Session 3: Failure
In this session, we will explore the sense of inadequacy carers often feel and look at how to deal with feelings of failure.
Listen to ‘Yesterday’ (click here to listen)
A prayer to say together:
Generous God,you see our failures more clearly than we do
and are more generous in forgiving them than we are.
Often our blaming of ourselves hangs over us like a shadow.
We wish we could undo any harm we’ve done.
Take away from us any longing to hide away that we may stand boldly before you
conscious of your understanding and continuing love.
Help us to learn from what happened yesterday
that tomorrow we may be more wise and loving.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Each person takes about a minute to remind the group of their name and to show a photograph if they’ve brought one or, if they haven’t, to describe the photo they would have brought if they had remembered!
When Marianne Talbot’s mother began to suffer from Alzheimer’s disease she started writing blogs about the experience. Here she writes about her feelings of guilt.
Jan 28th 2009
In mum’s (residential) home there’s a book for recording arrivals and departures. I am sometimes shocked to see it’s two or three days since I visited mum. You might ask why this should bother me: mum neither knows nor cares whether I visit. She can be sublimely indifferent to my presence, or even make it clear that she’d rather I wasn’t there. So why should I feel guilty for missing a few days?
Interesting question that. In fact the whole question of guilt and caring is interesting. Because of my proximity, I am the only person to visit mum regularly. How come the one that does most visiting feels the most guilt?
But I feel less guilt now than I did when mum lived with me. Then I felt constantly guilty. Probably because I was constantly aware of everything I wasn’t doing. Why, though, couldn’t I have banished the guilt by reminding myself of what I was doing? Again why should the one who does the most also feel the most guilt?
This guilt haunts nearly every carer. As a carer you never feel you are doing enough. And however serene you appear you cannot but be guiltily aware of the ever-present fear you might explode. It comes back to responsibility. If you are a carer, then unless you are able to convince yourself you are doing everything you can, you will feel guilt. But who can take responsibility for the health and happiness of another human being, and really convince themselves they’re doing everything they can?
… It seems to me that the guilt that is so much a part of being a carer comes back to love. If you love someone who becomes unable to care for themselves then you will feel responsible for them, whether or not you formally take on responsibility for them. Guilt comes with that sense of responsibility.
Tough, isn’t it? But when you’re next overwhelmed with guilt, try congratulating yourself on your capacity for love, and remember what you are doing, instead of beating yourself up for everything else.
Keeping Mum, Marianne Talbot.
Some possibilities for discussion:
- Is there anything in this account that rings bells with you?
- Marianne Talbot felt less guilty when her mother was in a home. Discuss the issues surrounding continuing to care for someone at home as well as those around finding residential care for them.
- Discuss aspects of caring that relate particularly in situations where the person being cared for isn’t able to be aware of it.
- Marianne Talbot feels that her unexpressed feelings are so strong she might one day explode. Do you have any sense of guilt about how you feel in relation to the caring you offer? Are there any feelings you keep inside you because you’d feel guilty if you let them out? Or any you bottle up for fear of what might happen if you expressed them?
Dealing with failure:
Someone reads from John 21:15-17
Simon Peter failed Jesus during the period just before his crucifixion by three times denying that he knew him. In this incident, after the resurrection, Jesus three times challenges Peter.
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you’. Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs’. A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep’. He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you’. Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep’.
The conversation between Peter and Jesus described in the reading seems to be directly related to Peter’s denial of Jesus. Lurking in the shadows at the time of Jesus’ trial, three different people thought they recognised Peter as one of Jesus’ followers and challenged him. Three times he said he didn’t know him. He must afterwards have felt that with Jesus hanging on a cross, there was going to be no opportunity of talking to Jesus about his failure and that his guilt would be with him forever.
He was wrong about that and surely amazed that when they did meet on the occasion we’ve just heard about, Jesus made him the leader of the remaining disciples. Apparently his failure was no barrier to this because his love of Jesus outweighed any other drawback he might have.
Many carers feel guilty that they frequently fail the one they’re caring for. They’re also aware of inner feelings – frustration, resentment, disappointment – they feel guilty about having. Marianne Talbot admits to these and links this guilt with love. If you love someone, she suggests, you’re likely to feel guilty that you haven’t cared for them as well as you’d like. Our guilt is in a sense a sign of the depth of love we feel. But it can also undermine the quality of our loving.
For one thing, it makes us see criticism where there is none. Peter’s love had been such that he did risk going to where the trial was being held. Perhaps it was this that Jesus was picking up on in the conversation in our reading. His question to Peter, ‘Do you love me more than these (others)?’ may have been a hint by Jesus that perhaps his love was greater than the others’. He did after all go to the courtyard when nine of the other disciples simply vanished. But Peter’s slightly defensive reply, ‘You know I do’, suggests that what perhaps Jesus intended as a compliment was interpreted by Peter as criticism. His own sense of failure stopped him hearing appreciation.
This is only one of a number of ways in which guilt shuts us down. It can become so much part of our psyche that it displaces the sense we should have of our competence. It eats away at our self-confidence. This in turn makes us less effective in our caring, giving us more to feel guilty about, diminishing yet more our ability to care properly and so on in a downward spiral.
