Care-Taking vs Caring For

I have a part of me that is a care-taker. Which is why when I meet other care-takers, I can get triggered and irritated by them.

Let’s unpack this care-taker thing since it’s one of the most common relationship issues.

There is very little room for pain and suffering in our culture because the cultural message is “it’s not okay to feel.”  So, we stuff our feelings and traumas, meanwhile we are deeply hurting inside. Then, we posture over this and act like everything’s fine because another cultural norm we have is to be strong, independent, and self-reliant. Better not show our vulnerability…

So naturally, when someone bursts and falls apart, some of us come to the rescue (others run away). But not necessarily because we care. Many of us come to the rescue because we can’t tolerate our experience seeing other person in pain. So we help them in order to get them back to their happy place so we can diminish our discomfort. And, others of us come to the rescue to get love, approval, and validation.

If you can relate to this and have a care-taker living inside of you, think about it in your own life. When a close friend or lover is struggling, does the care taker in you mobilize and assume your struggling friend needs something–a hug, help, or support of some kind and do you take it upon yourself to rescue, help, or save the day? Or are you able to stay in your center and support them from a “clean” place if they need it?

There are three primary reasons I care-take:

1. Fear of feeling uncomfortable feelings in my experience

2. Fear of losing relationship (loss)

3. To get approval (gain)

For example, when I was a boy, if I didn’t do some form of care-taking (mostly with my mom), then I was brushed off, rejected, abandoned, shamed, and even humiliated. When I did care-take, I was rewarded with love, connection, praise, and was a “good little boy” (this is the approval part).  So, as an adult, if I risk not care-taking and instead I’m willing to be myself, I am faced with the childhood fear of losing relationship forever. So, to trust you will be okay with your pain, goes against everything I learned as a child.

Lately, the care-taker part in me is in the background, yet I see how with certain personality types, he comes out. I notice how I’d rather withhold my truth as I don’t want to upset the other person so as to avoid my own discomfort. In doing this, I maintain a status-quo relationship where I’m not really being myself.

So, what to do? For me, the work is learning how to care for someone, hold my center, attend to my own discomfort and genuinely be there for them, while not needing anything in return.

Here’s a helpful distinction between care-taking versus “caring for” someone.

Care-taking—Trying to make someone feel better because you want to be liked by them, or your desire to help them is coming from your own fear/discomfort and your desire to “get rid of” the uncomfortable feelings in yourself seeing them in pain. The underlying message you are sending is something like “I don’t trust you can take care of yourself. You need me and my help.” This can prop you up and make you feel valued by being such a “caring” person. You “get” some validation by giving and you enjoy that, even to the point of feeling proud. They can end up feeling slimed or like something is “off” in the interaction. Not clean.

The care-taker often shows up as an enabler, giver, savior or rescuer.  In enneagram terms, the care-taker is the number 2. The care-taker is often out of touch with their own needs so they indirectly get their unmet needs met through giving. Chogyam Trungpa called care-taking Idiot Compassion.

Caring for—helping or serving someone because you genuinely feel love and care for them.  You genuinely trust they don’t “need” you or your specific help but you feel called to “be there” for them.  You don’t lose yourself in your caring of them. In fact, you don’t even need to do anything (although you might) because how you feel inside sends the message of “I accept you and love you through this.” They end up feeling held and cared about by you.  Clean.

Check yourself on this one. Next time someone in your life is challenged, notice your response. Do you want to rescue them? Do you feel called to help because you want to silence the discomfort going on?  Do you get a quick hit of approval having offered yourself to them?

Lastly, what is the cost of your care taking behavior? Are you actually less available to your friends and loved ones because you are so busy taking care of everyone? And, how are you with receiving support? Do you really let others help you out or are you always the helper? Any resentments there?

If we want to learn a new way to care for someone, it help to understand why we care-take. What drives this behavior in each of us and is it really serving us and those we care about? Once we understand our motives, and the cost of our behavior, we have the power to choose a direction that is in alignment with who we really are.

1 Comment

  • Mara Kormylo

    Reply Reply September 18, 2012


    I appreciate your distinction between care-taker and caring for. For many years I was very triggered by my older sister and her “care taking” of me. I was especially triggered by her question “are you ok?” There is so much around this issue that triggers me….my feeling “weak” in particular. Thankfully I’m working hard to not experience my vulnerability as weakness as much these days. And I can see her need to care take as her need for approval b/c of your great was of defining it. I currently feel very connected to my sister and I like to think it’s because she is moving to more of a “caring for” stance and I’m ok with needing to be cared for.

    Thanks for your work.

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