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Issue 90, September 2005

Emotional Support for Carers

Sue Wildman, Carer Support Officer, Carers NSW

Overcoming Guilt

Carers frequently express the wish that they could overcome guilt! Now, if they were saying nasty things behind their friends’ backs or stealing books from the library, then their guilt would be understandable. Such guilt would be justifiable and valid. The majority of carers, however, are not experiencing justifiable or positive guilt.

Carer guilt can stem from a burdening sense of not adequately fulfilling responsibilities or duties. This in turn comes from an internal dialogue that goes something like this, ‘I shouldn’t really be going out and - leaving John here ...what if he falls while the Home Care woman’s here?’, or ‘I needed a break but I shouldn’t have left her in the nursing home while I took a break’. What do these thoughts have in common? Both are negative ways of thinking. Responsibility weighs heavily in both. People, in their everyday life, endeavour to act responsibly and feel a genuine need to act on their obligations and responsibilities. It frequently happens that pressures and distractions cause us to lose confidence in our abilities to properly meet our ordinary duties as well as our caring duties! We need to remember as carers, we have the added responsibilities of another person to look after and hence more fuel for worry or guilt!

What carers often forget is that ‘duty’ or ‘responsibility’ is about effort, not result! So long as you have made a sincere and genuine effort you have done your duty.

It’s usually our own perception that tells us we have failed in our duty! Most carers fulfill their caring objectives to the best of their abilities and that’s all that’s required! It’s important to learn to accept yourself. You do the best you can and that’s good enough! It’s important not to reproach yourself or feel a sense of shame or guilt for something that has happened in the past. How does dwelling on something you are not happy about in the past help you grow or add to your sense of well-being? In fact, it just clutters the mind and leaves less space for positive feelings!

  • Try to get into the habit of challenging negative thoughts, especially the ones that make you feel guilty. They usually start with ‘I should have done this’, or ‘I shouldn’t have done that’. Ask yourself what is the worst thing that could happen - if you replace the should with could. This helps you think in a more realistic way. That will put less pressure and guilt on yourself.
  • Another common cause of guilt for carers is when they have had to break a promise. This is hard for carers. Sometimes, promises that are made with every good intention are later broken, because an unforeseen change in circumstance renders the promise impractical. Carers in this position, who pride themselves on being honourable, often end up feeling traumatised and distressed. Carers who have to relinquish care to a nursing home for example, often go though terrible mental anguish. But again, carers need to look at the situation realistically. You can’t see the future. If we could predict that in 10 years time we would have a fall and need to use a walking frame, develop arthritis or some other debilitating illness, then we might not have promised someone that we will never put them in residential care. Circumstances change, but we are not responsible for external circumstances!
So, in summary, here are some ways to tackle negative guilt:
  • Challenge the way we think.
  • Detach ourselves from our thoughts so we can ‘observe’ them in order to challenge them (A rational mind can contribute much more than an emotional one). This does not mean that we do not love, or care for others. We can still genuinely care but at the same time minimise our expectations of ourselves by not being overly attached to results. Acceptance (‘what is, is’) and finding in ourselves our good points.
  • Believe in yourself and who you are, as opposed to what others may want to believe you are.
If you’re interested in working on achieving acceptance and defeating negative self talk, here’s some reading that is recommend:
  • A Carer’s Guide to Good Health - how to care for yourself when caring for someone at home.
    (Lynette Cusack & Sheryl Navin) - Publisher: Hill of Content, Melbourne 1991.
  • Overcoming Negative Feelings
    (Dr Alec Dempster) - Publisher: Hill of Content.
  • Take Control of Your Life!
    (Dr Gail Ratcliffe) - Publisher: Simon & Schuster (1995).
And remember, ‘Never forget something which once made you smile!’~ (Anon)

“Carers News’ the newsletter of Carers NSW, April 2005.
“Gateway” AHD Assn (NSW) Inc, May/June 2005, Volume 8

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