NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Monday, March 27, 2017

Overcoming the Need to Be Everyone's Caregiver

The need to be everyone's caretaker often starts in childhood in a family where a young child feels she must be the one to protect and take care of the rest of the family (see my article: The Trauma of the Family "Hero" in a Dysfunctional Family and How to Stop Being the Rescuer in Your Family of Origin).

The Need to Be Everyone's Caretaker Often Starts at a Young Age

While being the caretaker might help a child to feel that her family life is less out of control, there are many problems with trying to be everyone's caretaker over the course of a lifetime (see my article: Overcoming Codependency: Taking Care of Yourself First,  Dynamics of Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families and Reacting to the Present Based on the Past).

Let's take a look at a fictionalized vignette which illustrates these dynamics:

Amy was the oldest of four children who grew up in a chaotic family.

Her parents were both active alcoholics who were constantly losing their jobs due to alcohol-related reasons.  They were often out of the house, sometimes for days, and none of the children knew where they were.  When they were home, they were frequently drunk and fighting with each other.

The Need to Be Everyone's Caretaker Often Starts at a Young Age

At an early age, Amy stepped into the parental role with her siblings, cooking, cleaning and assuming overall responsibility for their care.

She also intervened on her siblings' behalf when their father got angry with them and wanted to hit them.  She would step in front of her siblings and tell the father to hit her instead.

Despite the problems at home, Amy did well in school.  Eventually, she got a scholarship to go to the college that she had always wanted to go to, but she turned it down because she was afraid to leave her siblings alone with her parents.  Instead, she went to a local college to maintain her parental role and protect her siblings.

Amy didn't move out of the house until her younger siblings were independent and on their own.

Even then, she had some doubts about moving out because she feared that her parents' alcoholism had gotten so bad that they wouldn't be able to function on their own.  But she also longed to have her own place and have a life of her own, so she moved out.

She would usually go to her parents' house on the weekends to check in on them, something that none of her other siblings did because they had so much resentment towards them.

Although she did as much as she could for them over the weekends, her parents were usually so drunk that they barely noticed that she was there.

It wasn't until her father's doctor warned him that her father stopped drinking.  Shortly after that, he left Amy's mother for another woman.  Shocked by her husband's abandonment, Amy's mother moved in with her mother and also stopped drinking.

Amy was doing well in her job and she received several promotions.

A few years later, a new CEO took over and began to make changes which worried Amy and her colleagues.

They were very concerned about some of the directives that they were given by senior management under the new CEO.  At best, some of these directives were questionable and, at worst, some were clearly unethical.

Since Amy was accustomed to being in the caretaking role, she assumed that role at work with her colleagues.  She was the one that her colleagues came to when they were upset about these changes.  She always made time to listen to them, often giving up her lunch hour or staying late at work.

The Need to Be Everyone's Caretaker Often Begins in Childhood and Continues Into Adulthood

Although Amy wasn't in a position to challenge the CEO, she spoke to her director on behalf of colleagues and herself to let him know about their concerns.

After he listened attentively, he told Amy that this situation was out of his hands and he felt there was nothing that he or anyone else could do.  He also confided in her that he was looking for another job and advised her to do the same.

Over time, Amy became anxious and developed insomnia.  She knew that, for her own well-being, she couldn't stay at this company.  But she also felt responsible for the well-being of her colleagues and she didn't want to desert them.

Eventually, she began therapy for help with this dilemma:  She felt that her choices were to either take care of herself and abandon her colleagues or remain there to be supportive and her health would continue to deteriorate.

Over time, her therapist helped her to discover the underlying reasons why it felt so compelling to Amy to take care of her colleagues.

Amy was able to make the connection between her childhood history of being the caretaker in her family and her current situation with feeling she had to remain in a bad work environment to take care of her colleagues (see my article: Psychotherapy to Overcome Your Past Childhood Trauma).

Gradually, she began to see that in her family, she felt compelled to be the caretaker so that life at home didn't feel so out of control, and in her work situation, she also felt the need to be the caretaker in another dysfunctional situation (see my article: How Your Workplace Can Feel Like a Dysfunctional Family).

