I’d like to start this post by saying right away that I am not talking about those of you in legitimate caretaking relationships with family members or others who are elderly, disabled or ill. This post has to do with the psychological aspect of caretaking that individuals sometimes engage in due to low self esteem and the need to feel in control. It pertains to unhealthy relationships that lack boundaries and may be rooted in fear.
These unhealthy types of caretaking behaviors are those which tend to keep others in a dependent sort of relationship with you. They may appear as those that come from the goodness of your heart but in reality may have a lot to do with keeping others under your control. These behaviors may place you in the position of being the one that everyone turns to for help when in need; you may be seen as the foundation or “rock” that they can lean on.
These behaviors may even take the form of giving monetary or material gifts that have strings attached that also keep others under your control. You may take on too much responsibility for the welfare of others, disabling them from making their own decisions and taking responsibility for themselves. Along with taking too much responsibility for them, you may also set rules and standards of your own that you expect them to live by. They usually secretly resent you.
Caretaking behaviors also are sometimes designed to lessen the chance of misbehavior on the part of those around you or to “clean up the mess” after some less than desirable event has happened. This is common when you have decided to be the caretaker of an alcoholic, gambler, rogue or person who can’t keep a job. It resembles codependency but there are differences. By engaging in the “clean up,” you are usually enabling them to continue in their own dysfunction. They in turn may also fear taking responsibility for themselves or making their own decisions as that may result in rejection from you, the caretaker.
Your self-worth can be caught up in your ability to care for others.
As much as caretaking might make you feel in control of things, there is a flip side. Somewhere deep down you really feel frustrated over the amount of energy and effort it takes to “help” all these people, often with no credit or reward. Relationships are meant to be “give and take.” Therefore, you may feel resentment for doing all the giving, even though you are allowing it. You may find yourself becoming passive-aggressive and indirectly do or say things out of anger. If you’re really stuck in this role, you may take on way too many people who take advantage or allow you to “mother” them. You may find that all your social and free time is swept up with people who use you and you are not tending to your own interests, hobbies or things that would add joy to your life. Your self-worth can be caught up in your ability to care for others, and you may keep them around based on their neediness. You may fear losing your identity, that of caretaker.
The absurdity of it is that you are usually caretaking to keep people around who you believe might otherwise not love you. But who wants them around anyway? Obviously they cannot contribute to a relationship in any meaningful manner or they wouldn’t be in this mess with you. Or if you’re extremely controlling, they might not be able to break free and you are thereby crippling them in their own lives. Meanwhile, it may feel comfortable and safe for you. You may experience great anxiety if they try to get strong and move on.
You may not consciously be aware of this pattern; it is not likely that you are out to do harm. These behaviors are usually part of an ingrained pattern that you have learned in a dysfunctional past. You may fear being alone or that no one will love you. Maybe your parents made you the “little parent” and their love was based on how well you fulfilled this role.
Often caretakers actually take this dynamic into their careers, becoming nurses or social workers, even psychologists. That’s how ingrained the pattern may be. Sometimes it makes for a wonderful nurse, other times it makes for a nurse who would really prefer to be an architect. Wouldn’t you rather have the nurse who really wants to be there?
If you think you may be living this scenario there are some things you can do immediately to break free and live a life of your own design with healthy, rewarding relationships. It is well worth the effort.
- List and evaluate your current friendships. Are there people on the list who make you feel good to be around? Is the list comprised of people who take up inordinate amounts of your time and energy? Call in the middle of the night with ongoing crises? Get themselves into one mess after the other and you end up doing damage control?
- Read up on boundaries-that is a good place to start if you are going to take the self help route. If you choose to work with a professional then let them know you would like to do some work in this area.
- Examine your beliefs about your inherent self worth. Where did you get the idea that you have to have others need you in order to love you or stay in your life? If you need some help with this download my free resource-How to Break Free from 12 Dysfunctional Thought Patterns … and a handy chart to help you track your progress. If you choose to work with a professional, let them know you have difficulty with self worth and love. Your current beliefs about this need to be challenged and reframed.
- Think of an activity for enrichment that you would enjoy and that requires you to spend some free time on it. Engage in it once a week at least, at a time you would ordinarily be engaged with someone who is sucking the life out of you. See which feels best. This little exercise will start to let you feel the freedom of doing things for yourself and enjoying those rewards. It can have a snowball effect.
- Help each person develop a plan for helping themselves. Explain that they need more care or a higher level of care than what you can provide. It is a gracious way out of the relationship that doesn’t require you to totally cut them off or create ugliness if it would lead to more problems in the family or neighborhood. You are still “helping” them, but in a healthy way. Then let go and do something for you.
- Beef up your social network. Do fun things with fun people. It will take a while to replace the gaps left by the people you have eliminated, but when you do fill them it will be with people who enjoy you just for you. Beware of falling into the same patterns, it will be automatic for you to be drawn to those in need. Step back and ask yourself if your comfort level with a new person is because the dysfunctional pattern of caretaking is about to kick in again, a pattern you know only too well.