Compulsive Care Giving: Why Awareness Matters

Compulsive care giving is depicted in this abstract image as a person bending over and embracing what could be a child in distress.
Arms embracing another shows empathy, which compulsive caregivers have in abundance.

Compulsive caregivers have an abundance of empathy. They are also likely to have weak personal boundaries, or no boundaries at all. In such cases, empathy can drive care giving into compulsive behavior as a knee jerk reaction to someone’s problem or distress. Often it is powerfully driven by early childhood experiences, long buried and forgotten. But compulsive care giving is a negative pattern that can keep you stuck, baffled as to why you feel this way, yet unable to pinpoint the cause of your malaise.

If someone had asked me at forty if I was a compulsive caregiver, I would have adamantly said, ‘no’. Furthermore, it would never have entered my mind that helping others could ever possibly be a negative pattern that I needed to overcome. I was at the beginning of a four-year working holiday, elated that my first job was running an art gallery for six months, where I was also an artist-in-residence. However, the first painting I completed (below) began a gradual wake-up call when curious gallery visitors wanted to know what it meant.

By facing painful past experiences to grieve and heal, you can create a new dawn in your life by ending negative patterns – like compulsive care giving.

It represents the courage to face painful life experiences, I would tell them, where we might cry many tears – the large teardrop. If we could learn something positive from these experiences, a rising sun of wisdom gained would help guide us through any future painful experiences.

What sort of painful experiences do you mean? How do you turn pain into wisdom? People wanted to know more. And more… Sometimes they revealed personal problems they had never told anyone else. And time flew by.

After a few months of allowing my painting time to be interrupted like this, the gallery became more like a counseling center. Initially this did not concern me, as the discussions gave me a heady feeling of making a positive difference in people’s lives. Even simply understanding someone’s problems seemed to relieve the heavy load of worries they were carrying. And that made me feel good.


I finally became overwhelmed by people’s problems and couldn’t paint without being interrupted. Niggling resentment started to erode my good feelings after each time-consuming visitor left. In the silence of the empty gallery voices competed with each other to be heard inside my head, and the creative energy I needed to paint began to wilt like a dying flower.

With only a few completed paintings to show for my time at the gallery, I left with a heavy heart under a cloud of disappointment. Clearly I was the one with a problem that I needed to resolve.

In a second-hand bookstore near the gallery I had bought Ann Rynd’s Atlas Shrugged, and opened it at random as I often do with books when I am distracted and have a problem. Words greeted me that brought instant tears to my eyes. Clearly for the first time, I saw that my compulsive care giving was causing me to live in other people’s lives, rather than my own.

I swear by my life… and my love of it…
that I will never live for the sake of another man…
nor ask another man… to live… for mine.

By this time I had just started another job. It was at a health ranch, where I cleaned rooms in the mornings and cooked vegetarian meals in the afternoons. Many of the guests had health problems they wanted to heal by fasting or eating healthy meals. Yet while they focused on detoxifying their bodies, they had forgotten that it was also important to detoxify their minds.

As I went about my daily work they bombarded me with their fears, worries and negative thinking, considerably extending the time it should have taken me to clean their rooms. Their concerns took huge chunks out of my time off, and began to erode my usual positive outlook on life. It reminded me of how my childhood optimism and wonder at life was greatly diminished living with unhappy parents who frequently argued. My parents were unable to reflect back my happiness and wonder. Instead I saw worry, anxiety, fear and unhappiness on their faces. And I tried to ‘fix’ them with my love.

These same worries and fears were apparent in the faces of guests at the health ranch. And I began to feel depressed. As I had done with my parents and the people who came into the gallery, I became a sponge for their negative feelings while suggesting a more positive way they could view their situation. I didn’t know it then, but I had no boundaries to protect me from becoming enmeshed in other people’s problems – something I should have learned in childhood with properly functioning parents.

In his book, Iron John, Robert Bly suggests that a child in a dysfunctional family feels the tension between her parents, rage in one and sorrow in the other, for example, and can become a professional bridge. He wrote:

The boy who becomes a conductor values himself for the current that runs through his body, for his ability to conduct wrath to the ground by a quiet reply, for the self-sacrificing stretching out of his arms to touch each pole [of opposites]… The son loses his distinctiveness as a man by becoming a conductor; the daughter who accepts this task becomes, similarly, a bridge, not a woman. When either son or daughter reaches adulthood, they will notice many opportunities for similar bridging.

