Caregiver anger and resentment are normal
“Where there is anger, there is always pain underneath.”
We all know that caregiving brings all range of emotions, mixed and tumbled, varying day by day. You may have always known that you would be a caregiver or volunteered for this role, so you may have known what this role entails. Or maybe you have been forced into it due to a crisis. If your situation is the latter, you may find yourself feeling a variety of negative feelings, and anger and resentment are for sure among them. These emotions are particularly challenging and confusing for caregivers. They are caregivers’ dirty little secrets. They are not uncommon, just mostly unspoken, because they don’t fit the exterior picture – a noble act of caring for someone in need.
Is it okay to feel angry? Is it okay to occasionally hate the person I’m caring for? What did I do to deserve this? How do I process these feelings? What do I do with them, and how do I move beyond this hell? You ask yourself these question and then feel guilty and ashamed because we are conditioned by our upbringing and social expectations to match what we show, speak and feel. You then try to sugar-coat the dark thoughts and inspire yourself with socially expected ideals of caring, but it doesn’t always work, and you end up feeling worse in every sense, not just angry. You feel like a terrible human being.
For consolation, you are not alone there. Anger and resentment are very natural and expected responses to long-term caregiving, especially in caring for aged parents. You can feel these feelings and still be a good caregiver. The trick is to recognize the triggers and learn how to manage your emotions before they take you over.
Anger is an entirely normal, usually healthy human emotion. There is almost no one who at least sometimes doesn’t feel annoyed, frustrated or outraged. It’s our natural adaptive response to different threats, and it can vary in the ways of manifestation and intensity. It is not only expressed loudly and violently, as we usually visualize this state. Anger is a much more complex sentiment. Usually, our training and upbringing, with social norms and expectations in the background, dictate how we express it and deal with it.
More complex relationships are likely to bring more space to feel negative emotions, and anger is amongst them. Having in count how overwhelming caregiving can be, it is clear that it is an open door towards this emotion. It is more than expected that it will emerge at some point in the course of caregiving.
If you are caring for a family member who is aging, disabled or living with a chronic disease, you have probably already learnt how demanding and consuming care can be, both physically and mentally. It can be exhausting, repressing and, let’s admit it, sometimes utterly disgusting. As hard as the physical aspect is, it doesn’t even begin to compare to the emotional stress. Being in charge of another person’s life is a great responsibility. Living on stand-by, constantly at alert, both prepared and unprepared for what may occur, sunk in worry and what-ifs is draining. In caregiving, many things repeatedly happen – repetitive tasks, ups and downs. The pressure takes its toll on caregiver sooner or later. It becomes harder to handle situations calmly and easier to get frustrated and angry. But, for caregivers, it’s not just anger that they have to deal with. It’s a swamp of mixed unwieldy feelings – fear, guilt, shame, sadness and grief.
What causes caregiver anger?
The origins and triggers of that extra dollop of intense negative feelings can come from different places. Sometimes they are obvious and direct: external causes out of your control, like the disease itself, uncooperative loved one, unfair criticism, one too many mishaps in a day. They also can be less evident, like exhaustion, lack of sleep, suppressed emotions and disappointment.
Lack of control.
Anger is a normal and predictable reaction to situations over which we have little or no control. In caregiving, the number of things over which you have no control is practically limitless – starting with the disease’s development to your inability to control other people’s behavior. Depending upon the diagnosis, your care recipient may be going through a notable personality change. If you’re caring for someone with cognitive impairment (like Alzheimer’s or dementia), you might be on the receiving end of irrational and sometimes even aggressive behavior. You cannot control these things, and you can find yourself angry at the disease, healthcare providers, system, and the care recipient.
You are losing yourself.
When we need to start providing care for someone who needs us, we usually have to put everything aside and adapt to new circumstances and everyday routines. At the beginning of caregiving, we are occupied with finding our way through a new way of life. The focus is on dealing with the needs at hand, and all activities and things we love to do are on hold. Caregiving often consists of repetitive tasks, repetitive conversations, all the same, and mostly worse with time. You feel like you are losing yourself in every other field that was defining you as a person. Over time, this invalidation of who you are drains you of energy and joy. You feel angry about missing out on your life. You may feel like caregiving is stealing your precious time. It’s a conflict situation – you want to care for a loved one, but at the same time, you want to be anywhere else, especially on a bad day. It can be very consuming, sometimes impossible, to balance everything.
