Guilt is something that most of us experience at some point in our lives. As parents and caregivers it seems to be an emotion with which we become quite well acquainted. That has certainly been my observation when looking at other parents/loved ones in the support groups to which I have belonged and it was certainly the case with myself.
The onset of my son’s illness was very insidious and he was quite adept at hiding it. As I have stated in other posts though, we were also quite adept at not wanting to see it. The signs were there and the truth is that I didn’t see them until the eating disorder had gotten quite a firm hold on him. I waited too long and, for that, I carried a great deal of guilt.
Over the years I have learned how to process that guilt and we have all moved on in positive directions, but it was hard. Working through that guilt and dealing with our son’s illness in general has changed me in many ways. In this post, I will talk about what I learned about guilt and the ways in which I would hope to help someone else that I cared for to deal with theirs.
I love baseball. As an Orioles fan, I have learned the art of hope and patience over the past 15-20 years. Baseball players are in the field just about every night and they make a lot of plays. A third baseman probably fields thousands of balls during the course of his career. While he might be the best third baseman in the game, there will be errors. Those errors might even cost runs or contribute to the loss of that particular game, but it didn’t cost the season. That third baseman wasn’t thinking that the hot ground ball screaming down the third base line was just too hard to get to, so why not let the left fielder do it. He was diving for the ball or it took a bad hop, or he just plain missed it because he was having a bad night, but the ball got away and an error occurred. As parents and caregivers we are fielding those balls all the time. It can seem that we never get a chance to bat; we are always playing defense. Caring for someone with an eating disorder is like having to field those balls without the benefits of the stadium lights. We are often lied to, having things hidden from us, and receiving little information about what is really going on with our loved one. Mistakes and errors will occur. That is just simply part of being human. What is amazing is that we make as few mistakes as we do in a setting where the balls never stop coming.
Guilt is not always as bad as it may seem. Sometimes it points out to us that we owe an apology or need to make a change. I am not saying that guilt is desirable or that we should spend our time wallowing in guilt or that we should let ourselves become paralyzed and beaten up with guilt. What I am saying is that the fact that we feel guilt tells us that we care. It tells us that our intentions were not malicious because, if that was the case, we would likely not be feeling very guilty about it. So the fact is we didn’t intend to cause pain or harm. That we feel guilt tells us that there is some depth of character to us. We feel guilt because we have compassion and we are interested in something and someone other than ourselves. We don’t see the world and events simply as how they affect us, but we see and feel how they affect others, especially those that we love.
Guilt can help us learn and to grow. Guilt is generally born out of something that we said or did that caused someone else pain. Or it is something that we failed to recognize or do that caused pain or allowed an undesirable situation to develop or worsen. The guilt I am referring to here is related to parents/caregivers, particularly those caring for someone with an eating disorder. There is certainly survivor’s guilt, guilt suffered by trauma/abuse victims, etc., but that is a bit different than what I am referring to here.
We can learn what it was that caused us to do or fail to do that thing that is causing our guilt. In my case it was not recognizing and intervening sooner than I did. It was allowing disagreements about when to force treatment to cloud my mother’s judgment or “sixth sense” that it needed to be now. It was allowing myself to be lulled into the fantasy that it wasn’t that bad. I worked to learn why I was so afraid and why I was paralyzed for so long before taking action. I learned that humans are complex and that our own past shapes how we respond to our present situation and to crises. I learned that because we are human and, therefore, imperfect, we are subject to making poor choices at times, to hiding from what is painful or frightening, to missing clues that we should have seen, to making impulsive decisions when we are angry or scared, to failing to see the bigger picture, to failing to act when we should have, and to just plain making mistakes. Sometimes those mistakes are costly, but it is part of the human condition.
We can grow from the experience of guilt. We can see human frailty much more clearly and with compassion. We might not agree with the poor decision or lapse in judgment made by someone else, but we can understand how it happened, how they got to the point that they made that decision or felt that they had no other choices. We can feel someone else’s pain much more acutely. Hopefully, we can incorporate all of that knowledge and growth and apply it to ourselves and treat ourselves with that same compassion that we would lavish on others.
When I was feeling so guilty, I was fortunate to have loving people try to help me overcome it. I found many things helpful and some, while well meaning, not quite as helpful. I didn’t find cliché phrases such as “guilt is a wasted emotion” to be helpful. I understood the sentiment, but it didn’t change anything for me. The fact was that I did make a mistake that did have an impact on my son. I did not cause his eating disorder and my mistake didn’t cost him his life and it certainly was in no way intended to cause him harm. That said, it still was a serious mistake and hearing that I shouldn’t feel guilty didn’t help much because the fact was I did feel guilty.
What was helpful was having someone just listen to me and tell me that they understood what I was feeling. Having someone to hold my hand and allow me to be honest about what I felt without telling me that I shouldn’t feel that way was helpful. Listening to my feelings of guilt, but pointing out to me that guilt was not something that should be used to beat oneself with or used to prove a case that one is a failure was wise and welcome. It was helpful to be told that guilt does not define who we are. It was helpful to be told that guilt is a wound that, if we are gentle with it, will heal with time. It reminds us of our human frailty and can make us a better friend/partner/parent if we work through it. It helped to hear that forgiving myself would make me stronger and set a good example for my child. It was helpful to know that I could take this very uncomfortable feeling and turn it into something positive by learning about myself and what lead to my indecision. I would become a better caregiver with this knowledge and with the compassion and empathy I now had through this experience. It helped to know that it was Ok to acknowledge and honor those guilty feelings, but it was not Ok to flagellate myself with them or to remain stuck there. Patience with myself was just as important as patience with others. It would take time to sort things out and to work through those feelings, but it was important that it be done because pretending they don’t exist or telling myself that I “shouldn’t” feel that way wasn’t going to make them disappear. Lastly, it was helpful to be reminded that in most cases the mistake in question doesn’t cause irreparable harm. The mistake was not the cause of the eating disorder and most likely didn’t cause damage that could not be repaired. It may have contributed to the loss of that particular game, but not the season, so to speak.
Those are the things that I would want to do for and to communicate to someone I care about while they are in the midst of guilt. As caregivers we have so many opportunities to feel guilty. Sometimes it is because we made a mistake in our human weakness and sometimes that guilt is thrust upon us unjustly in the throes of the anger and frustration felt by our eating disorder sufferers. In either case, that guilt must not become the stick with which we measure our self worth nor the stick with which we beat ourselves. It should be acknowledged and worked through, hopefully with the help of a trusted relative, friend, or therapist so that we come out on the other side armed with knowledge and experience.