The words describe the action accurately. When we caretake someone, we are energetically taking something, since it is not a clean transaction. Caregiving, on the other hand, is a pure movement of energy: it comes from the heart with no unconscious baggage attached nor manipulation intended. That is a more rare interaction in our culture. Caretaking is a common issue, so it needs a closer look. I not only have the t-shirt on this one, I have a whole fucking wardrobe. It is an insidious addiction that takes constant vigilance to step away from. So, let me give you a quick tour.
Caretaking can look lovely on the outside. We volunteer to emotionally caretake someone who is going through a rough patch. It can be our partner, sibling, parent, or friend. Or, maybe a total stranger we have befriended. We spend hours giving advice in person or over phone, email, and text. We thoroughly take on someone’s life and become deeply involved in the happenings of it. Meanwhile, we totally neglect self-care and are out of touch with our own needs. Instead, we deal with the other person with what we perceive as an innocent act of virtuousness and generosity. But it does not take much probing to see the unhealthy patterns underneath this behavior.
First, we need to sit with ourselves and examine what anxiety we are displacing onto this other person. This is not easy, since as caretakers we have all mastered pushing down these feelings and projecting them onto others. The unconscious intent here is to pass along our hot potato of unwanted feelings onto another. We then try to fix those feelings by fixing the other. Of course, this is insane since we all need healing and not fixing. Furthermore, we as outsiders are powerless in healing another. If the person is mentally and emotionally ready for healing, they will take the appropriate action to do so. We do not have the permission to shove anything down somebody else’s throat. Not that something like that stops our desperation to run away from our own pain by fixing another.
A sure sign of this pattern in action is our total attachment to the decisions of the receiving party. We become desperately involved in the choices they make. We want to run their lives. Their actions are emotionally charged for us. We have no faith in their process or path. An unhealthy bond occurs where we become their higher power, and them: powerless. In turn, they become dependent on us. They give up their own internal compass and dangerously replace it with our notions of what is right for them.
This is where both parties get frustrated. Being unaware that we are involved in this dance since it is unconscious, we get agitated since our needs keep being unmet. The receiving party becomes furious since they are unconsciously in an agreement to be kept in a place of need. So, like an addict they keep returning to the drug dealer for another hit. This is a lose/lose situation, which is why there is tremendous unconscious rage in such relationships.
These patterns start at a young age. When our needs are not met as young helpless children, some of us attempt to push it away by projecting it onto others. Namely, intimates in the shape of friends or lovers. We unconsciously seek out such people to place our helplessness onto, as a way of not feeling our own pain. We start the caretaking cycle. On a deeper level, we want to fix these people so they can become healthy and then, in turn, take care of us. But since we are too frightened to be intimate on any level, we keep the game going by staying in a place of power by always being the caretaker. We might give advice, always be available, give financial support. But it is not clean, since we want something in return, namely to keep the power balance and be on top on a psychic level. But we act like we have no needs and are only there to give.
The care-receiver has the same wounding, but deals with it in reverse. They abandon self-responsibility and look to be taken care of by using their helplessness as a bait to lure in a caretaker. One thing we have to understand from the perspective of the professional care-receiver: we all love our pain until we don’t. We can displace our pain by never being in our power, by always being confused, or in need of outside guidance. This is a form of negative pleasure where we can go from one bad situation or relationship to another. We stumble from one seemingly random disaster to another or stay in one unhealthy one for a long period of time. Only the person stuck in these types of situations can pull themselves out. No one can forcibly extract them. By caretaking someone in this kind of pattern, we are merely giving the drug addict money to keep buying drugs. This will only keep them in their rut and hasten their demise. We have to become hip to the fact that people unconsciously love their pain until they don’t. That is true for all of us.
In these times of rapid change, we are all being offered ways to let go of old habits. It is a common experience for me, in my daily practice, to work with people who appear stuck in a relationship because they feel responsible for the other party. They do not realize that they can just walk away, that the other person will be fine. They are not privy to the unconscious fact that they need to caretake the other person as much as the other person needs them. Once they realize that truth, they become free to move on. Our job in these situations is to own our 50% of the deal. We have no say in how the other person will react. Most likely it will not be a Hollywood-ending immediately. But we have to learn to tolerate that too. Junkies hate their drugs being cut off. But that is the best thing for both parties. Time for each and every one of us to tend to our own self. To clean our own garden.