Codependency: Caretaking vs. Caregiving

Codependency is a group of behaviors that cause us to have unhealthy relationships.  Caretaking is one of those behaviors, and what we want is to replace caretaking with caregiving.  There are crucial differences between caretaking and caregiving and you will notice: the healthier and happier your relationship, the more you are caregiving rather than caretaking. I view caretaking and caregiving on a continuum.  We usually aren't doing both at the same time.  The goal is to do as much caregiving as we can and to decrease our caretaking as much as we can.  Caretaking is a dysfunctional, learned behavior that can be changed.  We want to change so we can experience more peace, more contentment and more fulfilling relationships.  The people in your life may resist your healthier actions, but modeling caregiving is a huge gift you are giving to your loved ones.

Below are the ways you can begin to tell the differences between caretaking and caregiving.  It may be helpful at first to think of those in your life who caretake you ("That's totally my mom!" or  "Oh, I  didn't realize that caretaking is what my brother has been doing, but it fits," or "My best friend is a caretaking queen!").

After you identify who is caretaking you, then ask yourself what role you play to keep that dynamic going ("OMG, I am caretaker too!").   In a nutshell, caretaking is a hallmark of codependency and is rooted in insecurity and a need to be in control.  Caregiving is an expression of kindness and love.

Here are some key differences between caretaking and caregiving:

  • Caretaking feels stressful, exhausting and frustrating.  Caregiving feels right and feels like love.  It re-energizes and inspires you.
  • Caretaking crosses boundaries.  Caregiving honors them.
  • Caretaking takes from the recepient or gives with strings attached; caregiving gives freely.
  • Caretakers don't practice self-care because they mistakenly believe it is a selfish act.
  • Caregivers practice self-care unabashedly because they know that keeping themselves happy enables them to be of service to others.
  • Caretakers worry; caregivers take action and solve problems.
  • Caretakers think they know what's best for others; caregivers only know what's best for themselves.
  • Caretakers don't trust others' abilities to care for themselves, caregivers trust others enough to allow them to activate their own inner guidance and problem solving capabilities.
  • Caretaking creates anxiety and/or depression in the caretaker.  Caregiving decreases anxiety and/or depression in the caregiver.
  • Caretakers tend to attract needy people.  Caregivers tend to attract healthy people.  (Hint:  We tend to attract people who are slightly above or below our own level of mental health).
  • Caretakers tend to be judgmental; caregivers don't see the logic in judging others and practice a "live and let live attitude."
  • Caretakers start fixing when a problem arises for someone else; caregivers empathize fully, letting the other person know they are not alone and lovingly asks, "What are you going to do about that."
  • Caretakers  start fixing when a problem arises; caregivers respectfully wait to be asked to help.
  • Caretakers tend to be dramatic in their caretaking and focus on the problem; caregivers can create dramatic results by focusing on the solutions.
  • Caretakers us the word "You" a lot and Caregivers say "I" more.

As with changing any behavior, becoming aware of it is the first step.  Watch yourself next time you are with someone and ask yourself where you fall on the continuum.  It will take some work to change and you may experience some resistance and fear in the process -- but what is on the other side is well worth the struggles of transformation.

I recommend the work of Melody Beattie who is a groundbreaker in codependency education.  If you find yourself in relationships with people who have addictions or if you struggle with your own addictions, I recommend Codependent No More:  How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself (also Al-Anon, which is a 12 step group).  If you aren't in relationship with someone who has an addiction or if you do not suffer from an addiction, I recommend her new book "The New Codependency:  Help and Guidance for Today's Generation." Reference:  Beattie, Melody (1991).  Codependent No More:  How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself.