In the first article, we observed that what some consider selfless love can lead to losing oneself. Service, and attending to the needs of others, is a noble thing, but sometimes it turns into compulsive caretaking. Seemingly selfless love and caring for others may be driven by a need for connection and approval. In certain circles, it is often rewarded. This compulsive behavior has been modeled for us so it frequently feels like the right thing to do. Sometimes endlessly caring for others is a way to stay in control and calm our anxieties. Focusing on the needs of others can be a way to stay too busy to deal with uncomfortable or unresolved issues in our own lives. The cost of out-of- control giving and pouring ourselves out for others is often resentment, exhaustion, and burn-out. We end up aggravated with the very people we were trying to love and serve in the first place or too tired to be much good to anyone! Striking the balance between healthy self-care and loving service to others is the goal. So how do we find that balance?
First, identify the pattern. Do you find yourself compulsively fixing everyone else’s problems, taking care of everyone but yourself? Do you only know how to give? What are you telling yourself about the need to do this? Maybe you believe this is what a good person does. Consider the gospel story of the two sisters, Mary and Martha. Mary chose to feed her spiritual hunger by sitting and listening to Jesus while Martha resentfully spun around the room taking care of everyone but herself. And who did Jesus commend? Mary. He said, “Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things. But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part…” It is also interesting to consider that fact that Jesus left multitudes-people who wanted his time and attention, people he could have healed-to find time for solitude and prayer or because he was ready to move on to another city. Notice the perfect balance. Jesus attended to the physical and spiritual needs of others as well as his own needs.
Another way to recognize this pattern is to notice how you are feeling. Do you often feel guilty unless you are attending to the needs of others? Are you frequently tired, resentful, or angry? If so, notice the emotion and try to identify the situation to which it is tethered. Observe the connection or pattern without judgment. Slathering on more guilt-i.e. “I shouldn’t be resentful”-is not helpful. Trying to rid yourself of the emotion without facing the underlying issue is like treating the symptom and not the disease. Just be aware of the pattern.
Next, try to identify what situations, or people, or personal habits are contributing to the pattern of compulsive caretaking. Too much on your plate? Make an effort to declutter and simplify your life. Carefully establish priorities and be slow to commit to anything new. Ask yourself if there is anything in your busy, over packed life you can let go. Give yourself space to think about the life you want to create for yourself, the life you feel called to, not the agendas others try to establish for you. Do you have a tendency toward perfectionism? Are you plagued by constant thoughts of should and ought? Personality tendencies and habits established when we were young can keep us stuck. Counseling can be very helpful to address distorted and unhealthy thinking patterns.
Read about this issue. I frequently recommend the book Boundaries by Cloud and Townsend to my clients. Also Melody Beattie has written several books on codependent behavior which may be helpful to you.
Begin to find yourself again. Many of us are so caught up in caring for others we have lost sight of who we are. Set small, realistic goals for yourself. Do something that brings you joy and satisfaction, something just for you. Create healthy, positive routines for yourself. Surround yourself with positive people. Expect to struggle with guilty, anxious thoughts and feelings. You are venturing into new territory as you dismantle beliefs and habits which have guided your behavior for years. Be patient and compassionate with yourself.
Finally, get support. Many of us have learned to doubt or bury our feelings. You may not be sure it is right to take care of yourself. You may not be sure your feelings are reasonable. You likely struggle with boundaries, uncertain what is and isn’t your responsibility. Keep in mind that those who have been on the receiving end of your endless generosity might resist your efforts to grow and change in healthy ways. Nonetheless, friends, family members, and certainly a therapist, can be a valuable sounding board and source of encouragement.