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Apologizing After a Caregiving Blowup

By Carol Bradley Bursack

Caregiving, even during the best of times, can be stressful.

Family members and friends who are clueless about the realities of caregiving, often add to the stress by offering "advice," which sounds to you like criticism rather than help. You're a good person and likely they are, too, so you stuff your irritation, bite back a sarcastic response and let the comments or actions pass – this time.

One day, however, you are extra stressed, tired and frustrated by the enormity of your caregiving duties. Your friend happens by at a bad time and offers just a bit of well-meaning advice.

You snap.

Immediately, you recognize that your nasty response is way out of proportion to your friend's comment. She's been there for you, even though when caregiving starts, friends often scatter. The person yo u’re really angry at is your sister who repeatedly criticizes your caregiving ability. The problem is that words, once uttered, can't be withdrawn.

How do you patch up the ragged hole your misplaced remark made in the fabric of your friendship?

You apologize. That sounds simple enough, but it's not for many people.

A sincere apology takes introspection and humility, and those are attributes that may be hard to come by in your current state of feeling angry with your sister. You know your nasty mood isn't your friend's fault, but all you can do is muster a lame excuse for your behavior.

Be aware that an excuse isn't an apology, but it may have to do for the time being. You can hope that your friend is kind enough to let it go at that, but don't make the mistake of thinking that your words didn't injure her. 

Go ahead and allow yourself some space.

Realize that you are under stress and that you are tired of having people tell you how to be a good caregiver when they don't know how much you must do, and how frustrating and exhausting your days are. However, this reprieve is only temporary.

Try to uncover why you acted in such a hurtful manner

If you truly want to mend the rift with your friend, you need to understand what triggered your anger and why you took your frustration with your sister out on them.

One reason we often direct our anger and resentment on those closest to us is that we feel safe. We feel that these people won't abandon us.

We don't intend to treat our friends shabbily. After all, they deserve our loving kindness. Yet, if we don't find a healthy outlet for our anger and resentment over what we feel is undeserved criticism about our caregiving skills, the anger is likely to come out sideways, and our best friend takes the hit.

Once you understand why you behaved poorly to your friend, you may be able to offer a sincere apology. Hopefully, you will also have made progress in learning to handle your emotions in a healthier way, so that a person who is your biggest supporter doesn't become your target the next time you blow.

What if your anger is justified?

What if the person – in this case your sister – is wrong, at least in your eyes, and you feel justified in your behavior?

Losing your cool with her is a little closer to a healthy response. At least you've selected the proper target for your anger. Yet unless you are willing to throw away your relationship with your sister, you are still in a position where an apology is likely needed.

You also need to remember that, "I did this because you did that," isn't an apology.

Again, you may want to take some cooling off time. Once you have calmed down, you can let your sister know that you've been angry for some time over the way she's presented her criticism and that you finally lost control.

You can say that you're sorry for the way you responded, and that you recognize such a response isn't healthy. But, you should also mention that there are underlying issues that you need to discuss so the two of you can have a healthier relationship.

In this case, you aren't apologizing for standing up for yourself. You are apologizing for the way you attacked the person, rather than handling the situation in a reasonable, adult manner. It may help to learn healthier ways to handle criticism from members.

Why should you apologize if the other person is in the wrong?

Life gives us just so many choices. We can continue to hold grudges that we feel we are entitled to hold. We can stay angry.

But think about it.Who are we really hurting by doing this? Carrying around resentment and anger eats away at the soul. I'm not saying that you should say you are wrong when you're not. I'm just suggesting that apologizing for blowing up at your sister and not handling the upsetting situation in a calm and adult manner could lead toward mending fences.You are acknowledging that your own actions were out of control without negating your feelings, which may be justified.

If your sister is reasonable, she may be so surprised by your apology that she will even offer one of her own. Then, perhaps you can clear the air and talk about the real issue.

Naturally, there are some personality mixes that are like a match to gasoline fumes. These people should likely not be together alone for very long. Furthermore, there are sometimes long held resentments over serious wrongs that could take years of therapy to heal. There are sibling issues over parent care that may take a professional mediator to resolve.

These serious issues are different than blowing up inappropriately at the wrong person, or blowing up in a situation that would better be handled with a civilized discussion.

Getting at the cause

Stress can cause even generally mellow people to lash out.

Don't be too hard on yourself if you blow up, but do look for reasons why you said things you now regret. And learn to offer a sincere apology, it's one of the tools you'll need while balancing elder care with other relationships.

If stress is at the bottom of your behavior, maybe it's time to get some help with your caregiving. If there are no family members who can or will help, then in-home care, adult day care or assisted living may be the answer. It is one thing to snap at a good friend, or even a "deserving" sibling on occasion, but it is quite another if you are letting stress turn you into a bitter mutation of your formerly nice self.

Reprinted with permission from www.AgingCare.com. Author, columnist and speaker Carol Bradley Bursack wrote "Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories" and is the moderator of the AgingCare.com community. Read her full biography