Several months later, Amy was contacted by a search firm that found her profile online and wanted to refer her to another job.  It sounded like a great opportunity to Amy, and they were sure that Amy would be the perfect fit for this job.

Although, on one level Amy was happy to get this call, on another level, it made her feel even more conflicted about what to do.

When Amy's therapist explored this with her and asked her under what circumstances she would feel comfortable with taking another job, the first thing that came to Amy's mind was that she would only feel good about leaving after her colleagues were comfortably situated in other jobs.

Hearing herself say that, Amy realized that this was exactly how she felt about her siblings--she couldn't allow herself to leave the home until each of her siblings was out of the house and independent.

All along, Amy's anxiety and insomnia was worsening, and she was increasingly concerned about her health.

Over time, her therapist helped Amy to distinguish between her younger siblings, who really couldn't take care of themselves vs. her colleagues, who were competent and resourceful adults.

Amy realized on a deep emotional level, not just on an intellectual level, that her colleagues would survive without her help.

She also looked at, for the first time in her life, the price that she paid for being the caretaker in her family--the social events that she missed, the school clubs that she didn't participate in, the dates she didn't go on, the sacrifice of not going to the college she wanted to go to, and many other missed opportunities.

She also understood that her emotional needs weren't taken care of in her family when she was a child, and now she wasn't taking care of her needs (see my article: Psychotherapy Can Help You to Understand Your Emotional Needs).

Making the distinction between the past and the present and acknowledging that she no longer wanted to be so self sacrificing enabled Amy to accept a great job offer (see my article: Working Through Emotional Trauma in Psychotherapy: Learning to Separate "Then" From "Now").

Overcoming the Need to Be Everyone's Caretaker

Getting to the point where she could do this wasn't easy or quick (see my article: Beyond the "Band Aid" Approach in Psychotherapy).

There were a complex array of early problems to be worked through.  But Amy stuck with her work in therapy and she stopped trying to be everyone's caretaker.

She also began attending Al-Anon as another resource to help her learn to focus on herself first (see my article: Al-Anon: Beyond Reciting Slogans).

Becoming a caretaker at a young age often results in trying to be everyone's caretaker as an adult.

It's understandable that a young child in Amy's situation would want to do whatever she could to try to help her siblings as well as help herself to feel less out of control.

But one of the problems with this is that it comes with big sacrifices to the child who assumes this role with regard to many missed opportunities that can never be regained.

Another problem is that it often sets a pattern for how this child will function later on as an adult with all the dilemmas involved with taking care of oneself vs. taking care of others.

In addition, it increases the likelihood that, as an adult, the person who tries to be a caretaker to everyone will choose relationships with people who have many problems, including substance abuse, gambling and other serious problems, and try to "fix" their significant others.

The person who takes on the caretaker role often feels that he or she can resolve whatever problems another person has regardless of the problems.

This is a kind of inflated sense of self that the child fools him or herself into believing at a young age in order to believe that s/he can do whatever it takes to solve the family's problems.

And while this might have saved the child from feeling despair at the time, it creates a false sense of self and continues to perpetuate these caretaker dynamics (see my article: Understanding the False Self).

Getting Help in Therapy
Trying to be everyone's caretaker is a problem that many people struggling with as adults.

Many people come to therapy when they find themselves in what they perceive to be a no-win situation of taking care of themselves vs taking care of others.

Aside from the emotional anguish involved, trying to be everyone's caretaker often results in physical problems, including anxiety-related problems: insomnia, headaches, stomach problems, high blood pressure and so on.

The dilemma is often too great to resolve on their own, so they seek the help of a psychotherapist.

People who have this problem often discover that once they no longer feel compelled to be a caretaker for others, they have increased vitality and happiness in their own life.

If you recognize yourself as being someone who tries to be everyone's caretaker with all the problems  involved in these dynamics, you owe it to yourself to help from a licensed mental health professional (see my article: How to Choose a Psychotherapist and How Psychotherapy Can Help You to Develop a New Perspective About Yourself and Others).

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

I have helped many individuals to overcome problems with taking care of everyone else and not taking care of themselves.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.