I don’t want to do this anymore…
The minute I thought those words, I felt guilty. My husband’s long battle with cancer was really taking a toll on me. Yet, just thinking about my own struggle, I felt guilty. He was the one battling cancer after all. Yes, I was exhausted and yes, I was the one working full time to keep our family afloat, but still I felt my struggles were nothing in comparison to his. Thus, the guilt. It’s not a feeling I shared with anyone. I just felt it on the inside, while on the outside I put on the strong, confident face I was used to wearing.
I’m sure you’ve experienced the feeling of guilt relating to your partner’s cancer. Unfortunately, it’s a common emotion for caregivers. It’s also an emotion we don’t like to talk about and have a hard time admitting to ourselves.
I’m going to dive in and shine the light on the emotion of guilt so we can bust through some of the shame around it so you can better understand what causes this emotion and how to respond when this emotion comes up.
Guilt (as a verb) is defined as the feeling of having done wrong or failed in an obligation.
Let’s start by focusing on the first part of this definition which is that guilt is a feeling.
Ok. I know you know that already. However, it’s important to emphasize it because ALL of our feelings are caused by our own thoughts. You feel guilty not because of what you did or didn’t do, said or didn’t say, or even by what someone else said to you. Rather, you feel guilty because of how you think about these things. Quite simply, you cause yourself to feel guilty by your thinking.
While I get that learning that you can’t blame anyone else for your feelings may at first seem depressing, it’s actually empowering! Stick with me and I’ll get to why this is good news.
All feelings are caused by how we think about something. Guilt in particular is caused by thinking that you have done something wrong or somehow failed in an obligation. It is this thinking that creates a feeling of guilt, so it is this thinking that we need to look deeper at.
I have noticed four patterns of thinking that create feelings of guilt:
- Thinking We’ve Done Something Wrong
In my case, I was thinking that I shouldn’t be dwelling on my own suffering. It was selfish of me to be feeling sorry for myself especially because my husband was struggling so much. I was telling myself I was wrong to even be thinking this way!
Thus the guilt. The crazy thing is, it was my own judgement of myself that was causing this emotion. No one else was judging me, I was judging myself!
A lot of us do this. We create an impossible standard for ourselves, then feel guilty when we can’t uphold it. In my case, I was subconsciously setting the standard that I needed to be always strong, always selfless, and should always put everyone’s else’s needs before my own. It’s no wonder, with a standard like that, I felt guilty. I had created a situation where if I wasn’t perfect, then I was wrong.
- Creating A No Win Situation
Another way caregivers cause themselves to feel guilty is they create a no-win situation for themselves. I was just reading a post by a member of a caregiver support group on Facebook where a woman was saying how guilty she felt by bowing out of an outing with her husband so she could rest. She was utterly exhausted and needed the rest, however she also felt she should embrace the opportunity to have some fun with him. She had made it so that there was no way she could “win.” No matter what she did, she would be “wrong” and that was why she was feeling guilty.
- Feeling Emotions
I also see a lot of caregivers feel guilty for emotions they feel, like anger or resentment toward their partner. When they feel these emotions, immediately after they feel guilty for feeling that way. I call this “feeling bad about feeling bad.” By judging themselves for their emotions, they add guild on top of the anger or resentment they were already feeling.
- Thinking We Have Failed In An Obligation
So many caregivers feel they need to always be strong and upbeat for their partner. They need to take care of them and everyone else. However, this is an impossible goal. So when they break down and “fail” in this expectation they have set for themselves, they feel guilty. They have “failed” in an obligation to be superhuman.
Why Guilt Is Not A Useful Emotion
If any of these situations are familiar, just know that it means you are human. Here is what I want you to learn from this: guilt is an emotion. All emotions, by their nature are neither good nor bad. They just are. However, some emotions serve us in our life and some are not useful. They hold us back or keep us stuck.
“Guilt is a totally useless emotion. It never makes anyone feel better, nor does it change a situation. ”
Guilt is an emotion that is not useful to feel. It will keep you stuck in self judgement. The more guilty you feel, the more you will be looking to the world to find some justification for how you feel and less likely you will be to allow the feeling, take responsibility for it, and then moving on.
How To Respond When You Feel It
All emotions are like signals which help us to understand what is going on in our brain. When you feel guilt, don’t try to avoid it or stuff it down. Don’t ignore it. Instead, get curious and listen. What are you thinking to cause feelings of guilt? Are you telling yourself you “should” or “need to” do something or be something? Look at the four patterns above. Have you created one of those for yourself? If the answer is yes, then you’ve gained some awareness.
The answer to any negative emotion is to allow yourself to feel it. You can’t stuff it down or hide from it. You have to allow it with acceptance and compassion. One way to do this is through some compassionate self talk. Just like you might reassure a friend that what they are feeling is normal and understandable, you can do this for yourself. You might tell yourself, “of course I feel guilty, I’m thinking I should always be strong.”
When we open up and are willing to accept our emotions, without judgement, and are willing to feel them all the way through, even the unuseful ones, then our emotions will pass through us. Judgement, resistance, and trying to avoid or stuff them down only makes them sick around longer!
Listen, I know your partner’s cancer has a big impact on you too. It alters your perception of life, your relationship, and your future. It shakes your confidence. And it overwhelms you with a roller coaster of emotions. Don’t worry! This is where I can help! We simply need to develop your resiliency skills. It is what I help my clients do every day! If you want to develop a resilient mindset, increase your emotional capacity, and expand your confidence so that you feel back in control again, then let’s talk!
Click here to set up a time.
No pressure, only enlightenment!