It seems that almost all caregivers have to deal with feeling at least a little guilty at some points in their caregiving. Whether for something as simple as forgetting an item at the grocery store that their loved one was counting on, or something big like not being able to spend more quality time with them, guilt is always lurking, looking for a chance to show you just how imperfect you are.
Guilty feelings are not necessarily a bad thing. As I say in Take Back Your Life, Chapter 6, guilt is a helpful emotion when it is justified. It motivates us to learn from our mistakes and make a change when warranted.
When you do something wrong, it’s appropriate to feel guilty. It means you have a conscience, and you’ll want to do something to make up for your mistake. Maybe a simple apology is enough, or maybe making amends is appropriate.
So guilt has the power to draw attention to an area that you may be wanting to improve, but you just haven’t focused on it yet – that’s not a bad thing, right? Or it may be highlighting an area where you’re beating yourself up needlessly, and it’s time to cut yourself some slack and acknowledge that, while you may not be living up to a standard of perfection you have set for yourself, you are actually doing a lot of things right.
Things get more complicated when shame gets into the mix.
The difference between guilt and shame is, in my mind, a profound one:
- Guilt is feeling bad about what you do.
- Shame is feeling bad about who you are.
And while shame is frequently an offshoot of guilty feelings, shame takes it to a whole new level, as a sense of worthlessness or inadequacy about aspects of yourself or in your basic nature.
Shame is fear-based, and drives you to want to hide or protect yourself from scrutiny. Because it doesn’t highlight individual behaviors (which can be changed), and serves only to shine a light on something that seems irredeemably wrong with you (which seemingly can’t be changed!), it is hardly ever a helpful or motivating emotion.
For that reason when you discover that you are stuck in feelings of shame, it’s very important to address whatever shameful beliefs about yourself are being triggered, and process them consciously so you can debunk them with more rational and reality-based self-assessments.
It takes practice to recognize when we’re feeling guilt and shame, especially when you get into a “guilt loop” where no matter what action you choose to take (for example, from a self-care standpoint, staying late at work to ensure you complete that career-building project on time), you feel guilty about nothaving taken some other action (from a caregiver standpoint, taking Mom to the nursery open house that same evening, to enjoy some beautiful scenery and social interactions)!
Those are the “damned if you do, damned it you don’t” sort of caregiver moments, and knowing how to process them when they occur makes all the difference in feeling like you have a life you both like and deserve.
There are ways to respond to these situations that are more effective at getting you unstuck from that endless guilt loop in a timely manner. Becoming skillful at those responses can offer caregivers great relief when they most need it.
Of course, in addition to feelings of guilt and shame, and closely related to them, is a pattern of behavior you may have heard referred to as “Emotional Blackmail.”
Emotional blackmail occurs when others threaten you with abandonment, withholding their love, or punishment if you don’t do things the right way (translate to, “their way”).
This behavior can show up in a multitude of ways… and not only with us as the person on the receiving end; it can be tempting to use it ourselves, however unconsciously or “innocently,” when nothing else seems to be getting us the result we want from someone we’re close to.
Emotional blackmail is a topic unto itself, which I discuss at greater length in the book, and which I also will be talking about tomorrow evening at the River Edge Public Library here in New Jersey. So if you want to start to learn how to get unstuck from the guilt loop, and how to handle emotional blackmail when it shows up in your life, join me tomorrow at the library – I’d love to meet you in person!
If attending this event isn’t an option but you’re ready to get started learning these skills so you can have the best possible life while being a great caregiver, be sure to get the book, which goes into much more depth on all of these issues and many more. It will enable you to discover new solutions that work for you, for all sorts of caregiver challenges, and tailored to your particular circumstances!
Feel free to leave a comment below about how anger shows up in your life, and what you’ve learned about yourself through your experience with anger. Or send me an email at Loren@LorenGelbergGoff.com and let me know what insights, questions and ideas for change this article brought up for you.