Carol Cannon, co-founder of The Bridge to Recovery, published a series of articles on Caretaking that occurred over several months in 1995. As part of our Revisiting the Decades series, this is the final part of the Caretaking series. 

At The Bridge to Recovery, caretaking (and the opposite, helplessness) are issues experienced by a large majority of our clients. Recognizing it and how it develops can be a huge first step in emotional healing.

Loving Enough to Care Less

Anne grew up in a strict Christian home. She was a conscientious child with a generous heart and a tender, spiritual nature. She collected stray puppies and wounded animals. She was helpful and kind. But no matter how hard she tried, the response of her parents was, “you can do better.”

In her eagerness to please, Anne became a world-class caretaker. Anticipating other people’s needs made her feel good. And caretaking was a symptom of her desperate need for approval. She became the unofficial family’s social worker, fixing people, managing circumstances, and trying to make everything nice for everyone!

At age 19, Anne met a young man who was exceedingly needy. This so appealed to her nurturing nature that she overlooked his liabilities. Joe was not a Christian. She would save him. He had a questionable past. She would forgive him. Although her church frowned on marriage to unbelievers, she married him nonetheless.

All Joe wanted was Anne. He didn’t want to be saved. Anne’s spiritual inclinations were incompatible with his carnal instincts, so he abandoned her before their first anniversary. Anne was left alone to rear their baby daughter.

Because Anne was convinced that her daughter’s eternal welfare hinged upon her own goodness, she set out to be the perfect mother and the perfect Christian. Being a single parent, abandoned and unwanted, made her feel ashamed, worthless. She had to do something to regain her self-esteem.

Someone suggested that she would feel better if she busied herself helping others, and she discovered that they were right! Doing things for others did make her feel worthwhile.

Anne found one needy soul after another to occupy her time and attention. She opened her home to troubled children and ignored the dangers she was exposing her daughter too. Because she was so preoccupied with the people she was helping, she was oblivious the fact that they were abusive to her daughter. While her little girl languished for lack of attention, Anne became all the things to all people. Her insatiable need to be needed progressed into a full-blown addiction.

Unhealthy caretaking – like any other addiction – has fatal potential. The hunger of the addict is insatiable whether the craving is for drugs or for approval. One “dose” is too many, and 1000 are never enough. 

How can this compulsive caretaker break this destructive cycle and become healthy again?

For people who are chemically dependent, recovery begins with abstinence. All the alcoholic or addict has to do is put a cork in the bottle or lay down the drug. Abstaining from “clean” addictions, however is not so simple. Total abstinence from “clean” addictions (like workaholism, over eating, etc.) is impossible. For these addictions, abstinence is defined by moderation.

Here are some guidelines for making the transition from unhealthy caretaking to healthy caregiving: 

  1. Do not do anything for any able-bodied person that they could or should do for themselves. 
  2. Do not assume another person’s responsibilities unless you are asked – and even then, you are free to say no. 
  3. If you are in a helping profession, serve your clients at work, but do not exceed the boundaries of the workplace. 
  4. Refrain from anticipating other people’s wants, wishes, and needs; resist the urge to make yourself indispensable. 
  5. Do not pick up after others, even children. 
  6. Except in emergencies do not fix, rescue or help anyone without being asked.
  7. Don’t give advice, comfort, or nurturance without being invited. If you feel constrained to offer these things ask for the recipient’s permission to avoid violating his or her boundaries.

During early withdrawal, it is best to abstain completely from caretaking for a time (3 months is usually adequate). This is equivalent to “detoxification.” Later when you have been “sober” long enough to be aware of your motives, you can give help occasionally for fun and for free. If you find it impossible to follow these guidelines, you may need to help of support groups like al Anon or codependents anonymous to help you change.

Signs of the Times

October 1995