I Feel So Guilty

by Phyllis Larkin, Psy.D
Geriatric and Family Psychologist

Many of those caring for a loved one from abroad feel guilty. Should we?

Let’s take a closer look at this powerful, and misunderstood, emotion in relation to our aging loved ones.

Guilt | Definition by Merriam-Webster
1: responsibility for having done something wrong and especially something against the law. He admitted his guilt.

2:  a feeling of shame or regret as a result of bad conduct. Other Words from guilt. guiltless \ -​ləs \ adjective.

According to Webster, one must have committed an offense. This results in guilt,  the appropriate reaction. Guilt generates feelings of regret for doing wrong. The guilt reaction calls us to change our behavior and make things right with those we have harmed.  

So what have we done wrong?

Most caregivers feel there is “always more” that they can or “should” be doing to make their loved ones lives nicer, easier or more pleasant. “Should” is the problem here. “Should” implies the expectation that you can do all the things others want, regardless of the impact on your life, health, finances or living conditions. Guilt often comes when we can’t meet an “expectation,” yet feel obligated to meet the expectation anyway. Guilt tells you that you “should” be able to meet the expectation even if the demands are unreasonable or unfeasible. But are you guilty? Or are you being harsh with yourself? Let's ask some basic questions about your expectations for yourself:

  • What can you do from abroad?  
  • What is reasonable?  
  • What is appropriate?  

I would encourage you to answer these questions as if you were judging a respected friend or family member.  

  • Would you expect anyone else to meet the obligation given the circumstances?
  • Are you being asked to sacrifice your financial security? Can you afford to contribute to your loved one’s expenses? If you can, how much?  
  • Are you capable of the tasks being requested? Driving to medical appointments is impossible. Reviewing household bills is possible if you are given access via websites or PDF files.  
  • Are resentment or anger preventing you from meeting responsibilities you are capable of? Then you may be feeling appropriate guilt that demands changes to your behavior.
  • Are you breaking laws? Then you are truly guilty and the feeling is congruent with your behavior.
  • Are you feeling irresponsible, even though you are meeting your commitments and doing the best you can? Then the feeling of guilt is unwarranted and needs to be examined. Replace the guilt with an appropriate feeling. You might feel sadness at your loved one's decline, anger that things haven’t gone as you would have liked or grief at the loss of connection due to living abroad.

Healthy guilt is warranted when we have acted immorally, unlawfully, or disrespectfully.

It calls us to change our behavior and results in self-improvement.

Unwarranted guilt is counterproductive. It generates feelings of worthlessness and remorse for responsibilities that are out of our control or our ability to meet them.  Unwarranted guilt does not improve anyone's lives. It just makes us feel bad about ourselves. We feel helpless to change our behavior and this prevents us from doing what we can for those we love.

This prayer can help us decide what we can do and what we can’t:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

— American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971)