Emotions of the Highly Effective Caregiver

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Gary Gilles is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor in private practice for over 20 years. He is also an adjunct faculty member at the University ...Read More

Let’s begin with a quiz to see how much you know about the emotional side of caregiving. Choose the one answer below you think best fits the question:

Caregiving routinely elicits which of the following emotions:


a. sadness
b. overwhelmed
c. guilt
d. anger
e. joy
f. all of the above

If you answered, “all of the above,” congratulations, you earn high marks as a human being. Not that your status in the human race was in question before the quiz, but some caregivers operate as if emotions should be avoided; as if they are not part of the human condition. Charlie, for instance, is caring for his wife with multiple sclerosis. When he feels sad about the losses he and his family are experiencing, he attempts to “make the sadness go away” by watching television late into the night. While there is nothing wrong with some distraction to take your mind off of current stressors, Charlie does this repeatedly to avoid his feelings. What he really needs is to acknowledge that he feels a deep sadness – perhaps even shed tears about his losses – and talk to a trusted family member, friend or professional who could support him in working through these difficult changes. Instead, he chooses to ignore the obvious emotional symptoms and tells himself that he must remain “strong” for his wife and family.

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Strength or weakness?

But is it a sign of strength to avoid emotion? Psychologists would almost universally say no. It takes more courage to face the emotion than to avoid it. Because we are social beings, we have an innate need to not only feel our emotions but express them. When we attempt to hold them inside we are working against the way we are made. It has been likened to holding an inflatable beach ball under water. Only with great difficulty can you submerge it and then for only a short time before it breaks upon the surface again. Our emotions are like that. They naturally move toward expression, if we let them.

Not only is expressing your emotions a strength, but it is healthier than avoidance. Numerous studies have shown that people who acknowledge and express their emotion are physically and mentally more resilient to stress and infection. In contrast, those who hold their emotions inside often have weaker immune systems and therefore are at greater risk for a host of conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and arthritis.

It’s not a question of whether emotions arise in your role as caregiver, but rather how you will respond to them. Highly effective caregivers use their emotion as an asset to learn new things about themselves and their loved one. Not only does this help you to better care for yourself, but also enables you to provide better care for your loved one.

Understanding and working with your emotions

Caregiving for a loved one brings on a whole mix of emotion. Here are some tips of how to manage your emotions in a healthy manner:

  • Acknowledge your emotion. Admit that you are feeling an emotion even though it may be unpleasant and accept that it is yours.
  • Identify your feeling. Try to label what it is that you feel: Sad, overwhelm, guilt, anger, depression, etc. Just having a name for it is an important starting point.
  • Find the trigger. What circumstance or person triggered the emotion?
  • Explore cause and effect. What is it about that circumstance or person that makes you feel a certain way? What does that situation or person mean to you?
  • Express your emotion. Talk about your identified emotion with someone you trust, or write them down. Sometimes writing helps you to make the feeling more concrete and begins the problem-solving process. Talk to a professional if you feel stuck or overwhelmed.
  • Make a plan. Figure out what you can do differently the next time you experience that emotion for a similar reason. Make your plan concrete and measurable, such as: When I get angry with my wife I will apologize that same day instead of letting it build up. It’s not good enough to simply say, ‘I will try harder next time.’ You have to know specifically what you will change and how.
  • Apply your understanding. The more you learn about your emotion and how you respond to it, the more you are able to generalize that awareness to other situations and see progress there as well.
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