I once got huffy with the supervisor at my stepfather's nursing home for the poor care I thought he was receiving. Another day I impulsively dashed off an irate letter about a home health agency because I'd found its nurses' aides unreliable. I've fumed at my brother for not pitching in enough, and more than once yelled at my mother for refusing help she needed badly.
My quick anger has reared up repeatedly during my last six years as a family caregiver however much I've tried to conduct myself with calm resolve. I'm not proud of it. I have lost control when feeling most frustrated — those times when others made my hard job even more difficult through what seemed to be insensitivity, incompetence or uncooperativeness. But mouthing off in fury has never helped me much as a caregiver. To the contrary, those incidents alienated health care and social service professionals, incensed my brother and compounded my mother's suffering. I probably came off as self-righteous and belittling. Afterward, I always felt guilty.
Of course, none of us is an automaton. It is normal, expectable and understandable to become angry whenever we're neglected, dismissed or attacked. As I heard recently from a harried caregiver in a support group, venting and ranting at the right time and place to others who share our feelings can give us a rare sense of acknowledgement and validation that helps us cope.
But too much anger not only hurts others' feelings: It colors our perceptions so that not even the positive, endearing moments of caring for a loved one can touch us.
There are ways for caregivers to thoughtfully harness their anger, rather than lose control of their emotions and have later regrets.
In the chapter on "Anger or Resentment" in our new book, AARP Meditations for Caregivers, we offer several ideas:
Slow down and breathe. It's a cliché to count to 10 before responding to stressful situations. But giving pause often leads to better decisions. Caregivers are best advised to stop and think through the potential consequences of their actions before lashing out. In those brief moments of reflection — with a few deep, cleansing breaths thrown in — better options than simply blowing up often become clear.
Lead with empathy. Putting ourselves in the shoes of those angering us may seem near-impossible when our dander is up. But it can help us better understand their motives and behaviors and take some of the sting away. If I could have empathized with the limitations and frustrations of the nursing supervisor on my stepfather's dementia unit, for example, I might not have confronted her so aggressively — and may have received more sympathy for my concerns.
Acknowledge sadness. A truism in psychology is that anger is often a cover for sadness. That is, it is frequently much easier for us to pound our fists in anger than to beat our chests in grief. The problem is that expressing anger can lead to defensiveness or schisms among family members. Commiserating together about the sadness that arises when seeing a loved one's decline is a surer way for family members to pull together, support one another and strengthen their relationships going forward.
Turn anger into productive assertiveness. Not all anger is bad. It can be an important signal to us that the caregiving plan is unjust or that we are being mistreated. But it shouldn't be a cue to attack in kind. Rather, it should spur us to think through how to express our concerns firmly and calmly so that those who are offending us are most likely to take in what we have to say. Hopefully, they then respond in a helpful way. If not, we may have to repeat the process — keeping our emotions under bridle, pausing to empathize and planning calmly how to improve a frustrating situation.
Barry J. Jacobs, a clinical psychologist, family therapist and healthcare consultant, is the co-author of Love and Meaning After 50: The 10 Challenges to Great Relationships — and How to Overcome Them and AARP Meditations for Caregivers (Da Capo, 2016). Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.