The Emotion Nobody Talks About: Resentment

by Paula Spencer, Caring.com editor
Many caregivers I’ve asked say rather quickly, “No, not really…Mom needs me.” Or, “Oh no, she’s my wife.” Or some such. It’s only after chatting awhile that hints of a different answer seep out: Feeling a little trapped when they’re unable to plan a summer vacation. Being ignored by siblings who assume they have it all under control (without asking how they’re really doing). Having to abandon or scale back hobbies, and missing them. Admitting to wondering — even if only in the weary wee hours — “Why me?”
There’s a simmering cauldron of tough emotions that most caregivers experience: Guilt, anger, worry, confusion, fear, frustration, imbalance, depression, grief. But I want to zero in on resentment because I think more people feel it than say they do. It’s a caregiving byproduct we’re not socially “allowed” to cop to.
In fact resentment is such an under-the-socially-acceptable-radar emotion, many of us have a hard time even identifying it in ourselves.
Resentment is emblematic of “the problem that has no name.” (That’s Jonathan Rausch brilliantly borrowing from Betty Friedan in his April Atlantic essay, “Letting Go of My Father”: “Today’s invisible caregivers…are being asked to do alone and out of sight what in fact requires not just private sympathy and toleration but public acknowledgement and protective assistance.” Why shouldn’t a person feel resentful, sometimes, about having his or her life hijacked by an unexpected, deeply consuming experience for which there is little preparation or formal support?
To live alongside resentment in peace, try asking yourself these questions:
  • Do I believe I deserve to feel resentful?
Resenting the fix you’re in doesn’t make you a bad person. It makes you a candid one, and being honest about challenges is the best starting place for addressing them. But first you have to give yourself permission to have this hard emotion.
  • Do I come up for air to see the big picture — at least sometimes?
An individual day may stink. The whole year may stink. Taking in a broader perspective of what you’re doing (living the Golden Rule) sometimes helps make it more bearable.
  • Do I have ways to express my resentment?
Part of what makes this a tough emotion is that others so often view it as “unloving” or not “nice.” Kinda makes it tough, then, to vent about it to such people! Crucial: Find one or two to whom you can unload utterly freely, knowing they’ll love and support you no matter what innermost feelings slip your lips. With caregiving, sometimes your best bet is a stranger who’s been there. A private journal or blog works wonders, too.
  • Am I allowing myself to be paralyzed or galvanized by resentment?
No doubt, resentment has a dark side. It can fester into anger that harms your blood pressure, saps energy, and leads you into unhealthy pressure valves (drinking, smoking, overeating). It can lead you to treat your loved one in ways you had no intention of doing. Bad stuff.
So while it’s great to own up to this complex feeling, it’s better if you can put it to good use. Consider it fuel to help you find helpful resources, enlist others in ways large and small, and defend your own health and sanity — things that tamp down the resentment. Ultimately you know that what you resent is the situation, not your loved one. And while any caregiving situation is daunting, it’s not completely uncontrollable. You hold the remote.
Raleigh Geriatric Care Management offers a support group for caregivers and Adult Children of Aging Parents.
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