Guilt: 8 Tips To Manage Guilt
By Dr. Vicki Rackner, MD,
Let guilt serve you, not imprison
Guilt is a common feeling in the landscape of care
giving. Guilt can propel you to be the best you can be …or it can immobilize
For caregivers, painful feelings--such as guilt,
sadness and anger -- are like any other pain. It’s your body’s way of
saying, 'Pay attention.' Just as the pain of a burned finger pulls your hand
from the stove, so, too, guilt guides your actions and optimizes your
You have a picture of the "Ideal You" with values you
hold and how you relate to yourself and others. Guilt often arises when
there’s a mismatch between your day-to-day choices and the choices the
"Ideal You" would have made. The "Ideal You" may be a parent who attends all of the kids’ soccer games. Miss a game to take your dad to the doctor, and
you think you’re falling short.
You may have needs out of line with this "Ideal You."
You may believe that your own needs are insignificant, compared to the needs
of your sick loved one. You then feel guilty when you even recognize your
needs, much less act upon them. A mother may ask herself, “How can I go out
for a walk with my kids when my mother is at home in pain?” (A hint for this
mother: she can give more to her mother with an open heart when she takes
good care of herself.)
You may have feelings misaligned with the "Ideal You."
Feeling angry about the injustice of your loved one’s illness? You might
even feel angry at your loved one for getting sick! Recognizing those
feelings can produce a healthy dose of guilt. Yes, you may even feel guilty
about feeling guilty.
“Why did my loved one get sick?” you may ask. Perhaps,
if the "Ideal You" acted more often, your loved one would be healthy. What
if you served more healthful meals? What if you called 911, instead of
believing your husband when he said his chest pain was just “a little
If you’re the kind of person prone to guilt, learn to
manage guilt so that guilt serves you rather than imprisons you. Here are 8
tips for managing your caregiver guilt:
- Recognize the feeling of guilt.
Unrecognized guilt eats at your soul. Name it; look at the monster under
- Identify other feelings. Often, there are
feelings under the feeling of guilt. Name those, too. For example, say
to yourself: “I hate to admit this to myself, but I’m resentful that
dad’s illness changed all of our lives.” Once you put it into words, you
will have a new perspective. You will also be reminding yourself of how
fortunate you are to have what it takes to take care of loved one.”
- Be compassionate with yourself. Cloudy
moods, like cloudy days, come and go. There’s no one way a caregiver
should feel. When you give yourself permission to have any feeling, and
recognized that your feelings don’t control your actions, your guilt
- Look for the cause of the guilt. What is
the mismatch between this "Ideal You" and the real you? Do you have an
unmet need? Do you need to change your actions so that they align with
- Take action. Meet your needs. Needs are
not bad or good; they just are. If you need some time alone, find
someone to be with your loved one.
- Change your behavior to fit your values.
For example, Clara felt guilty because her friend was in the hospital
and she didn’t send a card. Her guilt propelled her to buy some
beautiful blank cards to make it easier for her to drop a note the next
- Ask for help. Call a friend and say, “I’m
going through a hard time. Do you have a few minutes just to listen?”
Have a family meeting and say, “Our lives have been a lot different
since grandma got sick. I’m spending more time with her. Let’s figure
out together how we’ll get everything done.”
- Revisit and reinvent the "Ideal You." You
made the best choices based on your resources and knowledge at the time.
As you look to the future, you can create a refined vision of the "Ideal
You." What legacy do you want to leave? What values do you hold dear?
Then, when you wake up in the morning and put on your clothes, imagine
dressing the "Ideal You." Let this reinvented "Ideal You" make those
moment-to-moment choices that create your legacy.
Understand that you will be a more effective caregiver
when you care for the caregiver first. Loved ones neither want nor expect
selfless servants. As a caregiver, when you care for yourself, you increase
and improve your own caring. Yes, guilt is part of caregiving, but this
guilt can help you become the caregiver you and your loved one want you to
Dr. Vicki is a board-certified surgeon who left the operating room to
help families take the most direct path from illness to optimal health. Her
book, “The Personal Health Journal”, will help you understand and
direct your loved ones health story. Empower yourself with the tips and tools
that will help you partner with their doctor more effectively & save your loved
Want more caregiving tips? Get your free
report “Caring for the Caregiver” by emailing Dr. Vicki Rackner at DrVicki@DrVicki.org
and be sure to check out her regular column with the Johnson & Johnson
Consumer Products Group’s new caregiver web site