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.

Computer manufacturers are now marketing their products with the software preinstalled. This preinstalled software is much like the preprogramming of the human mind. On the basis of childhood experiences, people develop a set of attitudes and beliefs about themselves, about relationships, and about life in general that greatly influence how they think, feel, and function (or dysfunction) in adult relationships. Such information is loaded into their mental computers at an early age, sometimes even before they are born. It comprises the operating system that organizes and manages the way they handle adult interactions. 

When a child grows up seeing his parents relate to one another in inappropriate or immature ways, this becomes his preprogramming for normal. In adulthood, he will react to his associates accordingly, believing he is choosing his behavior freely, when in reality, his actions are an outgrowth of attitudes and beliefs programmed into him in his early life. This doesn’t mean that he is not responsible for what he does or accountable for correcting inappropriate 

behavior. It simply underlines the fact that all behavior is caused. 

In many cases, the attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that worked for us in childhood drive people away from us in adulthood. I’ll use the dysfunctional practice of caretaking as an example. 

Caretaking involves doing for another person what he should do for himself. A caretaker will try to anticipate other people’s needs, feel responsible for solving their problems, and give unsolicited advice. When the caretaker senses that someone is unhappy, he or she will feel compelled to do something to help that person feel good.

The caretaker may think he is being unselfish and considerate, but his real objective is to feel good about himself. Those being helped can often sense that the caretaker expects this emotional payoff, and many would rather refuse the help than pay the price. 

How does this negative habit develop?

When the significant adults in Johnny’s life are too busy pursuing their own goals to give him unhurried time or undivided attention, he concludes that he is not worthy of it. If Dad considers his schedule more important than a special event in Johnny’s life, the message that he doesn’t count is wired into Johnny’s “hard drive.” A case in point would be the pastor who missed part of his son’s graduation weekend because he felt obligated to preach to his congregation on the morning of the young man’s baccalaureate. 

If little Susie sees that having a spotless house means more to Mom than helping Susie with her problems, a sense of “not mattering” is programmed into Susie’s mind. This becomes a permanent part of her view of herself, and as Susie grows older, she filters every interaction through this perspective. She doubts the sincerity of those who claim to love her; she is unable to accept offers of friendship as genuine; she has trouble trusting anyone. She builds a wall around herself that denies her the ability to feel loved and cared for. 

Once a child believes he isn’t worthy of simple, unconditional love, he concludes that he has to do something to win it, and caretaking is one of the many things such people do.

Some caretakers make themselves responsible for other people’s feelings. As a child, Johnny could tell by the set of his father’s jaw when his father was angry, but Dad emanated the feeling rather than expressing it. Johnny relieved Dad’s tension by trying to make him laugh or by pleasing him in some way. In the interest of protecting himself, he made himself responsible for “fixing” his father’s feelings. 

Children who grow up in an emotionally repressive environment will play the role of entertainer, confidant, mediator, or scapegoat. With practice, they become adept at taking charge of other people’s emotional wellbeing. They are actually learning to become caretakers in their adult relationships. 

People who have a strong need for approval are drawn to people who need to be taken care of. Johnny will probably be romantically attracted to women who are hurting, helpless, or emotionally impoverished. 

Caretaking often leads to controlling, which usually causes the person being helped to rebel. Rebellion can also occur when the caretaker gets exhausted and needs a rest, but the person he is helping has become dependent and does not want the relationship to end. When either party begins to set limits and the other refuses to accept them, a fight ensues. 

Caretaking is an example of a learned childhood behavior that becomes a liability in adult relationships. In next [week’s article], I will discuss how to tell the difference between unhealthy caretaking and healthy caring, and how you can make the transition from one to the other. 

Signs of the Times 21 

August 1995