THE BLOG
11/25/2012 10:09 am ET Updated Jan 25, 2013

Getting the Best of Guilt

I have been a family caregiver for 10 years. And if there is one emotion that I have experienced throughout this time, it is guilt. And it's one complex emotion.

First, there is both "healthy" and "unhealthy" guilt. Healthy guilt is an emotion that can be very constructive and help shape us as people, especially if our actions have crossed acceptable lines and we learned from our mistakes. Anyone who's upset a friend with an unkind word can attest to that. Unhealthy guilt, on the other hand, is the feeling that arises when you really didn't do anything wrong, but still felt badly about your actions. Now, if you've ever missed your child's ball game because you're out of town on business, you know the feeling.

But, as a family caregiver, it can be especially difficult to "feel" the difference between healthy and unhealthy guilt as you try to balance caregiving with family, friends, work and more. After all, you're being pulled in different directions. It's hard to know where to focus.

In fact, when I first became a family caregiver, I got lost in a guilt maze as I struggled with my "unhealthy" guilt. Not so unusually, it began with the feeling that I just wasn't doing a good enough job of being a caregiver. This lead to guilt, and subsequently frustration and impatience. It affected the way I dealt with people. And, as you can imagine, it all just made me feel guiltier.

I would get short with my mom when she complained about little things, like me being 15 minutes late after having driven for an hour to get there. Guilty!

I'd come home from Mom's and not give my family needed attention, even if it was just helping to plan an upcoming holiday vacation. Guilty!

I became sarcastic with family members because I was frustrated I no longer had any time for myself, another pair of Yankees tickets given away. Guilty!

I left work early and was not available to help colleagues prepare for tomorrow's presentation to an important client. Guilty!

I gave a "terse" response to the doctor's receptionist because we were waiting for over an hour and I was going to be late for a meeting. Guilty!

Over these years, I've tried to better understand this vicious cycle -- not only in regards to my life but in the lives of millions of other family caregivers. I read books. I attended lectures. I've spoken with experts and have had ongoing discussions with hundreds of fellow caregivers. My conclusion? In part, this unhealthy guilt came from the "stories" that we create involving how we should act and feel.

Let me explain. From the time we are children, we come up with stories about what is going on in our lives. For instance, being raised in the 1950s, as far back as I could remember my parents harped about the importance of doing well in school. That was the path to the "American dream." So, although I was good in sports, played music, was active in student government and had really good friends, I believed that everything other than grades was secondary and to gain my parents approval it was grades, grades and grades! This was my perception. Eventually, I thought to prove my own worth, my own "smarts," I had to get them. Was this fair? Well, of course not. But at the time, it was irrelevant because it's what I absolutely believed.

Creating stories like this aren't that unusual, are they? We make them for a lot of things. They help shape our beliefs. They form our personal values. They act as guides. But who ever said these stories were correct? Most have remained unchallenged, thus setting parameters -- right or wrong -- for the way we judge ourselves.

Similarly, when I became a family caregiver, I based my story on having to do everything right. To me, that meant physically being there 100 percent for my mom. On call, 24/7. No excuses! I created my good family caregiver story immediately after being surprised to find out that I just became a family caregiver. At the time, I was not prepared for the tasks and emotions that being a family caregiver entailed. Like many family caregivers, I just jumped in with both feet.

My story was in part created from my childhood experience. If my bother, sister or I were ill, my parents were always with us. There was never a question of their priorities. My mom, a full-time homemaker, was there for us 24/7, no questions asked! Now that the roles were turned, I quickly used the same model to connote caring... always being there, regardless of the circumstances.

As you can guess, this particular story was nearly impossible to follow. It certainly was a work of fiction if I was to have any semblance of a life outside of being a caregiver. In retrospect, it set me up for failure from the get-go. It lead to disappointment, frustration, unhappiness and, yes, guilt. Very unhealthy guilt!

Needless to say, it was time to turn the page on this scenario. I needed a new story for everyone's sake. It had to be one that wasn't so contingent on my physical availability.

After a time of running myself into the ground, being a bit of a pain in the neck to those closest to me and just being plain unhappy, I needed to create a story that used my reality as a foundation. So I took inventory of my situation and concluded that:

  • Being a family caregiver was a top priority in my life
  • My family needed my focused attention
  • Family and friends can help me with responsibilities
  • My mom needed to be included in all caregiving discussions
  • I needed to balance caregiving, work, family and personal time
  • My health was my primary responsibility

For the development of my new story, I realized I wouldn't have to create it in a vacuum. I wouldn't have to make endless assumptions, mull over every scenario and think for everyone else. I could actually ask for input from those who I love and whose opinions I value.

My old and new stories would share one thing -- my desire to be as good a family caregiver as possible. However, my definition of "good" is now more expansive and liberating. Assurance now replaces physical presence. Now, if I am not at a doctor's appointment, but I am in touch with the doctor afterwards, that's OK. If I want to be at my child's ballgame, I can embrace the experience. I can even share the details with my mom. I don't have to be torn between the two.

Basically, if personal storytelling influences our beliefs and values, we need to do a reality check to ensure our stories are not fairy tales. As a family caregiver, the story you create must not only encompass concern for the one in your care but it has to take into account a feeling of satisfaction with the other aspects of your life. Set yourself up for success, not failure. And, don't be held hostage by guilt because if you do you'll never be able to create a happy ending!

Help yourself. Help others.

For more by Victor Imbimbo, click here.

For more on caregiving, click here.

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