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Friends think Betty, 52, does a superb job caring for her aging mother, Faye. She sees or speaks on the phone with her mom daily. She drops off dinners at her retirement-community apartment. Though racked by arthritis, Faye seems to be thriving.
But Betty (a former client of mine) always winces when her friends praise her. She can’t bear their compliments because they sound false to her, as if she somehow has fooled everyone. Where friends see competence and devotion, Betty sees her own inadequacy and ambivalence.
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Even when Faye thanks her profusely for stopping by, Betty recoils, remembering the times when she didn’t feel like visiting, forgot a promise she’d made or didn’t do as much as she heard other daughters do. It’s hard being a caregiver. But it is even harder for Betty because she is filled with shame.
Noted social work researcher and best-selling author Brené Brown (The Gifts of Imperfection) says shame is “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”
If guilt is about feeling bad for what we’ve done (or haven’t done), then shame is about feeling bad for who we are. It generally stems from early childhood, when we may have felt inadequately loved, leaving us feeling unlovable even as adults. We then judge ourselves harshly and discount our own accomplishments. Many earnest and diligent caregivers suffer from shame, beating themselves up even as they are wearing themselves down.
Unfortunately, dispelling shame is no easy task. This is especially true when out-of-state relatives and the care receivers themselves offer subtle or withering criticisms, compounding the caregiver’s negative self-regard.