This is particularly evident if you are a sandwich caregiver who is taking care of the parents, your own family and working at the same time. It is true – caregiving affects all aspects of your life and all your other relationships. And it can last for years. You feel trapped, hopeless and can hardly find any motivation to go on.
You feel underappreciated.
Caregivers learn the hard way how challenging is this role, how much effort and personal sacrifice it requires. But it often happens that this is not acknowledged by the care recipient and other family members less involved in the caregiving process. You feel being put upon.
Both anger and fear are associated with our deep need for a sense of control. Fear of death is incorporated in caregiving. You fear how the disease may progress or what else may occur. With all other things on your plate, you are also simultaneously coping with the anticipatory grief of losing the person you love. These are the things beyond your control, and that can make you angry. But dreading over the things that are in your power also can render anxiety. You are questioning your caregiving. Are you doing everything correctly? Are you anticipating well all necessary needs in case your care recipient cannot articulate them? What if your caregiving is what is making the situation worse? When we are afraid of something, we often unconsciously choose anger as a way to control and express our fears.
You feel guilty for not being the best at caregiving. You might feel guilty about the things that happened in the past. You feel guilty for not doing enough. You feel guilty for not wanting to be so consumed by caregiving. You feel guilty for neglecting yourself and other things from your (previous) life. You feel guilty for feeling frustrated and angry. Then you are angry because of everything you are putting yourself through, and you drag yourself right back into servitude with submissive devotion. Which also makes you angry because you are not changing anything.
With so many possible triggers, the question is not whether you will get angry or not – you certainly will. The real question is, how will you choose to manage it? If it gets out of control, it can lead to many problems. It is essential to find a way to express and channel the frustration that naturally occurs in caregiving over time.
Your anger style
Almost no one is never angry. Some will show it more outwardly, and some will deal with it silently inside themselves. We can react in many different ways when we are provoked, showing mere annoyance or full-blown rage. There are various classifications of anger types, depending on triggers, impulsivity, direction, intensity, etc.
Recognizing and understanding your anger style can help you determine the triggers and learn how to manage your reactions. These are some of the most common anger types. If you are unsure which one is your type, ask someone close to you who witnessed your stress situations to help you identify it.
It’s a very straight-forward, impulsive, immediate reaction – like throwing a tantrum. If you react intensively to even the smallest thing you perceive as annoying, you probably accumulated enough frustration that doesn’t need much to burst. This reaction can be verbal and physical – yelling, breaking objects, slamming doors, even a physical attack on another person. The emotion can be intense and overwhelming but short-lasting, vanishing as suddenly as it appeared. Short-tempered acting first and then thinking later usually brings feelings of guilt and embarrassment once you cool off after these outbursts.
There could be various reasons why you hold your temper and don’t express anger in real-time. It could be your upbringing and social norms. Maybe you don’t want to upset your care recipient and make the situation worse for everyone. Maybe you know it wouldn’t make a difference. You bite your tongue and swallow the insult. Rather than saying what’s on your mind and confronting the person who’s the cause of your frustration, you will avoid the discussion. You will fake it, acting as a docile, yes-to-all persona just to get through another unpleasant situation. You will turn another cheek and get another punch.
There are two outcomes when you accumulate your anger. It could end up with a catastrophic explosion once it all becomes too much to handle. This discharge can hurt others and your relationship with them. On the other hand, putting yourself into emotional dormancy for an extended period leads to depression, anxiety and alienation.
Passive-aggressive anger is when you express frustration and negative feelings indirectly instead of openly talking about them. Anger and resentment are wrapped in superficially neutral, even pleasant depiction. There is a disconnection between words, acts and true feelings. You may do it to avoid a confrontation, but you do want to cue others to what you really feel. Or, it could be returning a favor to the passive-aggressive care recipient, which leads to a very toxic setup. Argumentative attitude, sarcastic remarks, routine moans about feeling underappreciated, and constant complaints give this hidden anger a harsh voice. Verbal anger is supported by passive-aggressive acts, from silent treatments, sulking, meer ignorance to open hostility to the care recipient and all others.
Although the poisonous arrows are designated to agitate others, they harm the aggressor most. The problem with passive-aggressive anger is that it can cause you to hang on to your negative emotions for a very long time, inevitably leading to resentment and depression. All relationships slowly erode and ultimately are destroyed. The care recipient usually has no choice. How they deal with it depends hugely on their health condition and physical dependence. Others can tolerate it for some time, but they will eventually get tired. Avoidance is the next step, leaving the bitter caregiver alienated and lonely.
