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Caretaker Behavior

Chapter 5 Eliminating Caretaker Behaviors

Tools for Handling Control Issues

By: James J. Messina, Ph.D.

What are caretaker behaviors?

Caretaker behaviors are those behaviors which:

  • Keep people in a dependency relationship with you.
  • Require that everyone you care for must conform to your set of rules and norms about how they are to conduct their lives.
  • On the surface look good and proper but in reality are a subtle way of manipulating others to keep them under your control.
  • You exercise on others to prevent unwanted behaviors or disasters or to clean up and provide damage control after a problem has erupted.
  • Make you valuable to others who need your assistance, rescuing and help and therefore anoint you to be in a powerful position to control, dictate, or direct their future actions.
  • Make you the person upon whom people rely to be the stable rock, foundation, or support in the system when they get into trouble.
  • Exhibit the axiom that money, material goods, and status are more important in human relationships than are emotional support, self-discipline and feelings oriented relationships.
  • Keep people from honestly assessing what is happening in their lives for fear that if they become honest they could no longer turn to the caretaker to bail them out when they get into trouble.
  • Are often enabling behaviors which exacerbate the troubled behaviors which are being cared for.
  • Are often hidden behind the mask of a gift or a token of love but in reality have major strings attached by which the recipient is held to be beholden or grateful for the gift and thus held in line with what the caretaker wants to happen if further gifts are to be given.
  • Bail others out from major problems with the result that they lose their sense of independence and personal autonomy.
  • Give you the role of a Godfather who is all giving and yet seeks retribution if you are ever crossed or disappointed.


What are the negative effects of being a caretaker?

If you continue to be a caretaker in your relationships, then you could:

  • Become frustrated over the amount of energy, resources, time, effort, support, and sacrifices you need to put out in order to help those people who look to you for help.
  • Be disappointed that those to whom you are a caretaker seem to increase in their helplessness over time rather than grow in self-sufficiency.
  • Punish those whom you are a caretaker for if they become successful and gain independence from their need for help.
  • Take on the role of martyr bemoaning how awful it is to have so many people's lives you are responsible for and yet do nothing to change the situation to encourage the people to leave the nest and fly on their own.
  • Encourage a number of people, places, or things to become overdependent on you, thus increasing your stress and anxiety with such responsibility solely on you.
  • Get stuck in denial that your caretaking actually enables others to become dependent rather than independent.
  • Enjoy the power and control of being the Godfather and begin to resort to intimidation, threats, and coercion to keep those dependent on you in line.
  • Become frustrated that you are working harder and harder to make things right and yet don't seem to be succeeding since there are always new problems needing your attention and support.
  • See yourself as a generous, benevolent, and philanthropic individual while in reality you are a controller who weakens peoples' wills and spirits from becoming independent, self-sufficient, and successful in their own right.
  • Contribute to enabling and exacerbating the addictive, compulsive, and self-destructive behaviors of those you care for.
  • Be outraged, angry, and resent the freeloading of others on you and yet enjoy the sense of helping others and not be able to let go of the freeloaders in your life.
  • Sense that no matter how much you do for others it is never good enough to correct the situation and feel compelled to give more and more, in the process accepting increased control and responsibility over these people's lives.
  • Believe that your advice, gems of wisdom, insights, suggestions, and directives are the golden rule for those dependent on you and get angry, resentful, and lose your temper with them when they ignore you.
  • Become socially isolated if people are drawn to you not for who you are but rather for what you can do for them.
  • Experience a grave depression if you realize that no matter how much you give others you are constantly in a struggle to gain their unconditional love. Even worse you question if they would love you if you had nothing to give them but you the person.
  • Experience a worsening of your low self-esteem when you recognize that your worth is based conditionally on what you do for others rather than on what you are as a person.

How is being a caretaker a control issue?

