I’ll keep this short.
I know you don’t have much time. There are people depending on you! You have a long to-do list. You are probably exhausted, too.
This will only take a few minutes.
Sit down, take a little break. I’ll make you a cuppa something: tea? Coffee? What’s your preference?
You probably don’t get first choice often. You’re usually making things for other people, finding out what they prefer, and then you just have a bit of the same, to save the trouble. Yeah. I got your number. Here:
I like coffee, so you can have that too.
We’ll have a short chat, one chronic caretaker to another.
But it’s depressing shop talk, because let’s be real (we can be honest with each other; we both know how it is): chronic care-taking is demoralizing, exhausting, usually thankless.
It’s not like we asked for all these responsibilities! (Did we?)
But here we are, eh? What are we gonna do? Just… stop?
Ha, hahah! Everything would completely and utterly fall apart if we did that, so no. That’s obviously not an option.
Let’s move on.
What is chronic care-taking, anyway?
First, what it’s not: it’s not the kind of temporary care-taking that is often a necessity in life, in various situations.
Your kid breaks a leg. Your partner is laid off and gets depressed. Your aging parents need help navigating some complex decisions.
There are plenty of other temporary care-taking situations in life. They are part of life, and whether you are the one giving or receiving care, you can learn amazing, valuable lessons through the experience. It’s also painful, usually. But it’s hallmarked by this one characteristic: the care-taking is temporary, situational. When the situation is resolved, the care-taking ends.
That’s one thing.
Chronic care-taking is a whole different beastie.
Chronic care-taking is something that keeps happening, without end. Chronic care-taking is not based on situation but on identity.
Chronic care-taking is a deadly, stinky, painful trap and you may be stuck in it.
Which chronic care-taking style are you?
1. Emotional Support Caretaker
“I just want everybody to be happy.”
Frequent activities: asking questions, taking endless phone calls, listening to dramatic retellings of painful victimization experiences, collecting emotionally needy friends, being the strong one, embarking on relationships with emotionally distant partners, laying awake at night worrying about that one thing you said to that one person that one time, analyzing everyone’s tone of voice, sighing.
End result: you have a way of helping other people feel slightly better about their own shitty choices, which may be a gift or it may be a curse. We need the consequences of our actions–the pain they bring–to help us learn not to keep making the same shitty decisions! In the meantime, when do you let yourself feel happy? Ever?
2. Future-Proofing Caretaker
“I just want everything to be okay.”
Frequent activities: planning, organizing group activities, administrating all the things because you’re better at it than everybody else, “checking in” on people, spending way too much time on logistics, researching, optimizing, reading reviews and quality control journals, comparison shopping, worrying. Probably making lists, too. Pro/con lists? Oh yeah. You love those.
End result: the future happens anyway, despite your resistance. Your future-proofing efforts take about 50 units of life-energy and save you about two units of pain/discomfort, so… it’s a bad investment. That’s also why you’re always tired. Way more energy out than in. It’s not really optimizing. It’s just avoiding situations that make you uncomfortable.
3. Save the World Caretaker
“I just want my kids to be taken care of.”
Frequent activities: reading the news, scanning social media, sharing the latest end-of-the-world stories, reading the news again, watching TED talks, commiserating with like-minded people, discussing the hopelessness of it all, feeling helpless, feeling so frustrated by people who don’t care as much as you care, championing causes, looking for villains (and finding them everywhere), worrying. Did I mention feeling helpless and overwhelmed?
End result: the present, as imperfect as it is, goes past you while you are busy trying to fix the future. Your goals are, surely, admirable. But bearing the weight of the world is aging your body, breaking your mind, and diminishing your capacity for joy. Is this how you want to live?
4. Drama Demoting Caretaker
“I just want everybody to be at peace.”
Frequent activities: avoiding drama, talking about avoiding drama, avoiding confrontation, avoiding conflict of any kind, preaching conflict-avoidance, avoiding controversial topics, pretending to like everybody, keeping your opinions to yourself, tolerating stuff you shouldn’t tolerate (because you don’t want to, but you make yourself), listening without engaging, talking without sharing, keeping your distance.
End result: you avoid drama, great! But you also avoid conflict–which is a necessary and important part of life–and you miss out on honesty and real connections. You may be chill, my friend, but you’re probably also lonely. Nobody knows who you really are. You won’t let them, because you’re too busy trying to keep it chill.
I’m not talking about you. Or am I?
I didn’t write this with specific people in mind. I wrote this about patterns that exist, patterns that I have seen up close, very personal. Patterns that I have lived.
Patterns that I sometimes find myself still living.
If you know me well enough, you could recognize me in every one of those care-taking patterns.
So if you feel like I’m talking about you, maybe I am. But it’s not on purpose. If something is echoing in your mind, if some phrase makes you draw your breath in quick and sharp, if some word got a quick huff of dismissal from you…
Maybe you need to hear it.
I don’t know.
I do know that resonance is something I’ve learned to pay attention to. If I respond emotionally to something, it’s because there’s something in me that recognizes itself.
Unhealthy, unsatisfying, unproductive patterns
None of these patterns of care-taking get you what you want.
The emotionally supportive caretaker does not make everybody happy.
The future-proofing caretaker does not prevent bad things from happening.
The save the world caretaker does not end the crises in the world.
The drama demoting caretaker does not get everybody to be chill.
But you know what all chronic caretakers do get?
You get tired. You get so fucking tired. You get utterly, endlessly exhausted by the burdens you bear.
You get angry. You get so frustrated. You feel resentment grow in you like a cancer. You don’t know why you’re the only one who cares. You don’t know why it’s all up to you.
(It’s not all up to you.)
You get left behind. While you’re busy care-taking, everyone else moves on.
You can care without being a caretaker
Chronic care-taking is something you fall into when you’re unsure of yourself, of your own strengths and desires, of your own worth.
Chronic care-taking is way of saying and doing what you want without taking on the full responsibility of it. You project the need, the hurt, the wound, the drama, the crisis onto someone else (and there are plenty of apt volunteers).
Then you step in to fix it. You do your best. You try. And you do help! Really.
But that’s not the real story. The real story is deeper.
The real story is that you’re trying to prove–to yourself–that you can fix whatever you feel is broken in you.
You’re trying it out on others first. And you keep trying it out and trying it out, and not being convinced (because it doesn’t always work, does it?), and so you have to keep trying. Again. Always again. There’s always more.
If you say, “I just want everyone to be happy,” the real thing you’re trying to say is: “I want to be happy.”
If you say, “I just want everything to be okay,” the real thing you’re trying to say is: “I want to be okay.”
If you say, “I just want my kids to be taken care of,” the real thing you’re trying to say is: “I just want to be taken care of.”
If you say, “I just want everybody to be at peace,” the real thing you’re trying to say is: “I just want to be at peace.”
There’s only one question here: will you quit practicing on other people and give yourself what you want?
When will you start taking care of yourself?
Annie Mueller is a writer, reader, seeker of growth, and transplant to Puerto Rico, where she lives with her best friend and their four children. Her crash course in self-discovery came from experiencing job loss, financial devastation, Hurricane Maria and its aftermath, and major surgery—all in less than a year. She writes about creativity, personal growth, and spirituality; runs Prolifica, a content management consultancy for small teams and solo professionals; and sends out a popular weekly newsletter about feelings and freelancing. You can find more of her work on her website.
Image courtesy of Steinar Engeland.