How to let go if you have caregiver guilt

Caring for a loved one can feel very rewarding. But it can also feel challenging and overwhelming, especially if it makes it difficult to spend time doing other things that bring you joy.1

That may be a reason why a lot of caregivers often feel pulled in many directions and may feel like they’re not doing a good job at any of it, explains Christina G. Yoshimura, Ph.D., a licensed clinical counselor and professor of communication at the University of Montana in Missoula. And that can result in feelings of guilt.

If you’re caring for a loved one or know someone who is, learn more about caregiver guilt, who’s most at risk and how to learn to let it go.

What triggers caregiver guilt

Impossible expectations are often behind those guilty feelings. “A caregiver may feel as though they haven’t done enough for their loved one or regret being impatient with them,” says Nichole Goble, director of community initiatives at the Caregiver Action Network, the nation’s leading family caregiving organization, in Washington, D.C. “There can also be guilt about taking time away from their loved one to do something for themselves.”

If you’re a caregiver and your loved one falls or gets sicker, you may feel like you’re to blame. Or you might feel like you’re sacrificing your own health — or your family’s — because you spend so much time caring for your loved one, notes M.T. Connolly, an expert on elder justice and the author of The Measure of Our Age: Navigating Care, Safety, Money and Meaning Later in Life.

And if your loved one ends up moving into a nursing home or assisted living facility, that can be a source of guilt too, she adds.

Who’s most at risk of feeling caregiver guilt

Just about anyone who’s caregiving is at risk of caregiver guilt, explains Yoshimura. But these groups may be at higher risk:

  • Caregivers who’ve been in the role for years
  • Caregivers who take care of someone with high needs (like someone with dementia or cancer)
  • Women (who account for 2 out of every 3 caregivers in the United States)2

The signs of caregiver guilt

“Not all caregivers have the same experience,” says Marvell Adams Jr., CEO of Caregiver Action Network. But he points to common feelings among caregivers, including:

  • Ambivalence, anger or resentment toward your loved one or other family members
  • Feeling as if the whole caregiving burden is on you
  • Feeling unappreciated, especially by the person you’re caring for
  • Feeling as if caregiving has taken over your life

“This anger can lead to guilt,” says Adams. “If left unaddressed, the guilt can lead to caregiver burnout.” And burnout, while common, can negatively impact your physical and mental health.3

How to manage and let go of caregiver guilt

“The strategies for coping with caregiver guilt are similar to those for coping with caregiver stress,” says Adams. To help with both caregiver guilt and stress, here are some tips to consider.

Set realistic expectations

No caregiver is a superhero who can do it all, Adams notes. “If your loved one has a progressive illness and their condition worsens, it’s not your fault,” he says.

It’s also a good idea not to compare yourself to other caregivers. “Every caregiving situation is different and not every person with a particular disease or illness has the same experiences,” says Adams.

Practice self-care

On an airplane, you’re supposed to put on your own oxygen mask first before helping to place one onto your kids or another person who’s dependent on you. The same goes for caregiving, explains Connolly. “You can’t be a good caregiver if you’re not taking care of yourself,” she says.

Consider finding a friend, family member, or local program or volunteers who can help or offer respite care, Connolly suggests. That way, you can take a break from your loved one to hang out with friends, exercise, pamper yourself or just grab a little down time, she adds.

Make an effort not to feel guilty about taking a break. Even though that may be harder than it sounds. “It’s not wrong to take a break — it’s necessary,” Adams says.

Find support

“You may want to have someone who you can talk to who understands and supports you,” says Adams. That can be anyone, such as a support group, a therapist or even a friend who’s been through something similar, he adds.

If you decide on therapy, look for a therapist who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), suggests Yoshimura. “Both can be helpful in reframing expectations and perceptions so that caregivers can reduce their distress,” she says.

Check into training options

Sometimes caregiving requires you to do things you’ve never done before — like bathe your loved one or provide complex medical care. “Be alert to feelings that you’re in over your head,” says Connolly. If that’s the case, try to get training or guidance from a seasoned professional, or find more support.

You may be able to get help from local programs and community resources, notes Connolly. Local area agencies on aging or the federal Eldercare Locator may be able to refer you to ones that provide the assistance you need.

“Caregiving should be a team sport, not a solo endeavor. So ask for help,” says Connolly. That may make you a better caregiver and give you a much-needed break, which will help stop the cycle of caregiver guilt.

Already a member?

Sign in or register on your plan website to see personalized benefit details and resources to help you manage your plan and health.