I Feel so Guilty

Question:

I take care of my ailing mother, and I’m very willing to do it. One problem though, is that she expects more than I can provide. I know that if I give her all the time she wants from me, her life would be better. On the other hand, mine would be worse, and by a larger proportion -a net loss between the two of us. She cannot recognize this, and her expressions of sadness at the neglect she experiences makes my want to cry. I am plagued by guilt. What can I do?

 

Answer:

Guilt is an interesting word. It’s a feeling, and it’s also a status based on fact. A feeling is never right or wrong. We cannot “correct” an emotion. But a fact is either true on untrue. We are either guilty of doing something wrong, or we are not guilty. If we do something wrong, then we should feel guilty. It’s an important emotion, a signal that you are not aligned with your values and your community. To feel better, we have to make things right, and stop the improper behavior. If you have earned guilt and don’t feel guilty, it could be a problem.

On the other hand, it’s easy to feel guilty when we aren’t actually guilty of anything. If you take some time to attend to other matters and to rejuvenate yourself, and your dependent mother complains, you are getting a signal from her that you’ve done something wrong, that you’re unfairly causing her pain. You could assume guilt, and of course you’ll feel guilty. But then you could ask:

• Is this signal from my mother an accurate one?

• If she say’s I am unfair could she be wrong?

• If she does not take responsibility for her own contentment, then must I assume the duty?

• Are there other signals telling me I am not unfair? There is my doctor’s advice, my friends, my wife, an article, etc..

• Is it not possible to be compassionate and “selfish” at the same time?

There is another aspect to this. Without guilt, you would probably still feel badly. It is hard, and sad, to see your mother suffer. And it is harder to experience a degree of helplessness in the face of this. It is difficult to accept this limitation in the ability to help someone you love. But there is an escape. If you assume guilt, the implication is that you are making a choice. Even the implication that you are making a bad choice still implies that you have some control. Oddly, this sense of having power is easier to fathom than to fully acknowledge the lack of power. So, you could make the harder – but perhaps more wholesome and congruent – stark sadness about your mother’s suffering. Or there is the possibly easier – but less authentic – sense of guilt. I’m not which is more appealing.

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Tom Linde M.S.W.
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