The way Jesus deals with Peter’s guilt is instructive. We might have thought he would simply forgive him but, if your experience of being forgiven is anything like mine, it may help restore the relationship with the one I’ve hurt but it doesn’t stop me feeling bad about it. What Jesus wants from Peter is a straightforward, unconditional statement of confidence in his continuing ability to love and to care. He wants Peter to bring to the surface his knowledge that he does love Jesus because that will displace his sense of failure. Three times Jesus presses him simply to say the words, ‘Yes, I love you’ but he never does – ‘You know I love you’, which is what he does say, doesn’t have anything like the same positive feel about it.
Later in this session, we’ll be exploring Cognitive Behaviour Therapy a little. Described simply, it is a technique for identifying the ways we think negatively about ourselves and replacing those thoughts with positive ones. This isn’t very far from what Jesus is doing with Peter by encouraging him to assert his love. It’s also similar to what Marianne Talbot says when she suggests we respond to any sense of guilt by remembering ‘what you are doing, instead of beating yourself up for everything else’.
Sometimes the barrier to doing this, to allowing our knowledge of our love to compensate in our minds for our failures, is that we don’t in fact feel loving. There are times in most loving relationships when tiredness, frustration, communication difficulties or simply finding the other person irritating leave us having all sorts of feelings about them but love isn’t one of them. And yet we think we ought to feel love and worry that we don’t.
But actions are more important than feelings. There are a number of words used in the original language of the New Testament for love. The one Jesus uses in his question to Peter is agape – self-sacrificial love – and it’s the word Paul uses in his description of love in 1 Corinthians. Love, Paul says there, is patient and kind. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. These are all demanding qualities but they relate to behaviour not feelings.
Perhaps Jesus’ choice of Peter as leader was because of his courage. Peter risked a fate like Jesus’ by staying nearby after not just one but three people said they recognised him. Jesus seems to have seen this loyalty as a sign of Peter’s love, which far outweighed any damage done by his disloyal words. Perhaps what matters most to the people we care for is not that we occasionally fail but that we’re there for them.
Some possibilities for discussion:
- Are you sensitive to criticism? Any in particular? Why?
- Is guilt an essential part of love, of taking responsibility?
- Jesus took the initiative in restoring Peter’s confidence. Does it help to talk to the person you are caring for about feelings of inadequacy? If they are understanding, how does that feel? And if they’re not?
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) starts from the assumption that it’s not external events that make us feel good or bad; it’s our mind’s evaluation of them. Often when we feel inadequate or angry, despondent or frustrated, it is because our minds are stuck in ways of thinking about ourselves, which lead us to interpret events in negative ways. Our minds also produce pictures of the future and the past that affect the way we feel. Again often these visualisations are negative, leaving us feeling downcast. The art of the CBT therapist is to help their client to change the way they think and the picture they have of their future so that instead of feeling pessimistic, they feel positive.
CBT suggests that by changing the way we view our lives, confidence can replace feeling inadequate and turn a sense of constant failure into self-belief. Other theories suggest this approach is inadequate because it doesn’t deal with the feelings and experiences that lie behind our actions.
If the need is there, it is possible to be referred for CBT on the NHS but we can take advantage of the therapy’s insights by reflecting on the following questions:
- What most feeds any negative feelings about ourselves that we have – our expectations of ourselves, other people’s expectations of us, comments from the person we care for or something else?
- If we want to change, is it enough to develop a positive rather than a negative view of ourselves?
- ‘When you’re next overwhelmed with guilt, try congratulating yourself on your capacity for love’, says Marianne Talbot. What phrases might we say to ourselves, what picture might we hold in our minds, which will make us feel positive about ourselves? As an individual think of one for yourself that you can try using in the coming days.
Preparing for the next session
Remember to reflect on the positive phrase or picture you thought of in the learning section of this session.
In the next session, we shall be exploring Carl Rogers’ theory about how our attitude to other people can help them grow. Try googling ‘Unconditional Positive Regard’ if you want to come more prepared to discusss this theory.
Now is the time for anyone in the group to mention anything going on in their lives that they are finding difficult. When there has been time for everyone who wishes to speak, a silence follows, during which each quietly prays for the members of the group who have just spoken. Anyone who wishes to say a prayer out loud can also do so.
Leader: ‘The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.’
as we pray for each other, you meet us in our need.
Grant us the resources we need for our caring
and surround us with your love.
The Lord ‘said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness”’ (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Now go round the group in turn and each person mention the name of someone they are caring for. Follow each mention by a long enough silence for that person to be prayed for silently by the group before the next person speaks. Then all pray together: (OR “All” could be inserted before the prayer.)
you promise to sustain all whose lives are hard.
Grant those for whom we care your strength and your peace.
May God bless us all till we meet again.
To take away
Before Rabbi Zusia died, he said: ‘When I shall face the celestial tribunal,
I shall not be asked why I was not Abraham, Jacob or Moses.
I shall be asked why I was not Zusia.’
Traditional Jewish story, Rabbi Zusia