I am reasonably competent in most regards — a caring husband, involved dad and diligent worker. But during my caregiving years, I lived in a tense, sweaty state of fear of failure.
This feeling was not rational. I had the knowledge and skills to do a good job. I could de-escalate my agitated stepfather and deftly complete my mother’s insurance forms. I could sweet-talk home health aides and talk shop with doctors.
But I was still plagued with doubt and fear. What if my stepfather stumbled and fell before I could catch him? He might break a hip on my watch. What if my mother jumbled her pillbox and took the wrong medications? She might overdose because I didn’t adequately oversee her. In the event of such catastrophes, I imagined I would respond to family members’ questioning looks by defensively citing all the caregiving tasks I had managed well. But I would inwardly blame myself anyway, feeling horrified and abashed.
A little self-doubt, especially at caregiving’s outset, isn’t necessarily bad. It prompts caregivers to try harder, learn more and consequently provide better care. But if self-doubt blossoms into a fear of failure that persists over time, then a caregiver’s performance can be undermined. Just when we should take action to revise the caregiving plan, we become paralyzed because we are afraid we will be harshly judged. Just when we should be assertive by advocating for care recipients with physicians and social workers, we hesitate or defer to others.
Caregivers who fear failure can have a tendency to avoid making decisions and procrastinate when starting their caregiving to-do lists. We then have sleepless nights of second-guessing ourselves. Our nervousness makes everyone around us nervous, including the loved ones we are caring for.
The opposite of fear is courage and, more importantly, confidence. How can a sense of failure be transformed into the pride of succeeding at their crucial jobs? Here are some ideas:
Find your own way. There often is more than one right way of caregiving. Yet not knowing exactly how to proceed makes many of us fearful of making mistakes and causing harm. In reality, caregiving is a journey of experimentation and discovery in which we figure out through trial and effort the way of accomplishing tasks best suited for our loved ones and ourselves. This isn’t exactly “fake it till you make it.” It is having trust we are capable of climbing a learning curve to become more efficient and effective.
Correct negative bias. Many anxious caregivers ignore the many things we do well but dwell on the few with which we struggle. We believe we are inadequate because, as the old saying goes, “one bad apple spoils the whole barrel.” But such a negatively slanted view only causes us to unfairly and unproductively beat ourselves up. Rebalancing the negative with positive is the first step toward gaining a more accurate self-appreciation. For every mistake or mishap for which we blame ourselves, we should reflect on three or more of the small victories we achieve daily but take for granted — for example, arriving at the doctor’s office on time, learning about a drug’s side effects or making a care recipient laugh.
Limit what-ifs. Every caregiver needs to create contingency plans for the range of possible future scenarios — worsening disease or depleted savings, for instance. But if our pragmatic planning turns into implausible worries about tomorrow, then our today will be ruined by anxiety. We need to recognize when catastrophic events have low probabilities of actually occurring and then give them less importance and space in our thoughts. Easier said than done? We can enlist the help of health care and social service professionals to better gauge what is really worth fearing.
Accept what is. Care recipients fall because their legs are weak, they forget to use their walkers or they trip. They get more confused because they mix up their medications or they suffer more strokes. There are some factors we can control to prevent bad outcomes; most we can’t. Our measure of caregiving success shouldn’t be keeping our loved ones forever safe and sound, but giving them the best chance at comfort through tough times. We only really fail if we don’t really try.
In hindsight, I think I fretted too much about preventing what catastrophes could happen to my stepfather and mother, and focused too little on simply being with them as they were declining. Fear of failure didn’t make me a more attentive, capable or loving caregiver — it only made me more distracted with exaggerated worry.
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.