The Healthy Caregiver
In order to take care of others, we also have to be able to take care of ourselves. Sacrifice can be misinterpreted as only loving your neighbor and not yourself. As adults, we have to Mother and Father ourselves from within. Unless we develop our “Inner Caregiver” we’ll be dependent on others to take care of us. Men who can’t get in touch with their internal caregiver, forever depend on their wives for mothering. They either live out their lives as eternally dependent “momma’s boys” or they flip over into a power complex and become obsessively possessive, not letting their wives work, drive, have friends etc.
Healthy caregiving starts with the self and works outward towards family, work, the community and the planet. Think globally…act locally. This is difficult for those who never received adequate caregiving…or for those on the other polarity who have been injured and spoiled by getting too much. It is difficult, but certainly not impossible, to give soulful caregiving when one has not received it or been spoiled.
Appropriate sacrifice of certain desires and wishes is necessary in life, not only for the sakes of our children and fellow pilgrims, but also necessary for a connection to our soul. Caregiving is an essential part of the second half of life. Internally that means denying the security based or narcissistic demands of the ego and saying “Yes” to the soul. The healthy caregiver also has to be able to say “No” and discriminate, “I can help this person, but not this one !”
The Dark Side of the Caregiver
As all archetypes, “The Caregiver” can also have a negative side. For example, some mothers or fathers provide excessive caregiving, because deep down inside they want to be taken care of themselves. They provide that which they need themselves, because they never received it early in life. Generally, when we do “too much”, when we spoil our kids, we need to look at our caregiving motivations. When we give care to avoid loneliness or when we are excessively emotionally dependent on our children, we do harm to them and ourselves.
Some parents, wounded in early rejection or abandonment, sabotage their children’s road towards autonomy, because they never want them to leave and emancipate. At worst, the caregiver becomes a castrator under the false mask of an altruist and being a loving, self-sacrificing human being. Some of the cruelest acts in this world are committed by folks who profess to be doing “good”! When smothering instead of mothering occurs, the child is actually psychologically devoured to fill the void in the parent’s life. The irony here is that the parent devours the child, but also feels devoured by the caregiving role (Pearson).
The “suffering martyr” is another example of the caregiving role gone astray. Neurotic martyrs feel they’re always giving and never getting enough back…partially, because they can’t receive. They abuse power using guilt to get their own way. Obviously, the suffering martyr’s needs for control is a compensation for tremendous feelings of impotence and unworthiness. “Neurotic caregiving” is an addiction…underneath “good deeds” lies co-dependence, enabling and unacknowledged fear.
In our modern society the most pervasive illness is alienation and meaninglessness. The trashcan of television “gives care” to too many…promising happiness, but delivering emptiness, numbness, and addiction to consumerism. Obsessive and frantic activity, food, drink and drugs can all be defenses against emptiness. The opposite of “delusions of grandeur” and equally damaging are “delusions of insignificance”- the delusion that we do not matter. Inner work requires that we leave behind the illusion of our own insignificance ! Genuine caregiving gives meaning. When we get frightened we hoard, we don’t give…so identifying and challenging our fears becomes important.
Many of the heroes in our society are unseen caregivers. Those who clean house and wash dishes, empty bedpans in nursing homes, educate the disabled and young, take care of the weak and the sick, volunteering in a meaningful way, etc. Unfortunately, they are often seen as servants or drudges. There is nobility in the humility of their work. They may not make much money or have worldly power, but their lives have meaning and value…their souls are alive ! For those unseen heroes, here’s a little Dylan, who also knows about the dignity of receiving: “May God Bless you and keep you always May your wishes all come true. May you always do for others And let others do for you”
Special thanks to Carol Pearson, Ph.D., for her many contributions to this article.
Dr. Peter Milhado © 2012