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By Margaret Fiero
You can live a lifetime and, at the end of it, know more about other people than you know about yourself – Beryl Markham
We often hear in the media about the how addiction ravages those who struggle with them and their families. Caretaking, also referred to as compulsive helping, is an addictive behavior that, while lesser known, is still highly destructive, according to Dr. Robert Lefever, a prominent addiction specialist in the UK. Caretaking can be more insidious than an addiction to substances such as drugs or alcohol, making it extremely difficult to identify and treat.
The Need to be Needed
Lefever defines compulsive helping as “the need to be needed.” There’s nothing unusual about the desire to be needed, but like other addictions, caretaking is a behavior taken to an extreme. This is a perverted sort of caring that, rather than helping, turns out to be both self-destructive and harmful to others. But wait, isn’t our problem today that people are too selfish and individualistic? Isn’t it good to help others? Helping and caring are positive behaviors – caretaking is being consumed by the need to “fix” others, to the point where you lose – or never develop – your own identity, and you smother the person you’re trying to help so they have no space to work on their own problems.
An Unhealthy Equilibrium
As other addictions are shaped by society, so is caretaking. We are taught that it is good to be helpful, and that it is selfish to worry about our own needs. If it becomes ingrained early on that our only value is in helping everyone else, we learn that to survive we need to make ourselves “useful” to other people. If no one needs us, we have no value. We therefore form relationships in which another is dependent on us so that we will always be needed. This also makes the caretaker dependent on the individual they caretake (no wonder this dynamic is sometimes also called “codependency”). An unhealthy equilibrium is formed that, if knocked off balance, can have disastrous results. The caretaker will be lost without their “project” and will have to find a new needy individual. The focus of the caretaker will have to try to find someone new to care for them.
Care-Taking to Gain Control
Notice the word “take” in “caretaker.” Caretaking is actually a self-serving behavior. While not intending to, the caretaker is “taking” from the other individual to fulfill their need to be needed. Reasons individuals are drawn to caretaking include the following:
-They are continuing the role they had while in their family of origin.
-They feel powerless in their own lives; trying to fix others provides some semblance of control.
-They feel their own life is out of control and that it’s easier to “solve” the problems of another than deal with their own.
-Others’ problems are a distraction from their own.
-They don’t trust others to live their own lives the way they “should” and think they are the only one capable of helping.
-They are perfectionists and are uncomfortable with mistakes made by themselves and others.
-They have trouble with boundaries and feel they are responsible for everyone else.
-They feel selfish if they focus on themselves.
A Strange Narcissism
There is a certain narcissism involved in caretaking. Caretakers think they are invaluable and responsible for others’ happiness, that others cannot get along without them. I write this as someone who has struggled with my own caretaking tendencies. It never occurred to me that my predilection to say “yes” to others’ requests could actually be a self-serving behavior. It required taking a step back and having a hard look at myself: Am I just trying to be helpful or am I fulfilling my “good girl” role? How helpful can I be without first helping myself?
The Opposite of Helping
Caretakers may find themselves subconsciously manipulating people to be dependent on them. Lefever explains about the caretaker:
“We want to feel useful and constructively helpful. These are admirable characteristics. But they can be very destructive when they are applied without thought to the consequences…When people have too much done for them, they fail to develop their own skills.”
Everyone needs room to make their own mistakes and learn from them in order to grow; caretaking stunts that growth. It is, in fact, the opposite of helping.
A Loss of Identity
The time caretakers spend worrying about others robs them of necessary self-care, including time to focus on their own physical and mental health. Their boundaries are so blurred that others are constantly violating them. At its extreme, the caretaker’s whole sense of identity is swept away in others’ lives. They may eventually feel resentful toward others who don’t reciprocate their “help.” Others don’t respect their needs of the caretaker, though, because the caretaker doesn’t respect them.
The End of Caretaking
Caretaking is not so much a problem to solve, as much as it is a behavioral pattern that requires awareness and insight, then action. If you think you struggle with caretaking, ask yourself the following questions:
-Do I find it easier to take care of others than myself?
-Do I feel responsible for others’ happiness?
-Do I feel selfish if I don’t always respond to others’ needs?
-Do I always say “yes” to requests by others?
-Do I find myself stretched thin because of all the things I have agreed to do for others?
If you answered “yes” to most or all of those questions, you probably take the caretaker role. Questions to ask yourself so as to gain insight include:
-What are the payoffs, or benefits, of this role?
-How does it affect you, and your relationships?
-What are the drawbacks of your behavior on yourself and others?
Once you have begun to examine what’s behind your compulsive helping, some ways to move forward include:
-Trying out saying “no” to a few requests per week
-Countering thoughts such as, “I have to help them. I’m the only one who can,” with “I’m not responsible; I’m not helping by doing everything for them.”
-Committing to at least 15 minutes to yourself each day. Whether you use time that to take a short walk, meditate, read, rest, explore a new hobby, whatever – just as long as it’s for you.
-Be transparent. Tell others that you’re trying to focus more on yourself right now and that you can’t help them at this time. They may initially be thrown off, but if they don’t ultimately understand, then you may need to examine that relationship.
-When you feel the urge to swoop in and take control, try doing the opposite: step back and just see what happens. See how it feels for you and observe what happens with the other person.
-Use some of the time each day that you would spend worrying about someone else to think about your own interests and dreams.
-See a therapist or join a support group such as Codependents Anonymous.
Just Mind can offer you additional assistance as well. Please, do not hesitate to contact us to make a counseling appointment if you need help. Additionally, you can make find information about our process and what it involves on our adult counseling page.
Resources on Caretaking and Compulsive Helping