Published on November 17, 2016
Guilt is defined by Webster's Dictionary as a feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense, crime, wrong, etc., whether real or imagined. Guilt is a very powerful emotion. It can destroy your spirit, and it can destroy your soul. It eats away at you like a cancer itself, causing you to get physically and/or emotionally sick. It doesn't matter if the guilt is real or imagined. The results are the same. And they are rarely positive.
There are several reasons for guilt: something you did wrong; something you should've done but didn't; something you didn’t do, but want to; something you think you did wrong; thinking you didn’t do enough to help someone; thinking you're doing better than someone else. No matter what the cause, guilt is exhausting and drains you emotionally and spiritually, ultimately making you a less effective care partner.
Who feels guilt? Only people with a conscience feel guilt. So if you're feeling guilty, congratulations! It means you're a decent human being! You know the difference between right from wrong and as such, experience a sense of responsibility or remorse when you take the wrong path, when you cause harm to another person, when you damage another person's property, make somebody feel badly, or cause pain to another human being or animal. It's not uncommon to feel guilt when you feel that someone else has been treated unfairly or is having a rough time while things are terrific with you. Is it guilt about the other person's situation, or is it guilt perhaps because subconsciously you feel happy that it's their misfortune and not yours?
When my 31-year-old sister's husband died of colon cancer at the age of 33, I remember my parents saying that the only thing that could be worse was if my sister had died. They didn't feel guilt about saying that. It was a perceived relief that it was their son-in-law rather than their daughter who died. Should they have felt guilt? While they felt excrutiating grief and remorsel that he died, they didn't feel responsible. And that is the key. One can certainly feel remorseful without feeling responsible when bad things happen to other people—especially when those bad things happen to people that you care about.
When you assume the role of care partner, you take on a huge responsibility. It's not always something you bargained for, nor is it something you could ever have predicted. But guilt should not be part of that job description. It's not your fault that your loved one is sick. You didn't do anything to make them sick. You know it's due to circumstances beyond your control and beyond your own - or anyone else's - capabilities to make it better. Whether out of love or out of obligation, you assume the role of caregiver and do your best to make it work. Oftentimes, you know it's not going to be a pretty or happy ending. But you persevere in the task because you want the best for your loved one. With your loved one’s best interest at heart, you plunge forward, day after day, trying to make each day count, usually putting your loved one’s needs before your own. You persevere even at the risk of sacrificing your own needs and your own well-being.
You work hard, physically and emotionally. You sacrifice: your job, your own life, your family your friends, your health. Your heart is in the right place. You try to do the right thing. You feel your loved one's pain and empathize with their suffering. So why should you feel guilt? What is the rationale for it? Aren't you suffering enough? Why add guilt to your own pain? If you read my October blog, I talked about setting boundaries. I talked about how important it is to recognize your own physical, emotional and spiritual needs, so you can sustain your own wellness in order to be an effective care partner. Setting boundaries by identifying those tasks that you are unable or unwilling to do for your loved one is a major step in helping you meet your own needs. You should not feel guilt about orchestrating ways to meet your own needs while caring for your ailing loved one. It's okay to have someone else come into your home to help out. You should not feel guilt if you go out for a haircut or a massage, or catch a movie with a friend. You must do what you need to do to survive. It's not your fault that your loved one is sick. If you could, you'd make them well. If you could, you'd kiss all their pain away. Oftentimes, you'd switch places with them to give them back their life, especially if you're a caregiver for a child.
Guilt is a complex emotion. It can overpower you. Gnaw away at your soul. Cause inertia. Grow like a cancer, itself, causing bitterness, anger, hostility and even hatred. You must identify it. Accept it. Overcome it. If guilt looms in your heart, you must recognize it and deal with it in a proactive way. If you're feeling guilt, how does it affect your relationship with your loved one? Can you have a meaningful conversation with your loved one about your feelings? Perhaps your loved one couldn't care less about the very things you're feeling guilty about. Wouldn't that be wonderful?! You'd immediately be relieved of your guilt!
What should you do if you realize that you harbor feelings of guilt? Seek out professional help. Seek out the support of other care partners to validate your feelings and know it's normal to feel this way. Realize that although normal, guilt is not a positive emotion. It breeds discontent. It will make you miserable and angry. It is counterproductive and will adversely affect the care you provide as care partner. You'll grow to resent your loved one. This is not a good thing.
Look for something positive in each day even if some days you might have to look a little harder.
May your week be filled with good thoughts, kind people and happy moments,
Lorrie Klemons, RN, MSN
Care Partner Advocate, Patient Action Educator/Advocate/Speaker
Patient Power Care Partner Guest Contributor