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Working with Difficult Emotions in Caregiving

This post is adapted from Kim Marxhausen’s newest book, Weary Joy.

Dorris’s son, her doctor, and I determined that the car keys needed to be taken away. I drove to her house and began the conversation with the insistence on safety. The conversation went in circles for more than an hour. Throughout the argument, Dorris maintained that she had not killed anyone yet. But after I patiently repeated my arguments, the conversation ended, and I went home with the car keys in my pocket.

In a last show of defiance, Dorris reminded me that she had enough money to buy herself a new car.

“Good,” I said, on the edge of my patience. “Look for something with heated seats because the next car I take away will become mine.”

Expression of Difficult Emotions

The unfortunate side of denial is the process that allows us to ignore the facts in front of us in favor of what we want to believe. Dorris was in denial regarding her reduced mental capacities. Driving is so automatic and the skills involved are so intuitive that it is easy to miss when a person no longer has the mental capacity to drive safely. When it happened to Dorris, my only recourse was to stay calm and remain firm. I admit that I heavily referred to her primary health-care provider’s concerns. I feel confident that this kind of blame is something most doctors would encourage.

Coping with the denial involved in the grief of loss is one thing. Anger is another story. Anger admits to the loss and assumes someone is to blame. One of the most challenging truths about caregiving is that the person closest is often the target of the anger. As a caregiver, you are a safe and convenient target. Much as an infant in child care will save up distress until the parent returns, a care receiver may save the expressions of anger and frustration for the most relied-upon person, typically the person showing the most love and sacrifice. Unjust anger is entirely unfair, discouraging, and demoralizing. You are doing everything to help, and while you probably don’t expect gratitude, you do not expect rage or resentment.


Those who are most successful at applying emotional labor and keeping it from increasing their stress load are those who engage in reframing. In the act of reframing, you step away from the emotions to see the situation from several sides. Then you can understand things in a new way. Emotional reframing allows you to choose the appropriate emotional response.

When you are in the middle of a difficult emotional situation, your strength to use emotional labor comes only from the Creator of emotions. It is best if, in describing the situation, you take out personal pronouns and replace them with the name of God. Doing this helps you remember that the control over the situation is not yours. Here are some examples of reframing by remembering God:

  • No matter what I try, I can’t do anything right. No matter what, God has control over the situation, and He can make it right.
  • I say it again and again, but I can’t get through the denial. God forgives again and again. His patience is endless.
  • I am so tired, and I don’t know if I can do this anymore. God is faithful. My weakness allows me to feel His strength.

The work of reframing is made easier with input from others. Feedback from someone who understands can help you see your role and God’s role in a difficult situation. God designed us to be in fellowship with one another, and this fellowship involves feedback as well as love and service. It is understandable that we avoid sharing our thinking with others because in difficult situations, the last thing we want is criticism or simplistic advice. However, our brain is good at building a wall of excuses around our wrong thinking. A new perspective can help us climb over that wall. The truth and perspective we hear from others is one reason why participating in a support group, spending time in counseling, and finding a good friend who will be honest all make a positive difference for caregivers.

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