Managing Guilt

fingers pointing at woman

Managing Guilt

alarm clock

Understanding The Different Types of Guilt

Psychology Today defines different kinds of guilt:

  • Guilt for something you did.
  • Guilt for something you didn’t do, but want to.
  • Guilt that you didn’t do enough to help someone.
  • Guilt that you’re doing better than someone else.

Working Daughter defines guilt as a choice. Stick with me…

When guilt stems from something you did, you can apologize, identify ways to avoid repeating the behavior, and ask others, and yourself, for forgiveness. In caregiving, this kind of guilt often stems from losing your patience, or your cool, with the person you care for. While abuse is never okay, shortness, brusqueness, impatience, even eyerolls…they happen. Give yourself some grace when this happens. Life as a working daughter can feel like living in a pressure cooker. It did for me! Apologize for the behavior, allow the recipient of that apology to feel however they want about it, and remind yourself of two things: 1. You are human and humans have emotions. 2. All that you’ve done well lately. Because there is plenty, I am sure. Focus on that. Your choice: forgive your humanness and focus on all of the moments you showed up with courage and compassion, or, dwell on the lower incidences of times you showed up as a human.

When guilt stems for something you didn’t do, but want to, or because you feel like you didn’t do enough to help someone, option 2 (above) helps tremendously. Remind yourself of what you have, and are, doing well. This is perhaps the most common kind of guilt among caregivers and it is understandable. As we all know, there are only 24 hours in a day. And here’s how working daughters spend them (according to data from the American Time Use Survey). On average, a woman who cares for an aging relative and has children spends 2.3 hours per day on eldercare; a caregiver without children spends 3.4 hours. She spends approximately an hour eating, 2.2 hours on household activities, and 2 hours caring for kids. She gets an average of 8 hours of sleep per night, takes roughly 1 hour to shower and dress, works an average of 8.9 hours, and spends approximately 1 hour a week commuting to work. Guess what? That adds up to more than 24 hours! So yeah, you are doing all that you can, and no, your guilt is not justified.

Let’s also think about this: When Dr. Joe Coughlin, director of the MIT AgeLab was discussing his book The Longevity Economy, he said to MIT News, “Our challenge is to ensure quality of life, for a century of life.” Let that sink in. As science contributes to longer life spans, society needs to examine what it takes for people to remain active and engaged for longer. And right now, working daughter, YOU are society. YOU are the one helping your parents maintain some quality of life, and it is one the most difficult aspects of eldercare to manage. You manage their medical issues, their financial and legal issues, their transportation needs, their relationships with other family members, their social supports and structure, and oh yeah, you are also supposed to be a blissed out, relaxed and always loving daughter. Of course you feel guilty!

There is always more you could be doing to improve your parents’ quality of life. But there isn’t time in your day! So the choice is yours: be mad at yourself or be mad at society for not giving caregivers and the people they care for the proper amount of support. Be awed by all you do, or unforgiving for what you cannot. Choose wisely.

Caregivers also often suffer from guilt that we’re doing better than someone else. This guilt used to hit me every time I left my father at the nursing home, and, to be honest, I was thrilled to be leaving. I loved my Saturday visits with my Dad. Even though he didn’t always know who I was, he knew that he knew me and we sat together and enjoyed each other’s company. At the same time, just sitting got boring, seeing my Dad struggle with his dementia was sad, and I would be relieved when I decided it was time to go. I would also feel guilty as hell. I was heading off to do what I wanted on a Saturday afternoon while my Dad was stuck in that place, in a wheelchair? Horrible, right? Or was it? I had a choice: feel guilty that I could do what I wanted while my father could not, or, honor life and health and freedom by living my life while I could. I believe we can honor the people we love who are sick or passed on by appreciating the life we have. It is selfish really to squander our health and freedom when we are still blessed with it. Embracing this choice to not feel guilty, took work – all of these choices take work, so let’s talk about that.

Change Your Thoughts; Change Your Feelings

Guilt is a choice. What does that mean? Our thoughts control our feelings. And the good news here is that we control our thoughts. So if we want to feel differently, we need to think differently.

As a working mother, I chose to not feel guilty. I just thought why would I ever feel guilty for earning a living and why would I ever feel guilty for putting my kids first? And so I chose not to and I felt pretty much like a superwoman for tackling kids and work. As a Working Daughter, combatting the guilt was more challenging because working daughterhood was so complex and wasn’t something I had ever planned for. All of a sudden I was responsible for someone else’s health, social life, food and shelter – on top of taking care of the family I was raising, pursuing the career I wanted, and, trying to take care of myself. There was no roadmap, there were no role models – I had to make it up as I went along. And what if I was doing it wrong? What if I screwed up? What if I wasn’t doing enough?

To survive as a working daughter, and to combat the guilt that consumed me at 3 a.m. every morning during caregiver-induced insomnia sessions, I had to think differently. I chose to think about what a good job I was doing. Because with no guidance, no rules, no support, I was showing up – like a warrior – for my parents. I chose to be proud of myself for that. I chose to think about the errands I had run that day, the appointments I had kept, the kindness I had shared. I banished – actively banished – thoughts about what I didn’t get to, when I was less than kind, what more I could do.

As I changed my thoughts, my feelings changed. I was caring for someone! I was giving my best! I was showing up in a way so many others do not! I chose to feel good about that. I chose to realize that any guilt about not knowing the best path forward as a caregiver wasn’t on me; it was on a society that doesn’t prepare us, that doesn’t value the elderly; that needs to step it up! There was no shame in my game. My guilt gave way to pride – pride in doing my best – and that felt good.

If you too chose to banish the guilt, take these steps.

  1. Tune in. Tune in to your thoughts. Notice your self-talk. Is it supportive or is it critical? Ask yourself, would you talk to your best friend the way you talk to yourself?
  2. Reframe. As you catch your negative thoughts, reframe them. Instead of focusing on what you didn’t do, or didn’t do well, focus on the effort you made. Thank yourself for what you do well. Tell yourself you are trying and that is good enough.
  3. Banish bad words. Banish the words always and never. Do not indulge in thoughts that start with, “I always” or “I never.” All or nothing thinking is not helpful. Do not let one decision, one action, one mistake define you.
  4. Make a list. Make a list of all you do well and all you are grateful for. Do this daily. Let it sink in.
  5. Choose. Choose to be proud of yourself. No ifs, ands or buts.
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The Working Daughter Bill of rights

You have the right to have a life!

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