Being a caretaker is a control issue because:

  • It places the locus of control in your hands and out of the hands of those you are caring for.
  • You take control from other people to determine their own direction in life by accepting the full brunt of responsibility for their welfare.
  • By believing that you are the source of all good things for others, you give yourself the power to control their lives, fortunes, and destiny, if not in reality, at least in your mind.
  • You can often resort to use of threats, coercion, or intimidation to retain your dominant role in their lives, if the people, places, or things try to get control back.
  • Those people, places, or things whom you take care of can become overdependent on your nurturance, care and support so much so that they lose the inherent capability to control their own lives.
  • You can often persist in caring for others who are the uncontrollables and unchangeables in your life you need to let go of or become detached from.
  • You open yourself up to be manipulated to care for others who hide behind the mask of helplessness in order to hook you to do what they want you to do for them.
  • It can often be a mask behind which you hide so as to avoid having to deal with the problems or issues which are out of control in your own life.
  • It is often easier to control others than to gain your own self-control.
  • When you see others for whom you are being a caretaker struggle to get power back in their own lives by functioning independently from you, you can resort to power tactics to get them back into the dependent role with you.
  • On the surface it looks so generous, giving, and noble to be a caretaker when in reality you are a dependent person who needs needy people, places, or things to give you identity and a reason for being.
  • It robs others of the power of self-determination by encouraging overdependency, a sense of helplessness, and the inability to care for themselves.
  • By use of gifts, favors, loans, inheritance, and other caretaker tactics you manipulate others to give you the respect, honor, admiration, approval, affection, and acceptance you need so badly.


What are some irrational and unhealthy beliefs which you hold on to that lead you to become a caretaker?

  • I only have value in life if people need me.
  • The people in my life could not survive without my assistance or help.
  • They are dependent people who would fail or collapse if I stopped taking care of them.
  • They can't do without me.
  • I do it because I love them.
  • I just can't stand to see them fail or get into trouble.
  • If they don't succeed in life, it would be my fault.
  • They will be grateful and beholden to me for everything I have done for them.
  • They will be loyal and supportive to me for all that I do for them.
  • They are too incompetent to take care of themselves.
  • People expect me to take care of them and I could never let them down.
  • I am the only stable one around here and if I don't take control they would all fall apart.
  • If I don't take over for them, they would mess up so badly that it would take more energy to clean up the mess than to prevent it.
  • It is important that the people in my life be protected from failure, pain, hurt, or suffering.
  • I could never let them down they depend on me too much.
  • This is all I'm good for to do for others.
  • I've sacrificed, scrimped, and saved so that they could benefit from all of my efforts.
  • If I didn't do something for or give something to them, what makes you think they would still care about me?
  • You've always got to look after them since they are so inadequate and could never succeed on their own.
  • I know more, have more experience, and am wiser than they are, so they need my resources, help, and advice to get them through this problem.
  • How can I allow other people to hurt and suffer pain? It hurts me not to lift a finger to rescue or fix them.
  • They are desperate and just this once I need to take over for them.

What can you do to cease the need to be a caretaker?

In order to cease the need to be a caretaker, you can try the following steps.


Step 1: Identify the people in your life for whom you currently feel the need to be a caretaker. For each person, do the steps which follow.


Step 2: Identify what do you do as a caretaker for this person or what do you feel you need to do?


Step 3: Identify why you feel the need to do these things for this person. Analyze if these reasons are rational, healthy, and based on reality. Then develop healthier, more rational reasons not to be a caretaker for this person.


Step 4: Identify what your feelings are concerning this person.


Step 5: Identify how you would feel if you no longer felt a need to do caretaker actions for this person.


Step 6: Identify how rational, healthy, and realistic these feelings are.


Step 7: Identify new, healthier, realistic and rational feelings you can have after ceasing the need to be a caretaker for this person.


Step 8:   Identify new non-caretaker behaviors you can develop with this person.


Step 9:   Implement new, non-caretaker, rational, healthy and realistic behaviors with this person.


Step 10: Reward and reinforce yourself for ceasing your need to be a caretaker with the following positive self-talk:

  • I am a good person and do not need to do things for people in order for me to have worth or value.
  • It is OK to let people be responsible for their own lives even if they fail, make a mistake, or do not succeed in the process.
  • I prevent people from feeling independent, competent, and self-sufficient by being a caretaker for them.
  • By letting people take care of themselves, I am allowing them to grow self-confident, competent and self-sufficient.
  • I now am living my life more fully for myself and feel more freedom from anxiety, stress, panic, and fear.
  • I deserve to be the sole recipient of all of my caretaking behaviors and others are better off as a result.
  • I am not responsible for others' failures, mistakes, losses, or lack of success. I am responsible only for me.
  • I am a good person deserving of respect even if I do not shower others with my old caretaker behaviors.
  • I can help people more by allowing them to accept personal responsibility for their own lives.
  • I can assess my value and worth by how well I have lived my life for myself rather than by how much I have given or done for others.


