a course of actions that are not agreeable to our loved one or other family members. From time to time, we may blame ourselves that we did something wrong when our loved one is angry with us. These are all feelings that surface in caregivers and can lead to unhealthy guilt.

I agonized when we had to make the decision to place Mom in an assisted living facility. I felt guilty that I wasn’t able to take care of her in my home, but had to place her in the hands of strangers. I later realized that Mom needed so much more care than I could have ever given her. I remained involved in her care, but also had the energy to devote to my husband, my job, and balance other commitments.

Alzheimer’s is a disease that NO ONE has control over. It runs its course. Changes in a loved one’s behavior are part of the disease progression. Your loved one will have good days and bad days. You, the caregiver, will have good days and bad days. A psychologist friend of mine calls caregiving for a loved one with Alzheimer’s a “bottomless pit at times. There is always more care that can be given.”

We need to face the fact that there is no such thing as a perfect caregiver. Trying to be one is a recipe for failure. If caregiving becomes your identity, “who you are” rather than “what you do,” it is likely that you will consider any mistake or deficiency a personal failure. Is your guilt benefiting your loved one? Is your guilt serving you in some way?

Here is an exercise to help you reflect on an issue or incident where you felt or still feel guilty:

Gently close your eyes and focus your awareness on your breathing. Hear your own voice whispering to you, “I am calm and relaxed. I am calm and relaxed.”

Bring into focus the incident that gives you a feeling of guilt. Visualize reliving that experience.

Return to the awareness of your breathing and the whisperings of your inner voice.

Identify all aspects of the incident for which you can take responsibility (e.g., blaming, making accusations without having the fact, escalating the problem, making insinuations, not listening, yelling or shouting, knowing better at the time, etc).

Identify all aspects for which you cannot take responsibility (e.g., the circumstances at the time, other people’s interventions, your physical condition such as illness or fatigue, the choice seemed right at the time, etc.)

Now visualize how this event would have evolved if you had not done what you did or had not made your specific contributions.

How would you have liked to present yourself ?

Return to the awareness of your breathing and the whisperings of your inner voice.

If you had the chance to live this experience over again, what would you do differently?

Now visualize and replay this incident having the insights and hindsight you have gained about yourself.

Can you do better the next time if a similar incident were to arise?

When you have made all the changes you have identified, return to the awareness of your breathing.

Notice the feelings and sensations in your body. Notice the sounds around you.

When you are ready, gently open your eyes, noticing where you are, and how you are feeling.

Jot down notes about what you have learned from this experience.

How will you integrate this in your daily life?

What has been the value of this experience for you?

If you continue to struggle with unresolved guilt that controls or torments you, please consider talking to a trained counselor. They may help you feel safe enough to talk about things that you consider too shameful to admit and rectify that have been buried inside, perhaps for a long time. The Alzheimer’s Association has a 24/7 helpline (1-800-272-3900) where you can speak to a professional about counseling services.

If caring for a loved one begins to feel overwhelming and too difficult to manage, it is time to consider bringing in home care help or placement in a licensed facility.

suitcases-pixabay1181806_640There is no magic solution we can take to overcome unhealthy guilt. For our mental well-being, each of us has to learn to cope, and find our own ways to discard unhealthy guilt. We have to stop berating ourselves, accept what’s done, make amends to fix or correct any damage, and decide to let it go. Do some psychological “spring cleaning.” Make that decision today to unload the baggage of unhealthy guilt. Your caregiving role will be that much lighter!

May you find peace, patience, and joy in your caregiving today and every day!

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I want to acknowledge my friend and mentor, Merle Stern, for composing the above reflection on guilt. Thank you for your support and encouragement.

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Peter Rabins, MD, MPh, is the Director of Geriatric Psychiatry and Neuropsychiatry at John Hopkins University School of Medicine. Here is a six-minute YouTube video where he discusses caregiver guilt. Click here: https://youtu.be/l5-s68-hngk.

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According to The Old Farmer’s Almanac, March 20 is the first day of spring here in the USA. Meteorologically speaking, the official spring season always begins in the Northern Hemisphere on March 1 and continues through May 31. I think there’s no better way to celebrate this season than by listening to Vivaldi’s “Spring, 1st Movement.” For your enjoyment, here’s a version mixed with a video of blooming spring flowers: https://youtu.be/znptyp4apW0.

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  1. says


    Very well done once more – good examples, practical considerations.
    The suggestion on hearing loss and the telephone was a good one. I’m getting there with some hearing loss – but hearing aids still helping…Good to keep in mind the special telephone…I’m glad it is working for Felix….

    Finally, some good news on the “book promotion” front. I have been in contact with Mary Bull the manager of a local religious bookstore – St. Mark Bookshop. She is interested and agreed to sell your book at the store. Although she wasn’t there yesterday, I dropped off your book for her to read and return to me in a couple weeks. She will return to the store this coming Wednesday. I suggest you give her a few days to acquaint herself with the book. Hence, I would recommend contacting her after Easter at stmarkbookshop.com or Facebook.com/stmarkbookshop. Tele. 937-439-0227. She is definitely interested and is expecting you to contact her in the near future. Let me know if you have questions or run into problems…..It is a Catholic religious bookstore in a good location – a south suburb of Dayton. Hopefully, there will be some buyers….

    Happy Easter!!!

    Fr. Tom
    Fr. Tom recently posted…Unload the Baggage of Unhealthy GuiltMy Profile

  2. Sarah Anderson says

    All that extra baggage does need to be removed. It’s super unhealthy to carry it all with you. Talking to some sort of therapist or counselor is a really good idea. If you are able to keep yourself mentally healthy, then you are going to be able to better provide for your family.

  3. says

    I’m glad that you mentioned the importance of seeing a trained counselor if you can’t manage to deal with the guilt yourself. Constantly giving of yourself can be exhausting, and taking some time to get the help you need isn’t selfish; it’s healthy. Seriously, caring until you can’t take it anymore isn’t going to do anyone any good, so talk to someone or do what you need to do to help yourself. Thanks for the article.

  4. says

    I’ve been to a few counselors and like anything in life I rated some more than others. My tip would be to find someone you feel really comfortable with, but at the same time someone who will challenge you. Also, remember you’re supposed to be working things through, so there’s no point hiding anything because you’re embarrassed or ashamed.

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