How to Handle Guilt and Other Caregiving Emotions

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, MS, DO on March 05, 2024
4 min read

Taking care of a loved one with an illness or disability can stir up some complicated emotions. You may have great days when you feel a deep sense of fulfillment and connection. And hard days, filled with guilt, grief, or anger. You might even have conflicting feelings, like love and resentment, at the same time. It can be challenging, and if you don’t pay attention, it’ll wear you down.

No two caregiving experiences are the same. What triggers one person may not be an issue for another. You have your own relationship with your loved one, rich and complex with your shared history. So it’s important to know there’s no formula for what you’ll feel or when. And there are no feelings you “should” or “shouldn’t” have. Emotions just arise whether you want them to or not.

To give the best care you can, it helps to know the kinds of feelings that might come up, how to recognize them, and what you can do to manage them.

Many people have these challenging feelings, at least sometimes. And these emotions can show up in different ways, day to day.

Anger and resentment. From being unappreciated to feeling trapped, caregiving stress can set off your anger. You might lose your temper or blurt out something that you normally wouldn’t.

What you can do: If it happens, forgive yourself. Step away if you need to, or take a few breaths to center yourself.

Fear and anxiety. You may have a long list of concerns: “What if I’m not around when something goes wrong? What if I make a mistake?” Anxiety happens when we feel out of control. It’s also a warning to pay attention and tend to your own needs.

What you can do: Try to avoid focusing too much on what ifs. Keep your attention on things you can control, like making a backup plan for when you can’t be around.

Grief. People usually think of grief when someone dies, but it’s really about loss. When a loved one gets sick, it changes this person you know so well, which affects your relationship, too. That’s a loss.

What you can do: You may need to grieve. Sometimes, you’ll just need to cry. And that’s OK. It’s one way your body releases that pressure.

Guilt. This is very familiar for many caregivers: Guilt that you’re not doing enough, that you should be better at it, that you just want it to end. It’s a swamp you could sink in, but that doesn’t help you or your loved one.

What you can do: Go easy on yourself. If you feel like you’re not doing enough, imagine if you weren’t there -- look at the difference you make every day.

Sadness and depression.Every day, you confront loss and change. Sadness is bound to pop up. If it won’t let go and you think you might be depressed, get help right away.

What you can do: You can start with your doctor or by talking with a therapist. Also, exercise and social activities are great ways to handle sadness and depression. Although they don’t fix the issue, they give you stress relief, energy, a better mood, and a social connection if you work out with other people.

Think of the tips below as tools in your emotional toolbox. You may not use them every day, but you have them when you need them.

Remember, tending to yourself means you’ll be a better caregiver. It’s not selfish. It’s a smart investment in yourself and your loved one.

Accept your experience.All your emotions -- good, bad, and ugly -- are valid. You can’t control them. And the only thing they say about you is that you’re human. The key is to let them be there and try not to act on them. See if you can understand what triggers a feeling. It may guide you to a solution.

Stay active and social.If caregiving takes over your life, you’re likely to burn out. Make time for friends, even if it’s just tea or a phone call after your loved one goes to sleep. And keep up with hobbies, community groups, and activities that bring you joy and meaning.

Take breaks.Schedule them in, if you can. If family or friends can’t buy you time, check with a faith-based or community group. Sometimes, they can send out volunteers to keep your loved one company while you take a break. Everyone needs time to recharge in their own way.

Talk it out.Some days, you just need to vent. Don’t hide your feelings. Talk to friends or family who give you positive support. A therapist can be a great help, too. You can be totally honest without fear of judgment.

Join a support group.You can find them online or in person at places like hospitals, houses of worship, and senior centers. They give you a safe space to talk about your experience. And you can share tips with other caregivers.

Tend to your physical health. Your physical health affects your overall well-being, so don’t let it slide. Try to:

  • Eat healthy
  • Exercise 30 minutes a day
  • Get enough sleep
  • Keep your own doctor’s appointments
  • Meditate or do yoga

Focus on the positive. When you reframe caregiving to focus on the upsides, it helps avoid burnout and depression. For example, maybe you feel:

  • A sense of purpose in your life
  • Closer to your loved one
  • Fulfilled in giving back to someone you love
  • Good about yourself
  • Pleased to model caregiving for your children so they might do the same someday
  • Satisfied knowing that your loved one gets great care