© The Trauma Initiative

Growing up an introvert and a twin, one other close friend was all I could handle at a given time. But, more than often, I would discover that my chosen friend had another chum and that this relationship was hugely volatile. It came down to me to be the “steady ship” as well as being emotionally available for my friend when her second chumship crashed (as it often did).  In many ways, it gave me a short-lived sense of purpose and self-worth.

As the years passed, however, I started noticing that this sense of fulfillment became an intoxicating addiction. Abandoning a fruitful career, I began seeking opportunities to be of help overseas in orphanages or not-for-profit organizations; wherever there was a need. Then came adoption and additional volunteer roles. And, of course, the inevitable offers to mind other people’s children when they were in a fix.

It wasn’t until many years later, after being diagnosed with vicarious trauma (compassion fatigue), that I realized I was playing a dangerous game. I had given away my value and worth by being too empathetic, too generous, too unselfish. But worse, by seeking value through service and good deeds, prevented me from showing genuine compassion. I wasn’t a caregiver, I was a caretaker.

Biologically wired to nurture

All humans are born with the capacity to be caring and nurturing. To some, it comes naturally, and for others, caring can be a bit more challenging and awkward.

But if you’ve ever felt the privilege of providing care for another living being, then you’ve encountered your nurturing ability. This could be anything from caring for a domestic pet or livestock to supporting another person’s dream (without the desire for personal gain).

To nurture is to care for the wellbeing of other human beings, fellow creatures, living beings and ourselves. To nurture is to enhance the vitality and quality of life. This impacts not only the here-and-now, but our future generations as well, because our actions create ripple effects.

Think of someone you admire, and that person will probably be a nurturer. Jesus of Nazareth, Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King; the most revered figures in history have all embodied the ability to nurture. Even Mother Nature itself perfectly encapsulates nurturing qualities in the way it generously shelters, clothes, feeds and heals us.

When it comes to parenting, stepping up to the role of nurturer is of critical importance; science confirms attuned care protects young children from the worst effects of adversity and promotes physical, emotional, social and cognitive development. But there is a distinct line between caring and giving yourself up to care and care and care and care.

Are you a caretaker or caregiver?

Mental Health Resources 4 Carers (MHR4C) describe the term caretaker as someone who “puts the needs of others ahead of their own well-being.” And they describe the term caregiver as someone who “takes care of themselves as well as the person they care for.” This is what it looks like:

The Caretakers:
Caretaking emanates from scarcity (particularly deprivation and need). It creates an imbalance and unhealthy dependency–codependence.   

  •  Sacrifices self
  • Feels compelled to help, including solving other people’s problems
  • Feels responsible for others before self
  • Unable to assert personal limits and boundaries
  • Often overcritical and controlling (towards self and others)
  • Feels exhausted, irritate, frustrated, anxious
  • Feels annoyed when advice isn’t followed
  • Feels unappreciated or resentful
  • May give with strings attached or expectations
  • Discourages others from thinking for themselves
  • Uses non-assertive “you” statements.

The Caregivers:
Caregiving is a normal outgrowth of love and is also part of healthy relationships. When someone we love is in need, we naturally want to help. This comes from abundance. Caregivers empower the person they care for by encouraging them to make their own choices and be responsible for their own actions.

  • Practices self-care
  • Considers their own needs, the needs of the person they care for, and the needs of others in their family
  • Able to assert their limits and boundaries
  • Knows what’s best for self
  • Doesn’t take others’ actions personally
  • Encourages others to solve their own problems
  • Uses assertive “I” statements
  • Accepts help from others.
  • Open to alternatives, learning and trying new approaches.

The difference between caregiving and caretaking is, essentially, the motivation behind it. What turns nurturing and caring for others into an addictive and harmful habit? The underlying intention. Do you nurture others from the fullness and wholeness of your being, your soul? Or do you nurture others from an inner neediness, a lack, an insecurity, an incompleteness?

Surely, on the surface nurturing looks the same regardless of the underlying motivation. But when we nurture others to avoid issues like abandonment, criticism and judgement, there’s more taking going on. Why is this so? When we caretake, we nurture others out of an inner sense of poverty. This harms not only the giver, but also the receiver.

For the giver: Caretaker burnout (or fatigue) is a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion that can occur when caretakers don’t get the help they need, or if they try to do more than they are able. Many caretakers also feel guilty if they spend time on themselves, so tend to avoid it until it’s too late. Caretakers who are “burned out” may experience fatigue, stress, anxiety, and depression.

For the receiver: The caretaker is often ambivalent, indifferent; going through the motions out of obligation. Compassion and human connection have gone AWOL. In response, the receiver may exhibit more problem behaviours or manipulate the caretaker to assume responsibility for solving their problems (greater dependency). Often, in the case of children impacted by early or developmental trauma, the caretaker eventually becomes the “nurturing enemy.”

Looping back to nurturing

In order to authentically nurture others, we need to move from a self-centric to a soul-centric view of life. The establishment of appropriate boundaries is critical. We require all the support we can get to do this, particularly from people that love us for who we really are, not what we do.

Ultimately, the tonic for this kind of illness is to become aware of our habits and understanding that we’re worthy of love just the way we are. We must learn to love ourselves, take care of ourselves, be responsible for ourselves, and heal ourselves before we are capable of loving and caring for another fully.  Loving thy neighbor without loving thyself first, results in the blind guiding the blind. It is a life of servitude, with little fulfillment, superficial acceptance, and a meager sense of belonging.

In my journey from caretaker to caregiver, I’ve found the meaning of true compassion: There’s no more joyous feeling in life than to love and care for others, not because I need or must … but because I choose to. True compassion is cultivating so much love in yourself that it becomes a burden to bear. Giving to others is a relief, almost like a tree carrying heavy fruits in its branches that is thankful when others pick from its abundance.

© Felicia Stewart, 2019

2 thoughts on “Caretaking vs. Caregiving: Going beyond semantics

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