Why Being a ‘Good Enough’ Caregiver is Better than Perfection
When it comes to caregiving, "good enough" is better than perfection. Psychologists Levin and Lahak explain why.
Being the “perfect” caregiver is impossible. It can also come with a hefty price tag. Psychologists Lital Levin and Oren Lahak offer advice as to why being “good enough” is going over and above.
Many of us struggle with a nagging feeling we're “not doing enough”. We keep ourselves up at night, asking:
"What more can I do? Am I even helping?"
Worries like these can add to our demands, while our lives are already full of responsibilities.
Negative thoughts are also incredibly frustrating. They can leave us feeling like nothing we do is ever going to be enough.
The guilt kicks in again. It's a vicious, never-ending cycle.
In desperation to quash our guilt, many of us will fill up our lives with tasks. Our personal lives slowly erode as we put everything but our loved one on hold.
Though we do it with good intentions, neglecting ourselves can come at a high price.
The link between being a parent and a caregiver
Parenting and caregiving both require a lot of devotion. Parenting, on the one hand, arguably has a more positive motivation behind it. On the other, both parenting and caregiving mean sacrificing a fair amount of our personal needs and wants.
The English paediatrician and psychoanalyst, Donald Winnicott, coined the term "good enough mother".
The "good enough mother" devotes herself to her baby's needs from Day One. She makes sacrifices to ensure her child's happiness.
However, one day she'll "fail" to fulfil all her child's needs. This isn't due to laziness or neglect on her part. It's genuinely impossible to cater to every need for another person.
When the child realises their mother can't help them, they start to mature. Such developments are perfectly healthy. For example, they'll learn how to process sensory information or delay gratification. All in all, the "good enough mother" balances the needs of her child with the need for healthy development.
Looking at Winnicott's theory, we can see that catering to someone's every need could actually inhibit their development.
It's much the same for us caregivers trying to be "perfect". We put our own lives on hold and dedicate every waking moment to our loved one.
But, when the loved one shows no improvement, we throw our hands in the air and wail:
"Why aren't I good enough? Could I do more? Am I good at what I do?"
Yes, we're good. Too good. We’re not giving our loved one any opportunity for healthy development. In fact, we tend to "take over" and rob our loved one of any independence at all.
Many of us, however, can't see that. We think we're underperforming, instead of overperforming. So, our guilt drives us to do more and more and more.
Of course, caregiving and parenting aren't identical. That said, the innate need to overcompensate often takes over.
It's difficult to admit, but taking care of a child will allow the parent to see the fruits of their efforts. On the other hand, a caregiver’s "reward" is far less noticeable.
So here’s our suggestions.
Avoid an unrealistic ideal
No matter how much we put in, the loved one's health will decline due to age or illness. Children will grow more independent, while the cared for may struggle to preserve their current abilities.
So, we must understand our own needs as well as the needs of our loved ones. Our loved one may feel stifled by us, though they appreciate our efforts.
Again: it is humanly impossible to be the perfect caregiver, especially long-term.
Suppose, though, we can find the right balance between caring duties and personal life. In that case, the vicious cycle can change to a cycle of good.
Setting boundaries and understanding self-limits is vital for all of us. It will also reduce our guilt (though it may not feel that way at first).
3 Tips to remember while acting as a caregiver
1- Find your balance
Finding a balance can be difficult, especially when routines constantly change.
Yet, finding a balance starts with understanding that our needs are not secondary to our loved one's needs.
Many of us put our lives on hold out of a sense of obligation or guilt. However, we must learn to "portion out" our attention.
It won't feel natural, but learning to "allot time" will leave us and our loved one healthier and happier. The loved one will be able to use the abilities they still have. Meanwhile, we’ll realize that caring for another isn't our only function. As we find our freedom, we'll begin to dedicate more time to our passions and goals.
So, free time is not a privilege. It's both a duty and a right that needs consideration in the weekly schedule.
2 - Set boundaries
If we know how much damage we can do by ignoring our needs, we need to set boundaries.
Remember, there's a fine line between being a "good enough" caregiver and sacrificing our entire lives.
We need to remember that it is human not to agree to every demand, even if our loved one tries to manipulate us or we feel guilty for not doing so.
Setting firm boundaries will let us be better caregivers. We'll also learn to share our responsibilities and trust others with our loved one.
It's never "nice" to accept our limitations, but it can be a huge relief. You're not alone in all this, so trying to be a lone wolf will only do yourself damage.
3 - ‘Failing’ doesn't mean we're not doing our best
Like anything in life, caregiving opens us up to the possibility of "failure".
Remember, failure is part of life - and it's bound to happen to us while we're caregiving. We must learn to accept failures as they come, and not let them define us as caregivers.
If you're a part-time caregiver, you may feel guilt at "only" visiting your parents twice a week. Now, flip that guilt on its head. Instead of feeling like a failure, tell yourself this:
"I visit my parents twice a week, and when I do, I totally devote myself to them."
See? The action remains the same, but the perspective changes.
Which of the below makes you feel good about yourself?
A. I only visit my parents twice a week.
B. I visit my parents twice a week and do everything I can when I can.
It’s B, of course!
No one's a robot. You may have a career, other family, friends, children, hobbies. Being able to do what you do, despite all that, makes you a wonderful, caring human.
So, doing a "good enough" job is exactly that. You're doing your very best without losing yourself to the caregiving role.
‘To Be Good Enough’. (2009). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2654842/
NPS-ALL-NP-00441 NOVEMBER 2021