Step 11: Continue to monitor your need to be a caretaker for the people in your life. Recognize that when you return to caretaker behaviors you are returning to a need to control the lives of these people.


Step 12: If you find yourself falling back into the need to be a caretaker for the people in your life, return to Step 1 and begin again.

What are the steps to eliminate caretaker behaviors?


Step 1: In your journal answer the following questions to first determine if you are a caretaker in your behaviors with others.

  1. How do you feel when you realize that other people need you for what you do for them?
  2. How do you deal with a situation in which someone in your life is experiencing a problem, disaster, failure or loss?
  3. How do you react to others' addictive or other self-destructive behaviors?
  4. How well do you allow others to exercise personal responsibility over their own lives?
  5. How would you feel if people no longer turned to you to cure, fix, solve, or rectify problems for them?
  6. How do you feel when you realize that others have become dependent on you?
  7. How do you feel when you are told that you are dependent on the people who are dependent on you to need and to be cared for by you?
  8. How do you feel about altering your thinking, feelings, and behaviors to cease your need to be a caretaker?
  9. How does ceasing the need to be a caretaker fit into your program of recovery from low self-esteem?
  10. How does being a caretaker reflect your low self-esteem?
  11. How have you reacted to people who were caretakers to you? How comfortable are you with being equally classified with the caretakers in your own life?
  12. How big a problem for you is being a caretaker? How willing are you to let go of this problem?


Step 2: If after your assessment of your caretaker behaviors, you are committed to change these behaviors, then proceed to identify each person in your life for whom you are currently a caretaker or have a need to be a caretaker. For each person identified, in your journal answer the following questions.

  1. What do you do for this person?
  2. How does what you do affect this person?
  3. What reasons lead you to feel the need to exercise these caretaker behaviors with this person? How rational, healthy, or in touch with reality are these reasons?
  4. How do you feel about this person?
  5. How do you feel about the effects of your caretaking on this person?
  6. How would you feel if you no longer felt the need to be a caretaker for this person? What are the risks? What are the losses? What are the benefits? What new feelings would be healthier and more rational for you?
  7. What new behaviors do you need to exercise with this person to cease being a caretaker?
  8. What can you do to control your urge to be a caretaker for this person?
  9. What can you do to let go of the need to fix, rescue, control, manipulate, and take care of this person?
  10. What alternatives do you have to being a caretaker to this person?


Step 3: Once you have analyzed your caretaker behaviors for each person you take care of, then you need to implement more non-controlling, healthy, rational, more realistic, non-caretaking behaviors with each of these people.


Step 4: Keep monitoring your success in ceasing to be a caretaker and reinforce your effort in this regard. As you do this, answer in your journal the following questions.

  1. How are these people reacting to your letting go of your caretaking behaviors?
  2. How are you dealing with guilt trips these people pull on you?
  3. How do you deal with these people's anger when you cease being a caretaker for them?
  4. How do you reward yourself for ceasing to be a caretaker to reinforce yourself against the powerful forces to pull you back into caretaking?
  5. How do you deal with your compulsive urge to fall back into being a caretaker for each of these people?
  6. How do you deal with the realities of failure, loss, mistakes, and non-success that is experienced by those people to whom you have ceased to be a caretaker?
  7. What rational, healthy, and realistic self-talk do you do to keep you from jumping back into being a caretaker again?
  8. What do you need in your life in order to keep you from becoming a caretaker again?


Step 5: As you continue to reward your efforts at ceasing to be a caretaker to others, keep working at turning your need to care back on yourself to ensure you put these behaviors to work for you.


Step 6: If you revert back into caretaker behaviors or the need to be a caretaker, return to Step 1 and begin again.