Releasing the Role of Emotional Caretaker

Awakening to our full power is a process of subtraction—subtracting out the toxic messages and beliefs that we’ve acquired and replacing them with beliefs that reflect our authentic and undiluted truth.

This process of subtracting out patterns and beliefs can take years but it is a worthwhile journey. Unfortunately, there’s no short-cut or way to speed it along. It’s because as we go through this messy, and often painful process, our heart is being refined and “tenderized” to be a more spacious home for the Divine within us to emerge and live through us; a vehicle for true compassion to be expressed to the world.

The parts we’d like to skip over or speed up are precisely the steps that transform us into the divine beings that we truly are at our core.

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True compassion requires the full acknowledgment of suffering–not a shying away from it. I recall one day in therapy finally allowing myself to feel the full scope of pain I had been carrying and avoiding for years. While I felt like I was being ripped to the core by this grief and pain–I had an insight that changed my view of suffering. It was precisely when I finally let myself feel the full truth and weight of the pain I had been avoiding, that I could finally validate myself in a way that was impossible before.

The thought burst within me “Of course I would feel this pain, it makes complete sense!” I was able to legitimize my feelings of grief–and this legitimization allowed the grief to transform into a profound relief and peace. It became totally clear that other people always have a reason for their feelings and actions, no matter how unreasonable or off-base they may appear. There was this sense that everyone deserves compassion because we are all in some way suffering for very legitimate reasons. We are all in the midst of major transformation.

By allowing my heart to be carved out by a pain I thought would kill me, more space was created within it to offer love –to feel love– to receive love–to BE love. I saw that the purpose of pain and suffering is to expand our capacity to love. Not a sentimental, superficial love, but a fierce love–a love that ceaselessly seeks and embraces truth.

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As female children we are taught certain things about love and emotions. Mostly we are conditioned to be “good girls”–nice, sweet, polite, agreeable, quiet, convenient, understanding, accommodating and compliant. We’re taught boys are not supposed to cry, but girls are expected to feel all kinds of things–but to only express the “good” feelings. As women, many of us have become accustomed to carrying the emotional weight of those around us as a way to survive and cope with this societal expectation. This can manifest as  feeling a crushing responsibility for the emotional health of our families and partners coupled with the depletion of not caring enough for ourselves. We may overcompensate for those in our lives that are distanced from their own emotions.

We’re generally expected to focus on the welfare of others, while neglecting the welfare of ourselves. 

As we desire to live more authentically and in alignment with our genuine desires, the process of subtraction begins. The beliefs and patterns of care-taking and over-responsibilty begin to feel “tight” and uncomfortable. We start to see the situations and patterns where we are giving away our power by carrying the emotional weight of others while attenuating our own feelings to “keep things together” or “maintain the peace.” We begin to desire to feel the fullness of who we are and to really live it! Over time it can transform from a simple desire, to a full-on need–a need from your soul to live in a way that is true and can hold the full expression of who you are. This is a holy desire to live in freedom–as the love that you are.

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Giving up this role can create conflict with people in our lives that are accustomed to us carrying the “feeling” function of the relationship. Things that are imbalanced or one-sided will get shaken up and stimulated to transform.

There is a difference between being a caring, compassionate friend/family member and allowing oneself to be the dumping ground for the emotional problems of others.

I was raised in the kind of family where everything looked great on the surface but the air was noxious with resentments and unspoken anger. As a female child I learned that I was valuable when I could make everybody happy. I believed that if I was really, really “good”, it would solve all the problems of the family. So I did my very best to always be sweet, kind, polite, silent, cheerful, optimistic, compliant and agreeable. It was a way to feel in control of what felt like a very unsafe environment where I had no control.

A big turning point came for me as an adult when I realized this pattern was still operating. As a woman, I was still doing my best to be a good girl.  I saw that it had never solved the problems of my family. I realized I was still waiting for some kind of “payoff” for my hard work of contorting myself to please others. This was an unspoken contract I had with my family of origin and with the universe—‘If I’m good enough, one day, I’ll get to be a real girl! (not a doll that always pretends to be happy.)’ Sadly, I saw that I had been sacrificing myself in the hope of redeeming my family. I had to face the powerlessness I felt as a child that caused me to adopt that survival strategy of the ‘good girl’ and ’emotional caretaker/dumping ground’ for others.

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There was grief for all the years I spent striving and struggling to heal my family and prove my lovableness to them. It was a huge moment of seeing that my family was just incapable of knowing or seeing me the way I wanted because of their own un-healed wounds. This was nobody’s fault–just the way it was. It opened me up to a lot of grief, anger and eventually deep compassion for them. It also freed me to fully embrace myself and my life.

