Caretaking is an others-focused way of living where you spend most of your time and energy trying to help people. On the surface, it may look a lot like caring, but there are some key differences. For one, caretaking behavior is accompanied by the nagging underlying belief that “I don’t matter.”

Consider whether any of these signs of caretaking apply to you: 

·         I never ask others for help. 

·         I tend to be the giver in all my relationships. 

·         I believe if I can fix somebody’s problem, I must. 

·         I find myself listening to everyone else’s problems, but I rarely talk about my own.

·         I feel guilty telling others “no.”  

·         I believe others matter more than I do.

·         I tend to ignore my own needs. 

People who struggle with caretaking come across as very selfless. They listen more than they speak. They are quick to empathize and lend a helping hand. They shower others with encouragement. But too often, the compassion they extend to others is not something they give to themselves. 

The result? Exhaustion. It is common for those who caretake to live in a constant cycle of burnout. When they have energy, it’s quickly spent on those who’ve come to depend on them. That can cause the person caretaking to feel depleted, fearful, depressed, or even resentful. They may isolate themselves from others until they finally have energy to spend again, only to be drained once more.  

There are many reasons why you might find yourself trapped in this cycle. Maybe you grew up in an environment that overemphasized self-sacrifice and labeled getting your needs met as selfish. Or maybe you took on the parentified role in your family, expected to look after your siblings or parents from a very young age. Caretaking is also a common result of trauma. Feelings of shame reside at the core of trauma, and often those who carry shame try to battle against it by people-pleasing to gain approval. But the sense of finally being good enough is always fleeting. 

So how do you break the cycle? Start to focus more on you. Putting forth the effort to heal and grow frees us up to be more caring to others! When we learn how to meet our own needs, there is less exhaustion, fear, and shame holding us back. 

It also helps to remember the motto, “never do for others what they can do for themselves.” Encouraging others to use the tools they have empowers people to feel more capable and confident in themselves. For example, rather than making it your life mission to cheer up a depressed friend, truly caring for them might still involve listening, but also reminding them of the things they can do that help them feel better.

You’ll be much better prepared to care for others when you’ve had time to tackle your own problems, recharge, and show compassion to yourself. Caretaking comes from a place of depletion, but caring comes from a place of wholeness.