My Mom, who had been diagnosed with dementia, was leaning up against the sink in the bathroom. Her soapy hands were under running water. I was reaching around her trying to gently use a nail brush to clean under her nails; she’d just had another accident and her hands and nails were a mess.
I was desperate to finish the job before she lost her patience. We were both tired and frustrated. She decided she was done, but I tried to coax her to be still for a little while longer. When she became agitated, I tried more coaxing. So, she used a new tactic: she bit me.
I was so shocked and angry, I was afraid I was going to start screaming at her or worse, bite her back! I did yell out in surprise and pain. My pride, ego and heart hurt more than the actual bite.
But with the help of a power greater than myself, I backed away, grabbed the towel I had prepared, handed it to her and left the room.
I took the right route and the high road and the moment passed. I went looking for her and found her sitting in her favorite chair in front of the TV, watching a cowboy movie (her favorite) like nothing had happened. In her mind, of course, the moment was gone forever, forgotten.
Yet something very important had happened. It was not the bite, but my reaction to it. I was shaken to the core with the power of the rage that had exploded in me. I realized how much anger I had built up and how quickly I was in a very scary and dangerous frame of mind.
I needed to take a long hard look at my feelings, come up with a way to help myself manage this anger and begin some radical self-care. I had seen the anger monster, and it had my face on it.
Most caregivers experience anger and frustration daily, but usually feel guilty about it. Denying our right to be angry, we either try to stuff it or ignore it. Sadly, we can’t avoid being angry; it is a natural byproduct of life on life’s terms, especially life as a caregiver.
The danger is not in the actual experience of the emotion but the power of that emotion when ignored or unchecked.
Anger happens. It’s ok. It’s normal. What’s not normal is ignoring it, letting it get the upper hand and feeling bad about it.
Anger cannot always be avoided, but it can be managed. The following three tips helped me to get in touch with my anger so I could process and handle it in an appropriate, healthier way.
Taking a moment at various points of the day to see what and how you are feeling is extremely important. I call this taking your emotional temperature.
Asking yourself if you are Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired allows you to stop (HALT) and evaluate your state of mind and body and take care of yourself if you answer yes to any of these questions.
For instance, you can grab a healthy meal or snack if you are hungry. If you notice you feel angry, you can acknowledge your anger and permit yourself some down time to breathe and treat yourself kindly. If you are lonely, reach out and connect with someone. Finally, if you’re tired and weary, you can rest and take a much-needed break.
These acts of self-care help prevent and alleviate the buildup of stress and anger that can turn into a pressure cooker of emotions waiting to explode. By being in touch with your state of mind and body you can do something to make yourself feel better and perhaps avoid an outburst before it happens.
If I had a nickel for every time I felt almost instant relief when I made a phone call to a friend while in a state of anger, desperation or anxiety, I would be a very rich lady!
The very act of reaching out to talk to someone rather than keeping it all bottled up and in our heads, helps us to release tension and stress. Having someone sympathize – or even just listen – can validate our feelings. We feel less isolated and crazy.
Getting our feelings out into the air instead of stuffing them makes them real and easier to understand and process. We gain a much better perspective sometimes just by saying things out loud to someone who can empathize.
Go easy on yourself. No one is perfect. We are all human and everyone makes mistakes. Life is a complicated process and caregivers are especially vulnerable to the emotional side effects of caring for others. The caregiver journey is demanding, overwhelming and intense; emotions run high.
If you do lose your temper, take a break and chalk it up to being human. While it is never healthy to let our emotions run wild, unchecked and uncensored, it’s not unusual that caregivers feel a wide range of strong emotions during the day.
I was often in tears or had steam coming out of my ears on a daily basis. However, beating ourselves for having these understandable and normal emotions adds insult to injury and stops us from processing our emotions in a positive, healthy way.
Give yourself a break. Learn to forgive yourself for being human, and give yourself permission to feel your feelings. Feeling angry is part of the territory. Feeling bad about feeling angry is self-destructive and damaging.
Hit the restart button and let go of the guilt. Everything is a growth opportunity and you’ll get better at anger management if you are kind to yourself.
When my Mom bit me, I was tired, upset, frustrated, angry at the world and worn out. I wasn’t even aware I had so much anger inside, and I wasn’t taking care of myself or managing my needs properly.
I had let myself down by not being aware I was hurting and paid the price. The good news is that this experience made me see I was just as responsible for my state of mind and body as I was for my Mom’s.
Self-care and awareness are the ultimate weapons to managing anger and stress. This includes checking on your needs, reaching out to family and friends, and most importantly, compassionately allowing yourself to be human.
What do you think is the hardest thing about being a caregiver? Have you ever found yourself in a state of caregiver anger? How did you deal with it? Please share your experiences below!