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, we are republishing Carol’s series over the next several weeks. 

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.

Last month I described caretaking – a practice that can be offensive to others and disparaging to ourselves. There are several differences between healthy caregiving and unhealthy caretaking. 

Healthy caring means that while we take the time to be concerned about the needs of others, we can also feel comfortable saying no to a request for our help. Most caretakers have a hard time saying no because they don’t want to make others unhappy. This is closely related to a problem called “people pleasing.” Caretakers want everything to be nice for everybody at all times, and when they do say no, they feel guilty. 

In some situations, we may need to say no in order to allow (or require) other people to solve their own problems. When Marlene’s son was 29 years old, she paid his bills, balanced his checkbook, and gave her credit references (as if they were his) to businesses where he was applying for credit because his record was so bad. Her son was an alcoholic whose life was unmanageable, and Marlene felt compelled to help him. By taking over his responsibilities, she helped her son stay sick. 

She protected him from the consequences of his irresponsible behavior and perpetrated his immaturity. This is called enabling.

In other situations, we may have to say no in order to take care of our own needs. Suppose, for instance, that you’ve planned to spend the afternoon catching up on your mail. Could you say no to a friend who called and asked if you could watch her kids while she does some shopping? 

Usually the efforts of caretakers to help others have more to do with meeting their own emotional needs than the needs of others. Nan had a magnetic personality. All of her college friends came to her with her problems. She became known as the “Nan” Landers of their junior class. When someone knocked on her door with a problem, she dropped whatever she was doing, regardless of how urgent it might be, to listen. 

It felt good knowing she’d helped someone.

Nan’s “helping” was actually meeting her own needs more than the needs of others. She came by this tendency quite naturally. When she was a child, her parents often put church needs ahead of the family needs. Nan particularly remembered one occasion when her father canceled a family plan to eat out in order to attend an emergency board meeting. She resented this, yet she thought it was the “right” thing to do. Nan’s parents also admonished her frequently not to be selfish, so she grew up hiding her own needs and turning all her attention to the needs of others. 

The healthy caregiver is happy about life, and you can tell it by looking at him. Most caretakers, on the other hand, look harried, since they feel obligated to take on everybody’s problems. They may smile, but rarely do they laugh. They’re not much fun to be around, because they’re so exhausted from managing the universe. 

Another trait of the healthy caregiver is the ability to accept help as well as give it. Caretakers will show compassion and concern for other people but will not accept nurturing in return. They don’t consider themselves worthy. They can be assertive when they are attacking a social justice or acting in someone else’s behalf, but they can’t be assertive when it comes to their own wants, wishes, or needs. 

In most cases, the healthy caregiver will wait for others to ask for help, recognizing that offering help that is not requested can be highly intrusive. Elizabeth couldn’t stand to see her daughter’s apartment in a mess. Every time she visited her daughter, Elizabeth went on a cleaning spree that left her exhausted. When she returned home, she complained to her husband about how hard she had worked and how sloppy their daughter was. The daughter, on the other hand, was highly offended by her mother’s “help.” Take it as a sign of unhealthy caregiving if you give generously but complain (or brag) afterward. 

Caretaking is actually an addiction that is just as destructive as alcohol addiction.

Signs of the Times

September 1995