Caregiving is a stressful job even during the best of times. The sheer amount of responsibility is enough to make the most stoic person falter, but there are also a number of diverse personalities at play. Your care recipient may be grouchy or demanding, or your spouse may resent the time you devote to caregiving instead of your relationship. Then there are the people who look on from the outside and offer everything from heartfelt support to scathing criticism.
In such a high-pressure environment, a meltdown is likely to happen from time to time, especially for those who are not getting enough respite and are prone to stuffing their feelings. Onlookers who are clueless about the realities of caregiving often add to the stress by offering “advice,” which usually sounds more disapproving than helpful. You can only hide your irritation, bite back a sarcastic response, and let the comments or actions pass so many times. Patience eventually wears thin.
The same applies to your care receiver and immediate family members. All it takes is a particular comment, behavior, accident or demand made on the wrong day to elicit a snide remark or full on outburst. If the other person’s remark or suggestion was innocuous or came from a genuinely good place, we usually recognize that our overreaction was unwarranted almost instantly. That’s when the shame begins to creep in. The guilt is especially poignant when we lash out at our care recipient over something that is out of their control. It's mortifying, but it is an occurrence that’s more common than most family caregivers would like to admit.
Often this sudden burst of anger is entirely misdirected. Our spouse, child, friend or care recipient may wind up becoming a target when our hurt really stems from the overwhelming stress of our caregiving situation, how unappreciated we feel, and/or how little support we get from other family members and friends. But recognizing our error isn’t enough. Once uttered, our words can’t be taken back. There’s only one way to patch things up: extending a sincere apology.
Ensuring an Apology Is Heartfelt
Apologizing sounds simple enough, but it is a difficult task for many people. Asking forgiveness takes introspection and humility—attributes that may be hard to exercise while in a state of exhaustion and distress. You know your nasty mood isn’t the other person’s fault, but all you can do is muster a lame excuse for your behavior.
Be aware that an excuse is not an apology, but it may have to suffice for the time being. You can hope that the person you snapped at is understanding enough to let it go, but don’t make the mistake of thinking your behavior didn’t affect them. In the meantime, allow yourself some space to cool down and collect your thoughts.
To offer a sincere apology, you must first understand what prompted your anger and why you took your frustration out on this person. One reason why we often direct our irritation and resentment at those closest to us is that we feel safest with them. We believe that these people—family members and dear friends—won’t abandon us because deep down we care about each other. We don’t treat these people poorly on purpose, just as they do not set out to provoke us intentionally. Yet, if we don’t find a healthy outlet for our growing exasperation, then it is bound to fester and rear its ugly head again and again. Left unchecked, these emotions can seriously damage a caregiver’s mental health and have a negative effect on their most important relationships.
Once you’ve pinpointed the true reason(s) behind your behavior, you may be able to offer a sincere apology. While an incident like this isn’t pleasant for anyone involved, hopefully it will help you realize that your stress levels are getting too high and it's time to find resources like respite care and personal hobbies to help you regain some balance in your life. Ultimately, this is beneficial for you, your care recipient and others closest to you.
Sometimes a Caregiver’s Anger Is Justified
What if you snap at someone who you believe is in the wrong? For example, you unload on your sibling, who is always quick to criticize how you care for your parents but never offers to lend a hand. Wouldn’t you feel justified in your behavior?
Losing your cool with this person is a little closer to a healthy response. At least you’ve selected the correct target for your anger. However, unless you are willing to throw away your relationship with your sibling, you are still in a position where an apology is warranted. It’s also important to remember that, “I said/did this because you said/did that,” does not count as an apology.
Again, it is usually helpful to take some time to cool off after the initial incident. Once you have calmed down, you can let your sibling know that you’ve been upset for some time over the way they’ve presented their criticism and that you finally lost control of your emotions. If nothing else, it’s best to say you’re sorry for the way you responded and that you recognize such a response isn’t healthy. But, you should also try to take the opportunity to mention that there are underlying issues you need to discuss so you can have better interactions and a healthier relationship moving forward. In this scenario, you aren’t apologizing for standing up for yourself. You are apologizing for attacking them rather than handling the situation in a reasonable, adult manner.
Grudges Only Harm Those Who Carry Them
Life gives us only so many choices. We can continue to hold grudges that we feel are warranted. We can stay mad. But think about it: Who are we really hurting by doing this? Carrying around resentment and anger takes energy and eats away at the soul.
I’m not implying that caregivers should say they are wrong when they’re not. I’m simply suggesting that apologizing and handling these situations calmly and maturely can’t hurt. If the person you snapped at is reasonable, they may offer an apology of their own and you both can learn something about each other that will strengthen your relationship. Even if nothing productive comes of such actions, at least you will feel better for having been the bigger person and trying to clear the air.
Naturally, there are some personalities that simply never mix well. It may amount to a mutual dislike or a long and varied history of personal “wrongs” against one another. In these situations, it’s best to be cordial and avoid interactions if possible. These serious issues are different than an isolated case of yelling at a care recipient or blowing up in a situation that should have been handled with a civilized discussion. An apology is rarely sufficient to turn such animosity around. This is especially true in abusive and unhealthy situations.
Minimize Caregiver Stress
Don’t be too hard on yourself if you blow up from time to time; It’s natural to an extent. But do look for reasons why you acted in a way that you now regret and learn how to offer a sincere apology. The ability to realize and admit fault is an invaluable trait and one of the many tools you’ll need while balancing elder care with other relationships.
If stress, depression, anxiety or any mix of these is the cause of your behavior, or these mood swings become more pronounced and frequent, then it’s time to seek out help. Attending a caregiver support group and/or seeking professional counseling can be extremely beneficial. If there are no family members who can or will help to provide financial or hands-on care, then in-home care, adult day care or assisted living may be necessary.
It's one thing to snap at a good friend or even a “deserving” sibling on occasion, but allowing stress to embitter you is quite another. Resentment and excessive pressure can quickly develop into caregiver burnout, which is detrimental to your physical and mental health and that of the person you are caring for.