Overcoming Caregiver Guilt

Love Yourself wooden sign with a beach on background

Every caregiver has been left with the sinking feeling that they could have done better, been more, or worse, should not have acted in a certain way. Whether it is a parent at wit’s end with their kids or an ER nurse 10 hours into their shift; a moment of fatigue and stress can evolve into a regrettable action. We have all been there.

In many instances we can move into a report card scenario adding up our good choices and pitting them against our not so noble actions. We keep an internal tally and grade ourselves appropriately. Sometimes we have a good day or a good week, maybe even build up some burnable karma, if you will, along the way. When we lose our patience we either slide deeper into a negative self-concept or try to buoy ourselves up by noting that none of us are perfect, and we cannot expect to be.

This is good advice to tell ourselves but overall this might not be the healthiest game to play. We may want to change the rules a bit. We too, as caregivers, are in need of kind attention.

Woman praying for the best, future, health, job, family

Keeping this ongoing tally can be exhausting. It puts us into a place of internal blame. The worst part is that we are going up against ourselves. We are our own worst critic, and that is on top of what life throws at us.

On the other end of the spectrum is treating ourselves like a best friend. The type of friend that will always say you are right when the rest of the world is against you. Yeah, that kind of friend. The type that believes in you, respects you and pulls for you even when you make a bad decision.

This type of supportive inner dialogue rarely shows up very often but that does not mean we cannot cultivate it. What we may be up against is the idea that we need to be hard on ourselves, that this is the way to betterment. In reality, studies have shown that self-compassion is a much better tool.

Here is an excerpt from self-compassion expert Kristen Neff, PhD

“Over the past decade, research that my colleagues and I have conducted shows that self-compassion is a powerful way to achieve emotional well-being and contentment in our lives, helping us avoid destructive patterns of fear, negativity, and isolation. More so than self-esteem, the nurturing quality of self-compassion allows us to flourish, to appreciate the beauty and richness of life, even in hard times. When we soothe our agitated minds with self-compassion, we’re better able to notice what’s right as well as what’s wrong, so that we can orient ourselves toward that which gives us joy.”
~ Kristen Neff

So how do we become our own best friend again? Here are a few tips:

Become Aware of Your Inner Critic:

Our inner critic can be so established as the norm that we can become blind to it even being there at all. The first step to change a habit is to wake up to what we are doing now. A cautionary note here is to look at this with kindness. We can easily fall into “judging the judging”. Simply note what you find. Allow it to be ok if you find something that you are not so proud of. This might be hard to look at but remember that it is here if you look at it or not. Uncovering it so that you can work with it, although difficult at first, will pay off huge in the end.

Stop Keeping Score:

Now that you are aware of the inner dialogue and are no longer operating on autopilot from former habitual patterns, you can begin to make different choices. The first one is to stop keeping score. This is “feeding” the negative dialogue. We liken this to the concept of the second arrow given by the Buddha. If we are shot with an arrow it is painful obviously. If we are shot with two that would be worse. Judging ourselves after a negative act is that second arrow. It is optional. The reminder here is that we are not condoning our own negative behavior; we are learning how to right it in more effective ways. It turns out self-compassion works better; this is what we are working with.

Practice Self-Care:

In the moment of regret, we are hurting. Pain is arising. This is a time to be there for ourselves, free from judgment, just being a comforting presence. If you care for someone and see that they are hurting due to a regrettable action you do not rub it in. You may conversely rest your hand on their back and remind them of their more virtuous times and qualities.
Happy smiling woman hugging herself

This practice begins to reinforce the positive instead of breaking ourselves down. Remind yourself that regardless of your past actions, the moment is the only opportunity to live. The past is not here, nor is the future. Being there with what is, with non-judgmental awareness leaves no room for enhancement. No room to feed the self-critical mind.

Taking this approach, things that no longer serve our greater good are not given attention. This in turn can open up space to be filled with positive supportive measures that lead us to outward actions that we can be proud of. The notion of guilt can be regulated to something of the past.

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Cayce Howe
Long time meditation junkie, InsightLA Instructor and co-founder of CalmCare.org. Cayce likes to deeply listen and share what he has heard.
Cayce Howe

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