I mean, most parents are, by the very definition – someone that is responsible to take care of someone else.
But beyond a parent role, do you take this role on within other relationships in your life?
Do you take it upon yourself to be the “strong” one in a painful situation? Or, do you take on the role of cheering everyone else up when they feel sad? Do you notice a pattern of going out of your way to make someone (or everyone) else’s life more convenient, or comfortable? Do you make most important decisions based on the good of someone other than yourself?
On the surface, this caretaking tendency can be really honorable. You go out of your way to make sure that everyone around you has what they need – sometimes even more than they need.
Photo by Serrah Galos on Unsplash
Caretaking and Relationships
But often, caretakers begin to get into a pattern of emotionally unhealthy relationships, because they seek out those that either a) need to be taken care of due to lack of their own ability to do so, or b) want to take advantage of their caretaking tendencies.
When a caretaker takes on a relationship to save someone else from themselves, this is unhealthy at its onset. They often find that their expectations that their partner will find his/her way independently over time goes unmet, and at some point can begin to feel resentful and angry. They believe at the beginning that their sacrifice will be worth it when their partner finally has the ability to take care of their needs, but this doesn’t often happen.
Or, the caretaker gets into a relationship in which their partner takes advantage of their caretaking. In this case, their partner is capable, and may reciprocate at first. But over time, they begin to ask for more, while they give less and less. A caretaker continues to give, even to the detriment of their own mental health and well-being, because they believe they must do their part, even if that part continues to grow to impossible standards for them to keep up.
Caretakers and Boundaries
For caretakers, boundaries are often difficult to set. This is because underneath these tendencies is the need to people-please at all costs. Boundaries, clearly, can cause conflict, which is exactly what the caretaker wants to avoid.
But in truth, this is the desperate need of those with these qualities. In order to set boundaries, we must first understand that not every problem is one that we need to solve ourselves.
Sometimes people are going to be unhappy with decisions that we make, or even unhappy with things that we have nothing to do with. Their unhappiness isn’t ours to own. It is theirs.
Sometimes life is uncomfortable, sometimes people disappoint us, and sometimes things don’t go the way that we think that they should. That doesn’t mean that someone needs to rescue us – it means that sometimes we’re going to feel some negative feelings.
And everyone else will too, regardless of how often we try to save them from theirs.
Caretakers and Self-Care
Sometimes we have to take care of people – our parents, our children, or others that are put into our lives that we have chosen to take care of. It’s an expected part of life.
And as long as we are making intentional choices to take care of other people, we also need to make intentional choices to take really great care of ourselves.
This summer, a good friend of mine had to go through a weeks-long stress with her young son's health, culminating in a really complicated surgery. As she was dealing with these complex emotions regarding the health of her son, but also the risks of his illness from week-to-week, and what he was and wasn't physically allowed to do (regardless of his energy or his own desires), she wore down.
She continued her normal self-care routine, but it wasn't enough. Why?
Caretaking requires extra effort that can deplete us faster than normal. Understanding that the extra effort we put forth means that we need to take even more opportunities for self-care often is a big step in living our lives in balance rather than in stages of overwhelm.
Take time to examine your relationships. Who are you taking care of? Do they need to be taken care of? Or - are you doing more in an effort to feel like you are worthy of more? Often this exercise can be very revealing of our own lack of self-acceptance and feelings about our worth and value.
If your self-worth is wrapped up in how much you are taking care of other people (regardless of what they are actually capable of) - set some boundaries. Take care of yourself. And in the midst of that, dig deep to determine if your time and energy would be better spent empowering and challenging them - and you - to start taking care of themselves.
Need some additional support? I'd love to hear from you. You can schedule with me using my online scheduler (linked right here!) or by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Brooke Williams, MA, LPC, is a licensed professional counselor serving South Carolina. You can read more about her here.