Caregiver Burnout: How to Cure a Case of the “If Onlys”

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Almost daily I speak with someone who is really struggling with their personal caregiving journey, someone who is experiencing caregiver burnout. As we spend time discussing the challenges that they are facing, I always hear the words "IF ONLY…" If only I had more free time. If only I wasn't so tired. If only I had siblings who would help me. If only my mother would appreciate me…it's one "IF ONLY" after the other. My response is always the same.

"If only you had (fill in the blank) what would happen?" When I ask this question there is either silence on the end of the phone or some amount of stammering. Somehow when we are asked the one poignant question that forces us to really look at our life situation, we don't have an answer. This is because it's so easy to get stuck in the "If Only" scenario. This often happens when a caregiver is getting burnt out.

Does your life look like Groundhog Day? Is it the same, day in and day out? Do you dwell in the "if onlys"? Here's the thing: the "if onlys" are never going away unless YOU make a decision to change what isn't working. It's that simple. When I get stuck in the "if only" dialogue in my head, I have to force myself to get comfortable with what is uncomfortable. Human beings like to be comfortable and our brain is really good at tricking us into staying comfortable -- even if the comfort causes us pain. Whatever it is that we are accustomed to is the place that our brain (or ego) feels the best. Change is disruptive, but it's disruptive for a reason. We are meant to evolve and grow and when we become complacent our ego is very happy – even if you aren't.

I also hear people talking about their dilemma. There is a big difference between having a dilemma and making a decision. Dilemmas are an excuse to fret, but decisions force us to decide to do something differently. Decisions force us out of our comfort zone, and we all like to be comfortable. But what if making a decision to do one thing differently actually changed the way you felt about your role as a caregiver? What if stepping out of "the box" was the first step towards getting a handle on your personal situation? What if making a decision actually made a difference?

I'd like you to try something today. Make a list of all the things that are causing problems for you. Be very specific as you list them. Just write. After you make your list, use another sheet of paper and put them in order from the most troubling to the least troubling. I'm pretty sure you will see a trend. Perhaps it's that you haven't set any boundaries. Maybe you have no help and you are trying to do everything alone. Maybe you're a "fixer" and you can't fix what is wrong. There will be a trend. Once you've made the list, take a break…give yourself credit…and go about your day. Tomorrow come back to the list and DECIDE to make one change. It doesn't have to be big. It just has to be something. When I first became a caregiver, I thought I had to give up my life to care for this person. I didn't, but that's what I thought. My decision was to ask for help. I was terrified to admit that I couldn't do this alone. But I asked and I got the help I needed and I felt a new sense of freedom, which had eluded me for months. The result of this was that I got my life back and consequently, I was a better caregiver!

So for today, just make a decision to do something differently.

Cindy Laverty is a Caregiver Coach and Founder of The Care Company, an online support website for family caregivers. Through programs, coaching and products, Cindy is dedicated to empowering family caregivers.

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12 Comments

So when you said you asked for help in relation to what?
Because of the economy my dear those of us with parents who are destitute do not have people to ask ...all of the funding is being lost.
Making decisions is not the issue lack of any real support in this culture is. There is no real housing options..nothing inexpensive that my Mom can live on with her small social security check. What do you decide to do when there is nothing but you keep taking care of them as the only option. I asked for help and got a nurse who filled her syringe form her car and walked it across the street to put into my mother the same agency was negligent and caused the death of one of my co workers mothers. With agencies with a high percentage of medicaid fraud and only in it to make a profit how can there be real choices. I have seen this working in the field things that are being done. I find your article lacking in worth. Give some real solutions to people. Shall I make a choice to go have a pedicure done? For God's sake..
'IF ONLY' I could do this!!! :0)

I have been trying very hard to allow my MIL to do more for herself and NOT comment about everything she does. This is very hard for me.

I took her coffee and daily med box to her (she has her own little apt. next door to us) and she was eating strawberry shortcake for breakfast. I just smiled and said - 'here's your coffee and pills" and left her to finish her breakfast.

She made the shortcake and I gave her frozen strawberries from our freezer yesterday. We have decided that if an 87 year old wants strawberry shortcake - then let her have it. So, one of my biggest 'if only's' is IF ONLY I hadn't made a big deal out of THAT (whatever THAT was at the time) . It is hard - but I am getting better at it. "if only'' I would just 'let it go' more often. A work in progress.
My mother passed six months ago. I was her primary caregiver for a number of years. I now experience guilt and feelings of failure for all I did and didn't do as a caregiver - going over and over specific items, which expand daily. My mother was a friend, a mentor, a confidante. I know she is in a much better place, but I long to have one more conversation with her and to have her forgive me for any failures. I have found no one whom I can share and trust with discussing this. I hope someday I can find a means to work this and remember the wonderful times we shared once again.