Men and women, then, often become conductors not from bravery or openness to change, but for longing for comfort, for peace in the house, for padded swords, for protective coloration, a longing to be the quail hiding in the reeds… We lose our childhood and a lot of our playfulness by becoming copper wires. (pp. 170-172)

Over the years it became clearer to me that I had been trained from a very early age to soothe my parents’ troubles and unhappiness, kiss away their tears, and dry their eyes. In effect, I parented my parents, which vicariously enabled me to feel valued, and loved. Over time, my success at regulating other people’s moods to make them ‘happy’ became the measure of my self-worth. I needed to be needed, which was the fuel running my compulsive care giving. But my life was now like a roller coaster riding up and down on other people’s fluctuating moods, and my ability to fill their needs.

Finally my back became so painful from all the negativity I was unconsciously trying to ‘conduct’, that I took a few days off. Lying in bed I thought about a friend, Katherine, who felt drained and lonely after years of constantly giving to her parents, coworkers, homeless people she found on the streets, and…so it went on. Hearing the despair in her voice while walking along a beach together one day, I asked her to draw a circle in the sand to represent how much she gave to people. Katherine asked if she could use her foot to draw the circle. Shocked, I watched her hop while dragging one foot to carve out a huge circle in the sand. How about a circle that represented how much she received? Inside the large circle, Katherine used her index finger to draw a circle no larger than a dinner plate.

“How can you keep giving so much when you only receive so little,” I asked.

I will never forget the astonishment on her face at this light bulb moment.

It took a kindly, gnomish man with a New York accent to reveal that Katherine’s circles also applied to me. He invited me to sit under the lychee tree at the health ranch to have a little talk. I was surprised when he said he had been watching me for some time as I went about my work. He had come to the conclusion, he said, that I gave too much. “You need to learn to be a little selfish,” he advised.

I have to admit that I didn’t know how to be a “little selfish,” for when I couldn’t meet other people’s needs, anxiety gnawed at my stomach for failing to live up to their expectations. The anxiety was, in reality, my unconscious childhood fear that if I couldn’t make my parents happy, I might be abandoned. Abandonment is a child’s worst fear. And for me, this fear became a reality.

About this time someone loaned me a Ramtha tape to listen to. When I heard the following words, I knew I had to change…

[Breakdowns are caused by] the inability to satisfy everyone around you… Madness, is trying to become everyone else’s ideal and not your own… Don’t ask anyone how you’re doing. Don’t ask anyone if they love you. Don’t ask anyone how better you can be for them. Instead, take all of these questions and ask you. Madness is trying to be everyone else. You cannot be that…

If you will love yourself and know that you are worthy of everything that is, you’ll be the happiest person you will ever know.”

It took numerous experiences like I have just described to chip away at my destructive pattern of compulsive care giving. As I had done with my parents, I tried to heal what was beyond me to heal in others: the pain of their unmet childhood needs and the inner emptiness this causes.

Children who attend to their parents’ needs in such a way usually are not permitted to have needs of their own. Not even the normal narcissistic needs of a child. This causes them to grow up denying their own needs, while able to clearly identify the needs of others. The unfortunate fact is that as adults, children who parented their parents will have to go through many painful experiences to expose these unmet needs. It then becomes an inside job to fill these needs, usually with the help of a therapist.

One of the most painful lessons to learn is that when someone needs us, it does not necessarily mean that they love us.

And so our most important inside job is to learn to love our Self and parent the unparented child within us. We cannot expect our children, or spouse, or partner, or friends to make up for this deficit of parental love. It is asking too much of them. The sad fact is that adults all too often destroy relationships with expectations rooted in fantasy trying to get the love they missed out on as a child.

This is why it matters to become aware of this pattern of compulsive care giving so you can stop it from controlling your life, and possibly destroying your relationships. Once aware, you can make changes that will allow your True self to emerge from the false persona of caregiver shaped in childhood. With your True self free, you can go on to achieve your highest potential.

Living for myself rather than living for the sake of another person’s happiness and trying to meet needs only they can fill, freed up my energy to not only meet my own needs, but to create and share from the fullness and richness of my inner being. I recall the tears that came to a new friend’s eyes when she looked through a portfolio of my paintings, and her surprise in discovering my ‘hidden’ talent.

Isn’t this a much better way to create good feelings and happiness in the world – along with a sense of wonder and awe in all it means to be a unique human being.

Although I still struggle with this compulsive care giving pattern at times, I am happy to say that I have made considerable progress in breaking it. By freeing up my time to paint and write, I can do more to enrich other people’s lives as well as my own.

The Medical Consequences of Compulsive Care Giving

In the following video, Dr Gabor Mate, author of When the Body Says NO, talks about the lack of understanding by society and the medical professions of the long term impact of trauma on a child. Of interest here he also talks about how compulsive care giving is a coping mechanism a child uses when parent/s’ needs are clearly more important than their own. As an adult stuck in this pattern of compulsive care giving, the inability to pay attention to one’s needs is likely to manifest as cancer.

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