What’s the difference between caring and caretaking?
By Annabelle Parr, MA, AMFT
As we have discussed previously on the blog, individuals who struggle with codependency are also often incredibly compassionate, giving, empathetic, and caring. One of the difficult things about codependency and codependent behavior is that on the surface it can appear to reflect these beautiful strengths. When these are the qualities we hope to embody, it can feel really difficult to refrain from caretaking if this is the best way we know how to show our kindness. But when we look closer, codependency often has some significant costs to our wellbeing and to the health of our relationships. Learning to distinguish caring and compassionate actions from caretaking and rescuing can be difficult, so in this blog we are going to touch on some of the differences.
What is caretaking?
Melody Beattie (1986) uses the terms caretaking and rescuing synonymously, and defines rescuing as “anytime we take responsibility for another human being—for that person’s thoughts, feelings, decisions, behaviors, growth, well-being, problems, or destiny” (p. 84). Although rescuing behaviors can look generous and helpful, the function and consequences of these behaviors are typically very different from caring behaviors.
What is the function of caretaking?
When we engage in caretaking, typically the behavior is motivated to alleviate our feelings of discomfort: guilt, anxiety, fear, a sense of obligation, awkwardness or urgency. When we caretake, we often suppress our own feelings and needs, stretch ourselves too thin, over accommodate others, suffer another person’s consequences for them, and/or put in more effort to solve another person’s problems than they themselves do, despite the other person’s capability to do so.
What are the consequences of caretaking?
Eventually, we tend to suffer consequences for our caretaking, including burnout, anxiety, resentment and anger, and these consequences often impact our subsequent behavior and the quality of our relationships. Sometimes our caretaking can be intrusive and unwelcome to the person on the receiving end, but sometimes it may be welcomed. Caretaking can create a pattern where the other person may begin to expect us to anticipate and meet their every need, such that our behavior reinforces a learned helplessness in the other. Caretaking and codependency can create a dynamic in which we overfunction at our own expense, and ultimately also at the expense of the other person, as they learn to underfunction as a result. So despite appearing caring on the surface, caretaking behavior typically has a net negative impact on us and our relationship both with ourselves and with the person whom we have been caretaking.
How is caring different?
On the other hand, caring behavior is not designed to alleviate our own discomfort. Instead it is motivated by a desire to express love, compassion or kindness toward another. Caring behavior recognizes the other as a fully capable individual, and typically involves actions that are wanted by both the person doing the caring and the person receiving the care. Furthermore, although caring behavior may involve sacrifices or compromises at times, it does not require us to suppress or ignore our own needs and feelings. It is a consciously chosen behavior that honors what is important to us as well as what the other person wants and needs, and as a result, it does not lead to resentment. When we are engaging in our lives from a place of care, love and compassion, we are capable of recognizing, attending to and expressing our needs even as we show care toward those around us.
How to move from caretaking toward caring?
It takes both courage and awareness to begin to change codependent patterns. Often we engage in these behaviors because at some point in our lives, they have served to help keep us safe in some way. Part of changing these patterns involves getting curious about our emotions, needs, and actions, understanding why we do what we do, and learning what other options we have available to us. If you are struggling with codependency and learning how to move from caretaking to caring, know that you are not alone. Support is available and change is possible. For more information on group classes for codependency or individual therapy for codependency, anxiety, and relationships, contact us.
If you or someone you love might benefit from therapy for codependency, anxiety, low-self esteem, or depression, please contact Jodi Staszak, LMFT. Jodi offers Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy (AEDP) for individuals, and Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) for couples, in addition to Overcoming Codependency groups for individuals struggling with codependence. Jodi can be reached at 619-818-0375 or JodiS.MFT@gmail.com.
Beattie, M. (1986). Codependent no more: How to stop controlling others and start caring for yourself. Center City, MN: Hazelden.