Are you always worrying about how to meet others’ needs? Do you constantly try to anticipate everyone’s moods and preferences so you can manage them? Does all this mental and emotional work come at the expense of your own needs? You’re not alone. In fact, many people struggle to honor their own feelings, opinions, and preferences. They are constantly ignoring or dismissing their own inner voice in order to try to make other people happy. The trouble is, this is an impossible task that will inevitably leave you utterly exhausted, resentful, and deeply dissatisfied.
So why do some many of us get trapped in this pattern of bypassing our own needs in order to take care of everyone else? Many people are raised with the ideal of becoming an altruistic caregiver. We are taught to value people pleasing and caretaking above all else. Women in particular are often given a message from early on that it is their job to make sure everyone is happy. And the implication is that your own happiness comes last. In fact, it is often considered selfish to tend to your own wants and needs. A life of sacrifice for others is the goal. Unfortunately, this goal is both impossible and unhealthy.
Being an altruistic caregiver is based on some basic myths about how emotions and relationships work. Recognize if you have been living according to these myths so that you can begin to challenge them.
Myths of Being an Altruistic Caregiver
You are able to sense the emotional needs of others at all times. The expectation is that you are constantly, accurately anticipating everyone else’s feelings and needs. You must sense the mood of others and devise ways to bring comfort. This requires an impossible degree of mind-reading to be in tune with all the people in your life both near and far.
You are actually capable of bringing happiness to others. Implied in this message of being the altruistic caregiver is the notion that happiness comes from the outside, from the actions of others or events in our lives. It may feel very rewarding and even powerful to offer comfort and good energy to someone you care able. But in the end, we are each responsible for our own feelings. Happiness comes from within. And people have a right to feel sad, disappointed, and angry too. Tolerating tough feelings in the people we love without rushing to “fix” things, gives them an opportunity to do their own emotional work.
Your energy is a limitless resource. A life of constant giving and caretaking requires a great deal of energy. And the more people you feel responsible for, the more exhausted you will become. Altruistic caregivers tend to have great difficulty setting up limits and boundaries around who they are responsible for. So they gradually find themselves spread thin as they tend to the emotional needs of spouse, children, parents, siblings, friends, neighbors, coworkers, etc. They can even end up in a conversation with a stranger at the checkout line and slip into a role of offering support and help.
Caretaking will make people love and depend on you. Many people believe their value in a relationship is to give unconditionally. Afterall, we all want to be accepted, loved, needed. While this caretaking comes from a genuine place of genuine good will, helpers can surprisingly end up in an unhealthy power dynamic. Caretaking creates a power imbalance. The person being cared for feels dependent and may wind up feeling childlike or resentful, viewing the caretaker as too controlling or manipulative. Conversely, the caregiver who does not feel appreciated or balanced may feel taken for granted or unfairly burdened. This breeds distance rather than intimacy.
Your own feelings, preferences, opinions, and needs always come last. Selfless actions are healthy only when they take place in a relationship with balance, where there is a fair give and take. When one person is constantly suppressing his/her own needs, it takes a significant emotional and physical toll. We have little to give anyone else when we are completely depleted. We end up angry, depressed, overwhelmed, sick, or in pain. Chronic illnesses can develop from this pattern of emotional suppression.
Move Toward Balanced Caretaking & Caregiving
Feeling worthy to honor your own feelings, opinions, and preferences is a personal journey well worth taking. It requires self-reflection to really listen to your inner voice. Notice your own discomfort when the people you care about are struggling and see if you can tolerate their feelings for awhile. Resist the urge to constantly anticipate, soften, fix things for others. Give yourself and them permission to struggle and feel. You may find it helpful to tune into your body to identify your feelings. Try reading and journal writing to explore your own opinions and preferences. Play around with voicing yourself to the people you feel safest with first. Choose to take care of yourself in small ways each day. And explore who you are beyond being a caretaker. Give yourself the opportunity to put energy into your passions. Acknowledge your preferences without apology or justification. Practice setting limits and saying no to caretaking that doesn’t feel balanced. You’ll know you’ve made progress when you find yourself making choices that feel authentic and energy building.
If you are struggling to make meaningful changes that honor your own self-worth, it may be time to seek extra help. Psychotherapy can be a helpful tool to challenge these old patterns and create healthier ones moving forward.
Written by Suzanne Smith, Ph.D. for the Lakefront Psychology Blog. If you are interested in more original articles about mental health, postpartum issues, wellness, relationships, and parenting, please subscribe to the blog using the button below. If you are interested in scheduling an appointment with Dr. Smith, please contact Lakefront Psychology at 216-870-9816.