Caregiving and My Unearned Guilt Trip

Caring for Mom is a never ending guilt trip. Scratch that–it’s a never ending unearned guilt trip…if I let it be. So I don’t anymore.

Do you know what unearned guilt is? I didn’t know until Mom and I were well down the path of our life with dementia. In plain terms to me, it’s when I feel guilty about things that I have no control over. And wow was I good at it.

Mom’s dementia

Her depression

Mom’s fear

Her frustration

Second guessers

Judgers

I was so good at it that guilt was consuming me. I carried guilt for all the things listed above and then some, for far too long. Life as a caregiver stopped being life at all and morphed into a never-ending unearned guilt trip. I was being physically weighed down and mentally overrun by guilt about things that were entirely out of my control.

Truth be told, I’m still good at letting unearned guilt into my head. It’s just that now I’m becoming an expert at shedding it. Almost as soon as it comes in (and it does because I’m human), I flush it down the proverbial toilet.

Take the comment captured in the image below, left for me just the other day, for example. It’s in response to one of our earlier blog posts (Three Things I Learned From Mom’s First Year In Assisted Living)–where we talk about exactly what the title says. A few things we learned while reflecting on Mom’s first year living in the supportive environment that she needs.

Part 1: ‘I disagree’. Ok. I totally get that and feel no guilt.

Part 2: ‘You can never be too busy to take care of your own parent.’ Ouch.

The comment is short and sweet. But when I read it, it cut me. It took me years to get to a point where I didn’t feel guilty about facilitating Mom’s move out of her home and into assisted living. Long before the move even happened, I felt guilty about even considering it. I knew it was necessary in my heart and had lots of professional advice supporting that. But it still ate me up. And this one post brought it all back. For a millisecond.

When I recognized the feelings, I asked myself two quick questions:

Does the commenter know Mom or I?

Does the commenter know what’s best for Mom better than I do?

In less time than it takes Google to tell me what sandwich shops are nearby, I had my answer: No. And that was that–I knew I didn’t earn the guilt I was feeling. So down the toilet it went.

I mean no disrespect to the commenter in this example. They’re entitled to their opinion, they’re definitely welcome to share it, and I LOVE that they are reading our blog. But as it relates to my life, the comment (as cutting as it was initially) was inconsequential. As such, it made no sense for me to hold onto and allow it residence in my mind.

So I flushed it. But there was a time, not too long ago when I would’ve held onto it for way too long. At first it would’ve been a little nuisance of a pebble but overtime it would’ve grown into a boulder weighing me down.

Earned vs. Unearned Guilt

There is a huge difference. I just didn’t know it until long after I became a caregiver to Mom. Here’s how Dr. Mark Ettensohn describes it.

Earned Guilt: This is the variety of guilt that happens when our actions go against our values. If you believe that it is wrong to steal, then you will probably feel guilty if you take something from the store without paying for it. Your guilt is earned through your actions.

Unearned Guilt: This is the kind of guilt that appears when we haven’t actually done anything wrong. It can happen in lots of situations, but many people seem to experience it when they try to set a healthy boundary.

One is helpful and one is not

I like simple and love the way Dr. Ettensohn sums up the difference here:

Basically, there are two kinds of guilt. One is helpful, the other isn’t.

So simple. And now, well down the path with Mom and her dementia, I know it to be so, so true.

Lord knows I earn plenty (perhaps an understatement?) of guilt and I actually see it as a good thing- not good that I’ve made mistakes for which I feel guilty, but because those feelings of guilt are a signal of my self-awareness. And I happen to believe that so much of the good of humanity–empathy, gratitude, compassion, love– is spawned from self-awareness.

Thanks to self-awareness

I know that I didn’t cause Mom’s dementia and I didn’t bestow depression on her. What other people think or say of my choices about Mom’s care are out of my control. Mom living in assisted living is the best thing for her. I know that and she knows that (now).

I’m doing the absolute best that I can. Every day. I know that. I also know that life caring for Mom doesn’t have to be a neverending unearned guilt trip. And it’s not. Because I don’t let it be.

Can you relate?

Surrounded by Alzheimer’s and Lewy Body Dementia. Founder of Ro & Steve. Working my way through life and dementia caregiving.