It’s possible to free ourselves from constricting roles and unspoken contracts

I discovered there were a lot of unspoken contracts in my family. I saw that my mother had an unspoken contract with me, expecting that I would never surpass her and always act as her therapist/advisor. My father had an unspoken contract, expecting that I would always protect him from my mother’s issues by serving as her therapist and their mediator/peacemaker. When I decided I would not do these things anymore, the family went into crisis.  The structure imploded as I set healthy boundaries and ceased to protect them from their own problems. As the oldest daughter, it was stunning to realize I had served as the emotional caretaker of the family. The dismantling of the unhealthy structure was a heartbreaking process yet completely necessary for the greater health of all.

Some family structures are strong and healthy enough to weather storms like this and some, unfortunately, are not.

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What women have to ask themselves in this kind of situation is “At what cost?”  Your emotional and physical well-being is not worth the cost of protecting people (friends OR family) from their own problems that they are not invested in solving or addressing.

You are not responsible for the emotions of other people. 

Releasing the role of emotional caretaker for others is not only a gift to yourself–but also to others, even though they may protest when confronted with having to take back the responsibility that they had put onto you. Ultimately, it releases the responsibility and the reward–back to them, for their own transformation, for their own journey. And it puts your own journey front and center in your own life.

We are each solely responsible for ourselves. 

While there are definite costs to being the emotional caretaker, such as exhaustion and loneliness, there are also payoffs and we have to be willing to give those up. Payoffs include having a feeling of control and feeling needed or valued.

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Jungian analyst and author James Hollis states that the primary challenge in all relationships, whether between parents and children, or between life partners, is to honor the “otherness” of the other. What this means is to have the courage to take on the largeness of our own journey without asking our children or partners to bear it for us. It is the gift of honoring the “other” in their separateness, their “other-ness.”

It seems paradoxical that true intimacy is really possible when we fully own our own separateness and honor that in the other–their right to be “other,” to be utterly and totally themselves.

As we own our power and release ourselves from the the role of emotional caretaker, we free others to own their power. 

Healthy relationships have a general balance of giving and receiving emotional support; of mutual sharing and listening. When we want to live as authentically as possible, the relationships in our lives that are the most imbalanced will be challenged to come into balance. Sometimes the process of letting go of the outdated roles we have played in our lives can feel like dying because certain aspects of us are dying off and more authentic, truer ones are emerging.  It takes incredible courage and bravery to birth yourself into authenticity, separating out who you really are from the cultural patterns and mandates we have picked up along the way. Remember that you are not alone! As you free yourself from outdated roles, women around the world are doing the same! Who you really are, in your full-bodied realness, is a gift to the world.

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Some examples of releasing the “emotional caretaker” role: 

  • Not rushing in to “solve” the problems or “fix” the suffering of others. Instead, just being present with them.
  • Knowing when to stop trying to explain yourself to people who are not invested in actually hearing what you have to say
  • Letting people have their upsets instead of rushing in to comfort, explain or apologize (especially if their upset is about their own stuff)
  • Allowing people to have their misperceptions of you without feeling a compulsive need to correct them and make them understand you/where you’re coming from, etc.
  • Walking away from people and situations when it’s clear they are not for your highest good (even when they are pleading for help)
  • Risking external disapproval for making the choices you know in your heart are right for you
  • Setting boundaries with people or situations that want more of your time and energy than you are willing to give
  • Loving and validating yourself and your body, your ideas, your feelings when other people are unable to support you because of their own wounds—without making the other person wrong

Questions to contemplate: 

  • Have you played the role of emotional caretaker for others?
  • What role did you play in your family?
  • Have you ever felt the responsibility or impulse to caretake?
  • What unspoken contracts might be operating in your life? between you and life? between you and family members?
  • What are you willing to do differently to own your power and give others their power back, even if it is uncomfortable or painful?

I invite you to leave a comment below on any thoughts you may have on this topic. Thank you for reading!

© Bethany Webster 2013

Art credits in order of appearance: Blue Nude IV by Henri Mattisse, “Two Suns” by Brad Kunkle, title unknown by Gustav Klimt, title unknown by Tran Van Can,Terra cotta statue of two lovers on a couch, Metropolitan Museum of Art Greece 2nd cent BC,  Portrait of Maria de’ Medici (detail), by Agnelo Bronzino)

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