Almost daily, I speak with someone who is really struggling with their personal caregiving journey, someone who is experiencing symptoms of caregiver burnout. As we spend time discussing the challenges that they are facing, I always hear them use the phrase “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 everything I do for her.
These conversations consist of one “if only…” after another.
My response is always the same: “If only you had (fill in the blank), what would happen?” Typically, this question is either met with silence or some amount of stammering. Somehow when we are asked a poignant question that forces us to really look at our life situation, we struggle to produce a satisfactory answer. This is because it’s so easy to get stuck in the “if only” mindset. Caregiver burnout is usually the culprit.
A Cure for Caregiver Burnout
Does your life resemble the film Groundhog Day? Is it the same routine, the same chores, the same worries, and the same conversations day in and day out? Do you dwell on the “if onlys”? If so, you’re not alone. But, here’s the thing: the “if onlys” will never go away unless you decide to change what isn’t working. It’s that simple.
When the “if only” dialogue gets stuck in my head, I have to force myself to break out of what is making me uncomfortable. The problem is that human beings like their set routines. Our brains are really good at tricking us into staying in comfortable situations, even if what is familiar and “safe” winds up being detrimental to us in the long run. Whatever it is that we are accustomed to feels the best at that moment because we at least know what to expect and how to handle things.
Change is disruptive, but it’s disruptive for a reason. We are meant to evolve and grow. When you become complacent, your ego is happy to reject reality and embrace the status quo, even if you aren’t. The cure for caregiver burnout lies within you, but you have to be open to change to tap into it.
Dilemmas vs. Care Decisions
I frequently hear people talking about caregiving dilemmas as well. I must point out that there is a big difference between facing a dilemma and making a decision. Dilemmas are a good reason to fret—they involve options that are all equally undesirable. While every decision involves pros and cons, many caregivers take to seeing all care decisions as dilemmas, and this is a dangerous mindset to adopt.
Rather than framing decisions as lose-lose situations, view decision-making as a valuable opportunity. Yes, we handle scenarios that arise unexpectedly and require quick action, such as medical situations, adeptly. But how often do we choose to make decisions on our own accord? How often do you just wake up and decide to do something differently—hopefully for the better—moving forward? Probably not as often as you should.
Decisions force us out of our comfort zone, yes, but they also give us power. What if a simple choice could actually change the way you feel about your role as a caregiver? What if stepping out of your comfort zone was the first step towards getting a handle on your personal situation? What if making a decision actually made a beneficial difference in your life?
Creating a Plan to Beat Caregiver Burnout
If you’ve been feeling stuck in a cycle of dissatisfaction and “if onlys,” I’d like for you to try something. Make a list of all the things that are causing problems for you. No matter how small they are, be very specific as you list them. Just write. After you make your list, start a master list on another sheet of paper and put the items in order from the most problematic to the least. Perhaps your number one issue is that 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.
Once you’ve made the list, take a break, give yourself credit for acknowledging the reality of your situation and how you feel about it, and then go about your day as usual. The next day, come back to the list and decide to make one change. It doesn’t have to be a big one. Just focus on altering something in your routine or care plan that might minimize the pressure or resentment you feel.
When I first became a caregiver, I thought I had to give up everything to care for this person. It took time for me to become overwhelmed and unhappy enough to realize that I had been sorely mistaken. I finally decided to take matters into my own hands and ask for help. I was terrified and embarrassed to admit that I couldn’t do it all on my own, but I reached out and got the help I needed. In time, I felt a new sense of physical and emotional freedom—two things that had eluded me for months. As a result, I got some of my life back and, consequently, I was a better caregiver!
Understand that “if onlys” don’t have to remain unfulfilled hopes and wishes. There are many things that are not in your immediate control as a caregiver, but do not underestimate your ability to make your own choices and design your own life. Today, sort through your “if onlys.” Get everything down on paper and then make a commitment to yourself that you will make just one small change to improve your situation and begin to rid yourself of caregiver burnout.
If the first attempt isn’t successful, don’t give up. The more you practice taking control of your caregiving situation and your life, the easier it will get. Developing the courage to break out of your comfort zone and prioritize your own well-being will come in handy now and in the future as your loved one’s needs increase.