The Risks and Allure of Being a “Tireless Caregiver”

You don't need to say "yes" to everyone and everything to be a good person.

Posted Aug 09, 2018

CREATISTA/Shutterstock, "Stressed out professional woman with baby over white background," used with permission.
Overwhelmed Tireless Caregiver
Source: CREATISTA/Shutterstock, "Stressed out professional woman with baby over white background," used with permission.

“Tireless Caregiver,” or “TC,” is my term for those who are drawn, again and again, to helping and healing others–often to the TC’s own detriment. From clinical practice and my own ongoing research, I know that TCs feel good when they do good; they are compassionate, empathic, natural-born helpers. Often, they have been raised to take care of those around them in some way–including catering to self-absorbed parents, siblings, and others. Thus, it can feel extremely difficult for TCs to imagine who they’d be without being the family or neighborhood or workplace Florence Nightingale.

Because TCs are both conditioned and highly motivated to help others, they are especially attracted to those who are suffering, vulnerable, or just seem to need them. They are also magnets for people who have no desire to do their fair share of the relationship heavy lifting or take personal responsibility. These include narcissists, or the profoundly self-absorbed—whether the more overtly confident types or less obvious, outwardly unassuming ones who secretly feel superior to everyone else.

What’s wrong with being a tireless caregiver?

TCs see the good in even the most difficult people, and they can be both a significant force for good in the world and also have healthy enough boundaries to avoid burning out or being taken advantage of repeatedly. At their best, TCs know that they, too, have inherent worth, and that they must treat themselves with the respect and kindness that they show others. Their caregiving includes and prioritizes themselves. 

At their worst, however, TC’s compulsions to nurture everyone and anyone in need and turn a blind eye to toxicity leaves them vulnerable to those who are self-absorbed, callous, and lack the ability or desire to reciprocate the care the TC provides them. Which ultimately leaves the Tireless Caregiver feeling some combination of depression, anxiety, unworthiness, bewilderment, frustration, exhaustion, and feeling unlovable. It can also leave them cleaning up other people's messes, both literally and figuratively, and even financially, when the toxic person refuses to do so, or leaves the relationship altogether.

The early programming TCs experience can lead them to attract and be attracted to co-dependent relationships. In her seminal book, “Codependent No More,” author Melody Beattie described a type of relationship in which compulsive caregivers and people struggling with addiction found themselves in an ongoing dance of dependence, rescuing, frustration, anger, resentment, and a general inability to either become healthier (the person struggling with addiction) or walk away from an untenable situation (the caregiver). Of course, this type of codependence also occurs in relationships where the person in need of rescue is dealing with an issue other than addiction. For example, the TC may be drawn to partners or friends who can’t remain faithful, or hold onto a job, or find themselves babying adult children who don’t want to do their fair share, coddling or covering for coworkers, and so forth.

Why is it so hard to stop over-caregiving?

First, it’s challenging for anyone to change a pattern of thinking, feeling, and behaving that’s been in place for a really long time. In addition, TCs are probably both wired to be highly empathic, and have often received a lot of feedback along that way that has reinforced their identity as being “good” and virtuous -- even saintly -- for providing so much loving care, and instilled a fear of being “selfish” when they don’t say "yes" to every demand. So, the TC's self-esteem has become dependent on being in this role.

Everyone’s Go-To Person

You’ve probably noticed by now that TCs are usually that one family member on whom everyone else relies for just about everything under the sun. They are the “good" daughters and sons, the beloved teacher or coach who goes the extra-extra-extra mile, the person at church who always steps up to volunteer when others won't, the friend everyone goes to for a loan or late-night ride, etc. So, despite the frustration and exhaustion all of this saintliness leads to, it also reinforces the TC's sense of themselves as a good (and therefore, not selfish) person .

When a relationship ends because the toxic person loses interest, the TC is at high risk of finding a series of similarly toxic characters to fill the void. And the TC is likely to be that person who picks up the slack for everyone else at work but asks for little to nothing in return.

Again, the problem isn't the "caring" aspect, but the self-sacrificial, indiscriminate over-doing it that prevents others from growing and prevents the TC from having healthy boundaries and an appropriate level of self-care.

What You Can Do

Are you a Tireless Caregiver? There are things you can do to start setting healthy limits and taking better care of you. Two books worth reading are:

Beattie, M. (1992). Codependent no more: How to stop controlling others and start caring for yourself. Hazelden Publishing.

Brown, N. W. (2008). Children of the self-absorbed: A grown-up's guide to getting over narcissistic parents. New Harbinger Publications.

My other recommendations are to begin developing tools to help you mentally step back and observe challenging relationships and patterns from a healthy distance. Tools like mindfulness meditation and guided imagery can help you feel calmer, create some distance between self-critical thoughts and the pushback you’ll likely get once you start setting limits with other people. (In fact, this is a common reason why people choose not to set limits, even if they are unhappy.)

And it’s always worth seeking support from good (non-toxic) friends, trusted clergy, or a qualified therapist when you’re considering making significant changes or need help coping.

Stay tuned for part II of this series on why Tireless Caregivers should learn how to recognize the signs of covert narcissism.

And please consider filling out my survey on Tireless Caregiving.

References

Beattie, M. (1992). Codependent no more: How to stop controlling others and start caring for yourself. Hazelden Publishing.

Brown, N. W. (2008). Children of the self-absorbed: A grown-up's guide to getting over narcissistic parents. New Harbinger Publications.