I was raised in a Christian home with a strong Protestant work ethic: work first, play later. I understood from the teachings in my church, and what was modeled in my home, that our Christian calling was to serve others. I believed my highest goal was to serve God by adapting to the needs of my husband, attending to the needs of my children, and serving in the community. At first the accolades rolled in and I felt affirmed. As time went on; however, I often felt overwhelmed, exhausted, and guilty that I couldn’t handle the life I had created for myself! Eventually the encouragement and gratitude I received for my hard work were replaced by entitlement and indifference. Life began a quiet descent into resentment, disillusion, and depression. This wasn’t the life I wanted! A significant wake up call came at a School Board meeting as we were discussing the urgent need to fill a teaching position. As we were deciding what to do, a Board member commented casually, “It’s not a problem, Suzanne will fill the position. She always does.” I was stunned. My life was no longer under my control but lived mindlessly through the expectations of others. I had trained others to rely upon my time and talents.
In counseling numerous women, I find a startlingly similar pattern. Women, in general, are socialized to be caretakers but this is especially true in the Christian community. Service, and attending to the needs of others, isn’t wrong – Scripture seems to encourage us to sacrificial service. I am talking about out-of-control caretaking. It is the kind of service that is driven by compulsion and obligation, the kind that leaves us feeling worn out and beaten up and so out of touch with ourselves that we don’t even know who we are anymore. We see a need, often but not always a legitimate need, and we feel obligated to fix it. “If not us, who?” We feel compelled to make things right so we plead, nag, scold, advise, put in hours of labor, and neglect our own needs. We resent the fact that we have to fix everything for everyone but what can we do? It’s up to us! Then we get angry. Why do people have to be so demanding, so incompetent? Then we are hurt. Could they at least be thankful for all I do for them? Sometimes depression sets in when the love and approval we thought we would earn for all our efforts eludes us.
Many women I talk to know, on some level, this unbalanced caretaking is unhealthy but they find it difficult to break the pattern. Why do we do this to ourselves? I have observed at least six reasons why we persist in this behavior.
1. Our culture, including our church culture, rewards women who serve. This behavior has been modeled for us by our mothers and older women in the Christian community. It feels normal.
2. Lack of boundaries contributes to the problem by keeping us uncertain as to what is and is not our responsibility. Closely related to this is our tendency to take responsibility for other people’s feelings. This is especially true in how we, as modern parents, relate to our children. We are often very anxious when our kids are unhappy, uncomfortable, or bored, so we rush in to fix the problem over and over again.
3. We need to control things, to make ”it” right. “I guess if I want it done right, I’ll have to do it myself!” This reflects an undercurrent of anxiety and/or pride. Sometimes this can come from noble intentions. We see something is wrong and genuinely want to fix it.
4. We don’t know how to escape the mountain of commitments and obligations we’ve made for ourselves. Sometimes we just don’t know how to be assertive and say “no”.
5. We are unsure of our worth. We subconsciously reason that if we are needed, we will be loved. We don’t want anyone to be unhappy with us. Women are particularly sensitive to this because we are so relational. Our worth and identity come from our connection to others.
6. We might have unresolved issues from the past. Staying busy and focused on everyone but ourselves is a convenient way to avoid dealing with our own lives, fears, etc. Busyness drowns out the noise in my head which tells me I need to work on my own issues.
Selfless love often leads to losing oneself. I am not suggesting we swing to the opposite extreme and embrace a narcissistic approach to life. We don’t have to choose between teeth-gritting service and self-absorption. Remember Jesus said his yoke was easy and his burden light. What we need is a life balancing love and care for others with healthy self-care.
Suzanne Jones, MA
CrossRoads Professional Services
17501 B Old Jefferson Hwy.
Baton Rouge, Louisiana 70817
(In the second half of this article, I will explore ways to determine if you are trapped in this unhealthy pattern and what to do about it.)