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.
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.
Here are four ways caregivers can better appreciate their good deeds.
Name the shame. Many caregivers fault themselves for forgetting loved ones’ medical appointments or flubbing minor tasks. The job doesn’t require perfection. Try to step back from your caregiving routine to reflect on whether you take for granted all you get right and fixate on what you occasionally get wrong.
Challenge your feelings. Don’t believe everything you think or feel. Others may have a more realistic perception of you. So when you receive a compliment, let the positive assessment soften your harsh view of yourself. One proviso: If family members have been hard on you about your caregiving performance, don’t heed their judgments. Instead, listen to other caregivers, who can truly relate to what you’re going through and can more accurately value what you’re doing.
Guard against negative criticism. Typically, most shame-prone people have specific triggers — or critics — that prompt them to castigate themselves. That well-meaning but judgmental older sister who offers you constructive criticism can stir awful self-recriminations. Anticipate such interactions and protect yourself from their caustic effects before they happen with positive affirmations like this: “My sister doesn’t understand me or my caregiving responsibilities. I’m doing my best and getting the job done.”
Separate present from the past. Shame is the way the past haunts us, sending us old, negative messages about ourselves. Those messages are yesterday's news, and they don't reflect our current capabilities in meeting today's caregiving tasks. Judge yourself on what you accomplish now and every day. And remember to be as kind to yourself as you are to the person lucky enough to be receiving your care.
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.