By Chris Chandler, MA, LMHC, CSAT-C, Bellevue Christian Counseling
References “The New Codependency” by Melody Beattie
Just because you can help someone doesn’t necessarily mean you should. Rescuing someone because you cannot stand to see them suffer the consequences of their actions often hurts them in the long run. In her book “The New Codependency,” Melody Beattie calls this behavior “caretaking.”
Caretaking is an offshoot of codependency. The driving psychology is a desire to make others dependent on you so they can never abandon you. If you solve someone’s problems often enough, they never learn the skills to handle them alone. They’re helpless without you.
Difference between Caretaking and Helping
So how do you tell the difference between helpfulness and caretaking? Examine the motive and the long-term consequences of your behavior. Are you helping the person the way they want to be helped, or are you helping the way you think they should be helped? Also, are you building a protective barrier between them and consequences they’ve earned?
Beattie’s examples of caretaking (40):
- “Doing what isn’t our responsibility, and what we don’t want to do.”
- “Getting involved in what isn’t our business.”
- “Doing what people are capable of doing–and need to do–for themselves.”
Beattie’s examples of healthy service (50):
- “Clear contracts to help, in which all people hold up their end of the bargain.”
- “Giving to receive good feelings from giving, not because we’re needy and want to make people dependent on us.”
- “Any behavior we take responsibility for that doesn’t result in us feeling victimized.”
Why is Caretaking Hurtful?
Caretaking seems helpful, but it inevitably hurts the caretaker and the recipient. It hurts the caretaker because they overdraw themselves looking after others. Dedicating your life to serve as a force field between self-destructive people and their comeuppance is physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting. You begin to resent this person for asking so much of you. You start out caretaking because you want to help others and get them to like you. But eventually it leaves you burnt out and resentful.
If anyone should have been able to “do it all” it would have been the Son of God. But that was not the example he set. Hebrews 4 reminds us that Jesus sympathizes with our weakness and modeled work/rest balances for us accordingly. Respect your limits. God loves a cheerful giver. Learning when to refuse a request will give you more energy and enthusiasm for the requests you grant.
The other side of the coin is that the recipient is protected from essential life lessons. Consequences are crucial to curbing destructive behavior. Parents of addicts often struggle with caretaking. The consequences of addiction tend to be more frightening, so parents have more trouble letting their children bear the brunt of their behavior. They bail them out of jail. They cover their mortgage payments.
Rescuing relieves two discomforts: your child does not have to suffer the consequences of their actions, and you do not have to feel bad knowing you could make it go away. Unfortunately, it also ensures that your child will continue using. There is no significant downside to their behavior. Why should they quit?
How to Quit Rescuing
Caretaking drains the caretaker and teaches the recipient the fire they’re playing with will never hurt them. Both will eventually burn out. If your caretaking is keeping loved ones from learning essential, life-enhancing lessons, you need to stop.
Beattie says the key to knowing when to intervene is to educate yourself. Find a local chapter meeting for family and friends of addicts. They can help you figure out the appropriate time to stage an intervention or how to suggest rehab. (53) They can also offer support as you resist rushing in to play savior. You will need their support, as your dependent is going to be even less happy than you with this new arrangement. The consequences of their behavior will be scary for both of you. But it is essential they learn the price of their choices, otherwise they will never want to change.
Proverbs 22:6 reminds us of how difficult it is to change living habits once they’ve been established. “Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it.” (NIV) They will not turn from it. Once they have practiced these lessons, they are set. This is why it is so important you let your loved ones experience those unpleasant consequences and encourage them to develop responsibility. Otherwise, they will remain wholly dependent upon you.
Take Time for Yourself
Part of getting away from caretaking is learning to care for yourself. Christians often feel selfish for saying, “No,” or setting aside time for themselves. Don’t. “Me time” is an essential part of staying healthy. Scripture sets the example of a proper work/recreation balance. God spent six days working and rested on the seventh. Jesus withdrew from crowds that sought to overwhelm him. (Mark 3) He also retreated to quiet places to take a break from the demands of his followers and refresh himself. (Luke 5)
Christian Counseling for Caretaking
If you practically have to sit on your hands to avoid inserting yourself in other people’s business, consider getting in touch with a professional Christian counselor. They can help you distinguish between helping and caretaking. A professional Christian counselor can also help you identify elements of your schedule that leave you overburdened and drained. Manipulating people into depending on you is no way to go about forming relationships. Get in touch with a professional Christian counselor who can guide you through taking your hands off other people’s mistakes and, instead, learn how to establish balanced exchanges with others.
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