Tired of Feeling Guilty?

Change your emotional vocabulary

Elaine K. Sanchez Caregiver speaker, author, and co-founder of CaregiverHelp.com

Growing up on a Kansas dairy farm, I was taught that "men’s work" was more important than "women’s work," and that it was a woman’s responsibility to make her husband happy.

After 19 years of a miserable marriage to a raging alcoholic, I went to see a counselor. I told her I wanted a divorce and I needed to know how to make everything okay for my husband and three teenaged children.

After talking for 45 minutes straight, I took a breath, and she said, "I’m going to give just you one piece of advice: Get in your own shoes and stay in them."

She continued, "You are so tangled up in everyone else’s feelings that you have no idea where your own feelings begin or end. You need to deal with your feelings, and let everyone else deal with theirs."

The idea that every person is responsible for their own feelings was radical to me, and once I learned how to stop feeling guilty when I hadn’t done anything wrong, I felt like I’d been released from prison.

I cared for my aging parents from a distance for 10 years. Part of caring for my mother was supporting her in caring for my father after his stroke. I’ve been caring for an elderly aunt since 2006, and for my current husband, Alex (a wonderful man), through years of chronic and severe back pain, including two major back surgeries. I haven’t done everything right, but I have learned to cut myself some slack when I’m less than perfect.

Caring for a loved one whose physical and mental capabilities have been impacted by a stroke can be incredibly stressful. There will be times when you lose your temper and say things you wish you could take back. There will be days when you feel resentful for the loss of the life you once had, and there may be moments when you have difficulty identifying anything you still like about your care receiver.

Having these feelings doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. It means you’re human. Caregivers often get angry and then they feel guilty — even when they haven’t done anything wrong.

Guilt Isn’t Always an Appropriate Response

If you intentionally inflict physical or emotional pain on another person, guilt is an appropriate emotional response. However, if you have not intentionally injured another person, you may be experiencing feelings of guilt that are not appropriate to the situation.

Sometimes feelings of guilt are self-imposed. Sometimes we allow ourselves to be manipulated by others. Regardless of the source, it is important to remember that guilt can be a cruel and controlling emotion that often leads to resentment, depression and caregiver burnout.

Change Your Emotional Vocabulary

If you’re like a lot of other caregivers, you might experience some of these thoughts and feelings.

  • I was really mean just now.
  • I’m tired of not having time for what I want to do.
  • Oh no, that’s going to cost so much money.
  • I don’t even want to be in the same room with them right now.
  • I hate that I wasn’t able to keep that promise.
  • I wish this would all just go away!

And when you do experience those thoughts, you may feel guilty for doing so.

It’s perfectly normal for caregivers to feel tremendous sadness and disappointment about how their care receiver’s life and their own have changed as a result of a stroke, but feeling guilty about situations that are beyond your control will only increase your emotional stress.

When you haven’t intentionally hurt another person, shift your perception. A great first step is to change your emotional vocabulary. Try replacing the word "guilt" with the word "regret."

  • I regret that I’m not always as kind or patient as I’d like to be.
  • I regret that I can’t change, fix or control the situation.
  • I regret that I resent the amount of time it takes to meet his/her needs.
  • I regret that I sometimes think about how much something will cost before I think about how it will benefit my care receiver.
  • I regret that our relationship has changed and that I don’t always enjoy being together.
  • I regret that I can’t keep all of the promises I made in the past.
  • I regret that there are times I wish it would all just end.

When you adjust this vocabulary, you allow yourself the space to have your feelings and thoughts, and to wish you didn’t think and feel some of them, without the need to carry the weight of guilt about them.

Give yourself permission to be human. If you say or do something in a moment of high stress that you regret, apologize, forgive yourself and move on. Take a few minutes to reflect on all of the kind, generous and loving things you do as a caregiver and then think about how you would feel if someone was doing all of those things for you. My guess is that you’d be grateful.

Do the best you can, and then cut yourself some slack. There will be times when you fall far short of perfection, but when you reflect on the energy, time and courage it takes to care for someone whose life has been impacted by a stroke, you will realize that you are giving an incredible gift of love, and you should never feel guilty about that!

Editor’s Note: Elaine K Sanchez is a caregiver speaker, co-founder of CaregiverHelp.com, a video-based support program, and is the author of Letters from Madelyn, Chronicles of a Caregiver, available on her website, at Amazon and at Barnes & Noble.com. She writes the blog, Caregiver Help Word of the Day.

For more information on coping with caregiver guilt, visit CaregiverHelp: Coping with Guilt and see Caregiver Guilt and Frustration from a previous issue of Stroke Connection.

This information is provided as a resource to our readers. The tips, products or resources listed have not been reviewed or endorsed by the American Stroke Association.

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