Objects of anger.
Also, it is important to notice who is the object of your anger – is it a person who causes it, or are you projecting it to others or yourself. Those who project anger often do so because they are afraid of expressing or confronting the person who is upsetting them because of various underlying reasons. Instead of resolving a problem directly with that person, they are venting on others, such as partner, kids, pets or even unknown people (“Karen” style). Projective anger can seriously and irreparably damage your relationship with the persons you are unloading your anger upon. It can also lead to a strong feeling of guilt on your part.
As the opposite of the projective anger, which is directed to the external world, there is self-abusive anger. This one is deceitful, eating from inside, with low self-esteem, shame, guilt and bitterness. It is usually expressed indirectly through negative self-talk, substance abuse, disordered eating and sleeping patterns. Sometimes, when eventually all is too much, it can manifest in an explosion of rage towards others, which only deepens the feelings of guilt, alienation, and loneliness.
Escalation into abuse and violence.
Uncontrolled frustration and anger can take a turn for the worse and transform into abuse and violence as a way of venting out. Abuse in family caregiving is very complicated and complex as there are usually many underlying reasons for its occurrence strongly tied to previous family dynamics and relations.
An angry caregiver can demonstrate various kinds of abuses on the care recipient – from verbal abuse and bullying, manipulation, emotional, physical, sexual, financial, to neglect and abandonment. Abuse is an intentional action, although many abusers don’t see themselves as such. It is important to say that this can go vice versa – not rarely caregivers are the victims of the abuse from their care recipients. Depending on the ailment of patients with cognitive impairments, some abusive behaviors are not intentional, as they are not even aware of what they are doing. Inability to influence the care recipient’s actions and solve these abusive situations puts a heavy burden on caregivers dealing with these care circumstances.
In both cases of family caregiving abuse, there are solutions. Family caregiving is still a choice, even if you are forced into this role. Unfortunately, abusive situations in caregiving are not uncommon, and there are professionals trained to deal specially with these situations. Counselling, therapy and assistance in the specialized institutions and support groups may help. Sometimes indirect care is the best option. It is essential to recognize the red flags and take actions before anger leads to unrepairable damages for all parties involved.
Anger vs Resentment – What is the difference?
Even the most compassionate caregivers experience frustration and anger because they are simply part of the caregiving experience.
Caregiver resentment is mainly felt toward the care recipient, especially if a caregiver was forced into this role. It’s frequent in caring for aging parents. Even if you voluntarily accepted the caregiver role, you might feel seized by obligations and with no control of your own life. If you don’t have help from other family members, your anger and resentment will spread toward everyone. You feel being put upon, and you are making yourself a victim. It’s an attempt to justify that you are right. You are putting the blame on other persons – they are the problem, not you. You even fantasize about revenge for all their wrongdoings. Every new situation that annoys you builds up your anger and resentment.
So, what is the difference between the two? If you feel resentment, you also feel anger. Anger is like a sudden emotion, a reaction, a self-defence mechanism – you react, in one way or another. Resentment is persistent anger that builds up when there is no outlet for feeling frustrated and hurt. If the situations that agitate you occur repeatedly, and if you keep dwelling in your anger and allowing it to persist, you are willingly choosing to go down the road to resentment. You are practically granting anger to ferment into resentment.
“Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.”
It is sneaky. If you let it set in, it will tame you. It will not solve any problems, it will not change other persons for the better, but it will decrease your self-esteem and increase your self-pitty. And it’s contagious – it will spread and contaminate all other aspects and relationships in your life, often mixed with a sense of shame and guilt for having those feeling at all. It will take the joy out of your life, make you bitter and close you down.
of the ways how you can cope with caregiver anger and resentment.
Caregiving is noble, and it can be beautiful and rewarding. Still, sometimes it can be hard to see that and focus on good things when you are overwhelmed by duties. Having negative feelings is a normal part of life, especially in family life, and even more so in long-term caregiving. Feeling anger and resentful doesn’t mean you don’t love the person you are caring for. It doesn’t mean you awful at caregiving or that you are a terrible person. You are just a human. But, continuously bottling up your negative emotions or letting them take you over or escalate will hurt you first.
“Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.”
Remember – you need to feel good yourself to provide good care for your loved ones. You must not neglect yourself and your emotions, especially the burdening ones. It is possible and necessary for you to learn how to cope with caregiver anger and resentment as you go through this journey. You are not alone there – reach out.