As a young boy, I learned the danger of having thin boundaries. Being a sensitive and empathetic (yet physically and mentally strong) child, I always tended to attract the bullied kids. To me, their friendship provided me a great sense of fulfillment – much more than running around and kicking a ball ever could.
As I grew older, however, I started noticing that this sense of fulfillment was becoming like an intoxicating addiction. As the complexity of the wounds grew within my teenage peers, my emotional relief also grew. Although a lot of good came from helping others, I had begun to create a role for myself: that of the Caretaker.
Whenever I answered a friend in distress, it gave me a short-lived sense of purpose and self-worth. It was like shooting myself up with some kind of drug, except in this case, it was self-sacrifice.
Thankfully very soon I began to realize that I was playing a dangerous game. I had given away my value and worth as a person in the seemingly innocent and generous role of the Caretaker. But not only was this role self-serving, it also prevented me from showing genuine compassion. I wasn’t a Caregiver, I was a Caretaker.
What is Nurturing?
All humans are born with the capacity to be caring and nurturing. To some, it comes naturally, and for others, caring can be a bit more challenging and awkward.
But if you’ve ever felt the privilege of providing care for another living being, then you’ve encountered your nurturing ability. This could be anything from protesting against animal cruelty, to supporting another person’s dream (without the desire for personal gain).
To nurture is to care for the wellbeing of other human beings, fellow creatures, living beings and ourselves. To nurture is to enhance the vitality and quality of life. This impacts not only the here-and-now, but our future generations as well, because our actions create ripple effects.
Think of someone you admire, and that person will probably be a nurturer – a Caregiver. Jesus of Nazareth, Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King … the most revered figures in history have all embodied the ability to nurture. Even planet Earth itself perfectly encapsulates nurturing qualities in the way it generously clothes, feeds and heals us.
Most of us have experienced free-flowing support and care towards others. But what happens when this flow of love gets blocked?
Are You a Caregiver or Caretaker?
The difference between caregiving and caretaking is the motivation behind it. What turns nurturing and caring for others into an addictive and harmful habit? Once again: the underlying intention.
Do you nurture others from the fullness and wholeness of your being, your soul? Or do you nurture others from an inner neediness, a lack, an insecurity, an incompleteness?
Surely, on the surface nurturing looks the same regardless of the underlying motivation. But when we nurture others to avoid issues like abandonment, criticism and judgement, there’s actually more taking going on.
Why is this so? When we caretake, we nurture others out of an inner sense of poverty. This harms not only the giver, but also the receiver.
Here are a few examples that may illustrate this:
Mary is a single mother who has a teenage son. She’s constantly doing everything for him because deep down she fears that if he ever learns to do these things himself, he will decide to move out and she’ll be left all alone.
Jason has been married for 5 years to his wife who has an eating disorder and has become morbidly obese. She can’t leave the house, or even the bed and relies completely on Jason to take care of her. Jason compliments and encourages her extra weight because unconsciously he feels unworthy and can only feel safe and in control in a relationship if the other person needs and depends on him completely.
Christie has a husband with a drinking problem who often cheats on her, beats the children and misses work. She constantly covers up for him by calling his boss and making excuses for his absence from work. She also tells her children that “daddy has a lot of stress from work.” Deep down she feels unworthy and fears that nobody else would or could love her unless she was needed.
As we can see, caretaking comes with a high price, for both ends. On one end, the recipient takes so much and becomes so dependent on the carer, that they hinder their own self-development. On the other end, the caretaker never truly feels loved or worthy – every action digs the hole of their low self-esteem deeper. The caretaker constantly feels needed for their actions but never loved for who they are.
How to Show Compassion (With No Strings Attached)
In order to authentically nurture others we need to move from a self-centric to a soul-centric view of life. For a time, re-programming our ingrained habits can be very difficult. We require all the support we can get to do this, particularly from people that love us for who we really are, not what we do.
Ultimately, the potion for this kind of sickness is the same: to become aware of our habits, and understanding that we’re worthy of love just the way we are. Ultimately we must learn to love ourselves, take care of ourselves, be responsible for ourselves, and heal ourselves before we are capable of loving and caring for another fully.
Loving thy neighbor without loving thyself first, results in the blind guiding the blind. It is a life of servitude, with little fulfillment, superficial acceptance, and a meager sense of belonging.
In my journey through caregiving to caretaking, I’ve found the meaning of true compassion:
There’s no more joyous feeling in life than to love and care for others, not because I need or have to … but because I want to.
True compassion is cultivating so much love in yourself that it becomes a burden to bear. Giving to others is actually a relief, almost like a tree carrying heavy fruits in its branches that is relieved when others pick from its abundance.