Developing realistic expectations

Some caregivers have unrealistic expectations of the extent to which they, the person or clinician can control or cure bipolar disorder. While some people stay well for long periods of time and there is a lot that can be done to control bipolar disorder, relapse sometimes occurs despite everyone’s best efforts. Nevertheless, many people find ways to live well with the illness.

Realistic expectations of what you can do to help

Unrealistic expectations

Dealing with bipolar disorder can be stressful. If you try to live up to unrealistic expectations of what you ‘should’ do as a caregiver you might increase your stress levels and become exhausted and resentful. Examples of unrealistic expectations include:

  • “I should cure the person’s bipolar disorder”
  • “I should be able to fix everything”
  • “I should never feel angry or stressed”
  • “I should always be perfectly supportive of the person.”

Keep in mind that while you can be supportive, it is the person’s illness and their responsibility to manage it. Bipolar disorder is a complex illness that needs ongoing management, rather than something that can be fixed forever. The extent of your involvement in helping the person may change depending on the severity of the illness, your other demands and commitments, your own wellbeing and preferences and that of the person (see working together to deal with the illness). It is natural to feel stressed and angry at times. No one can be perfectly supportive all the time.

As a caregiver you probably already do a lot to help. You don’t have to be the person’s therapist or doctor as well. If you feel out of your depth when trying to help the person, say something supportive that acknowledges the need for extra help (e.g. “I really care about you, but I think we need extra help here.”). Encourage the person to develop a support network involving professionals, family, friends and the community. However, if the person has recently been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, you may need to provide more support until they have had time to establish a good support network.

Realistic expectations of the person and the clinician

Having unrealistic expectations of what the person and their clinician can do to control the illness can also lead to frustration and disappointment. It is also important to recognize bipolar symptoms that may affect the person’s daily functioning as you may need to adjust your expectations of what they can do.