Let’s talk about a person – ‘ X’ – caregiver to a chronically ill or permanently disabled family member. X is aware that a caregiver needs frequent breaks, even if small ones. So X diligently finishes a long list of chores, takes the trouble to make a cup of tea, and sits down to enjoy it. Before the first sip, the patient needs attention. X’s tea break is unexpectedly over! When this happens again and again…boom! X is filled with anger.
Understanding Anger – The Feelings and are they wrong?
The follow-up to the above scenario might be censure and criticism from others, guilt on the part of X, or just sheer exhaustion! Anger consumes a lot of emotional energy. That, in turn, leads to the cycle of more tiredness, frustration, a greater need for a break, a repeat of the whole process, ad infinitum.
Let’s dwell on the phrase “filled with anger” which X experiences in the above story. If we had to write down a detailed description of what this anger feels like, what would it include?
X’s list goes something like this: A flash, then a burn…Discomfort around the temples and forehead, like a continuous thudding, sometimes a vibration. Shaking hands…A foul taste in the mouth…The urge to scream and the lack of control over this urge. Quick to rise, slow to extinguish, accompanied by uneven breathing, and eventually, exhaustion at the end of each episode. Feel free to add your own observations to this list!
As caregivers, we know that anger at the situation we are in is normal. We try to manage the anger by mindful breathing, expressing though art, talking to others, etc. But what if none of this works? As a caregiver, is X not allowed to BE angry, without trying to “manage” it or cure it? So what if X is angry? So what if X shouts?
Anger as catharsis?
According to some psychologists, this “anger as catharsis” approach might not, be all bad. Besides, such anger is directed randomly – sometimes at the patient, sometimes at our situation and life in general. It could be at society at large or at people totally unconnected, who happen to cross our path at that instant. It is difficult to either predict the onset or the trajectory of anger, making it hard to control.
Resentment versus Anger
While trying to understand X’s anger, let’s try to check whether that anger is accompanied by resentment. A caregiver’s anger is trigger-based and temporary in most cases. It comes and goes. Resentment is a simmering sense of dissatisfaction and injustice – coming from reliving the feelings associated with a person or event. If X were asked to do the same exercise of detailed description that was done for anger, very little would get written down, because there are no clear external markers, as there are with episodes of anger.
Anger is the expression of an emotion. Resentment, on the other hand, is a condition, almost always damaging for the person who has it. It may or may not be accompanied by anger. Caregivers who might not express anger might still harbour resentment against the person they are caring for or against their situation:
Resentment against the person cared for
It’s worth remembering that not all caregiver-patient relationships are happy, loving ones. It also depends on the nature of the bond before the rise of the caregiving situation. Resentment against the patient might be the result of a dysfunctional relationship and caregiving might just be an added burden on that very relationship. In some cases though, the relationship evolves since the patient is no longer the same person as a result of illness. They may be fussier, crankier, or just not able to control their emotions and actions, which could lead to a build-up of “he/she is doing this on purpose”.
Resentment against the situation – uncoupling it from the patient
Resentment against one’s situation as a caregiver is very common. Again, challenges, such as those with life, career, other relationships or the lack thereof, etc, unrelated to caregiving, may seep into the resentment that builds up in a caregiver over time. The question “Why me?” raises its persistent head unexpectedly and yet frequently. The feeling of being trapped, of not having a life, is one that many caregivers experience, leading to a continuous state of resentment and bitterness.
The underlying factor here is a sense of being a victim of injustice. Dealing with this feeling is the first crucial step. If non-caregiving reasons are giving rise to resentment, it is important to recognise this and separate it from one’s caregiving situation. Otherwise, we would end up conflating the two, and blaming our caregiving situation as responsible for our feeling of injustice. We need to determine if it is indeed our caregiving situation that has caused our life to be upended, that gives rise to this feeling of being trapped, leading to resentment.
For instance, did we have a fantastic career that we had to give up because of caregiving? Or did we not have a job to begin with, for reasons other than related to caregiving or the patient? Is a failed relationship with a spouse a result of our caregiving duties, or because of some problems intrinsic to the marriage? It needs thought, honest evaluation and a lot of effortful introspection to understand and pinpoint the real causes, and then deal with them accordingly AND separately.
If we do conclude that our unjust situation is indeed caused by our caregiving circumstances, what next? How do we end this sense of resentment and bitterness towards our situation or towards the person we are looking after? First of all, yes, we should try to end it, because, as mentioned earlier here, it is a damaging condition, corrosive and poisonous. It will eventually harm us more than our circumstances will. So, let’s try to find ways to handle resentment.
Four steps to weaken the power of resentment
- Accepting one’s situation as a caregiver is not the same as “giving up”. To accept is to be realistic and to face the limitations while caregiving. If our dream has been to travel the world on a sailboat for a year, we have to accept that, as a caregiver, this is one dream that’s not going to come true in the near future! If it means letting go of old dreams and setting new equally energizing goals for ourselves, so be it. A high level of acceptance will promote a good chance of meeting these new goals, thereby ultimately adding to our own well-being.
- Accepting our sense of resentment is also important. If we don’t acknowledge our resentment, how can we ever hope to rid ourselves of it and make ourselves feel better?
Easy to say, hard to do! But sometimes, a practical approach like “sacrificing” one’s expectations, even to a small degree, can help achieve a great deal of mental peace. Here, expectations cover the whole range: for instance, to expect the patient to improve against medical predictions is a deadly trap of disappointment. Likewise, any expectation of behavioural change from the patient is a common cause of resentment, built up over time. Don’t expect your situation to improve; it might just surprise you by doing so!
Fight for Your Right
We need to convince ourselves that, if we have a right to be resentful because of circumstances, we also have a right to be happy. By allowing resentments to take over, we are denying ourselves the right to be happy, to experience peace. We are ourselves then undervaluing our own life.
This may require some effort, but is definitely worth it. If we begin to give ourselves enough time and space to do something that adds value to our life, our resentment against our situation or our patient will decrease. The more time we spend on adding value to our life, the more our resentment will decrease. So, being practical means, we have to start taking a few, however small, steps in the right direction. Identify what we can and want to do, plan, get online, join groups, join online classes, whatever we like doing, we need to give it a try. It doesn’t always have to be “worthwhile” or “healthy” or “good” according to others’ or your own standards, Watching mindless TV for 15 minutes, but enjoying it fully without any other thought, will lead to 15 minutes less of those resentful feelings!
Back to X
Meanwhile, what’s happening to X’s problems? Well, let’s assume X wakes up one morning, definitely wiser and relatively, temporarily calmer!
How? Because X has made a few resolutions:
First – I am a human caregiver so I will behave, react, feel, think like a normal human most of the time, not like a superhero/ine! That means, I will know that I am imperfect, and I will not put added pressure on myself to attain a mythical level of perfection. This first point subsumes the remaining points below,but they are worth making explicit.
Second – As long as the triggers of my anger remain, I will react with anger, as that is a normal and natural response. I will try my best to understand what the triggers are and to resolve them but I will also face the fact that some triggers are not in my control.
Third – I will try all possible ways to work on anger management, whetherprofessional therapy or home remedies.–Some like counting to 10, taking deep breaths, chanting, punching a pillow (X claims this really helps!)leaving the room and going to another corner of the house (not many have this luxury of space!) are physical. Some are emotional like later, talking about the issue that made me angry. I will do whatever it takes, because I am aware that anger harms my health, apart from all other unpleasant consequences.
Fourth – If I am angry, I will allow myself the legitimacy of that feeling and will not feel guilty because a bout of anger followed by a bout of guilt is a recipe for disaster. It will only mean I am setting myself up to fail, and my caregiving to fail as well. This is why the first point is so important – we feel guilt after anger because we see ourselves as less than perfect. We think that a perfect caregiver, spouse, child, parent, etc, would not, and should not be, angry while looking after those in our care.
So, the question at the start, “Why can’t X be angry? Why must X always try to cure or manage this genuine feeling?” is very valid. As we figure out ways to deal with anger, we must, at the same time, accept our anger as a legitimate, human response to our tough caregiving situation. Letting it out at times is not always a bad thing!
We wish X all the best and hope that next time we meet, X will report much success!
And finally, who is X? Some of X is in me. Is there a part of X in you, too? 🙂
About The Author
Ara Shah is the sole caregiver to her mother. Has read extensively on matters related to caregiving and is able to help and advise others but is not so good at practicing what she preaches!