The Virtue of Caring Less
Is it possible to care too much? I'm starting to think caring less might actually be a virtue. Growing up as a pastor's kid, where caring for others was considered the ultimate display of godliness, I never suspected that care could have a dark side. I was raised to believe, through explicit and implicit education, that caretaking was our highest honor and greatest responsibility to humanity. It was part and parcel of the martyr life, yet we never complained, because caring was our joy in life, a privilege really. Little did I know at the time, that caring was slowly killing me. That sounds dramatic, but caring for others did have a way of eroding my own sense of self to the point that I, that is, my Self, was practically erased. In essence, I existed for others. This sounds noble, and those who give themselves completely to this role are often lauded by their families, communities, and even larger society, but it comes with a hidden price. Caring in general, and in specific instances when done from a strong sense of Self, can be a beautiful expression of love. But caring, detached from Self, has a way of warping one's sense of personhood, not to mention what it can do to the care-receivers (more on that later). When caretaking becomes our primary role, we end up expending lots of energy in the wrong places. Instead of being responsible to people, we start taking responsibility for people. We take on more than what is required of us, which can lead to burn out and even resentment of people (or is it just me?). Caretaking is closely related to people-pleasing. When you are consumed with caring for people, it's not long before you're caring about what people think and taking responsibility for what they feel. Caretaking easily devolves into codependency. Caretakers end up needing people to take care of to maintain their role and identity. Caretaking seems like a great leadership trait, and it often engenders good feelings from those we're leading, but it's a form of pseudo-leadership. If you substitute the word codependency for caretaking, it becomes more apparent. A codependent leader, one who loses themselves in meeting other people's needs, becomes a hollow shell. They aren't able to stand in their convictions or provide vision because they are enmeshed in the perceived needs of those they are leading. Leaders should listen to people they're leading and incorporate their feedback, but when caretaking becomes their primary moral project, it's not long before their true calling becomes supplanted with trying to make everyone happy, an impossible task and huge energy depleter. Many of us have caretaking parts that formed when we were younger. Maybe we had to take care of a sibling or aging relative at a young age. Maybe we had to parent our parents, or we were praised when we put other people's feelings and needs ahead of our own. Caretakers are often praised for their sacrifices which fuels the cycle. It also leads to resentment when our caretaking efforts are not noticed or praised. Instead of caretaking for other people, I'm learning the virtue of caring less. By not taking responsibility for other people's needs and feelings, I'm caring less about what other people think of me and spending more time fulfilling my vocation from an authentic and healthy place. I'm learning that caring for people doesn't have to be strenuous, it can flow out of my natural passions and gifts. Previously, I felt I needed to put myself in traumatic places and situations to take care of others - now I am able to show care through my job during normal business hours (ie, within certain boundaries) and the writing and publishing I do on the side, which gives me life rather than drains me. I'm using my writing platform to highlight human stories to educate and inspire people to be vulnerable and courageous. I'm also getting to know my Self. By caring less, I'm able to get in touch with other parts of me, vulnerable, hurting, and needy parts that I didn't realize were there because I was too busy taking care of other people. Like the little pastor's kid inside me wanting love and attention, crying out, "but what about me?" Caring less feels wrong because I've been codependent with people's need for so long. Untangling from others' needs was a necessary step to get to know myself apart from what I do for people. It's also an opportunity to try new roles. Instead of taking responsibility for other people's feelings, I am learning to get curious about them. Rather than assume I know what they need and automatically take action trying to fulfill them, I can ask what they need and explore how they can address those needs themselves. The famous community organizer Saul Alinksy had what he called the "iron rule," which stated: "one should never do for others what they should do for themselves." Caretaking creates dependency, the cycle of helper and helpee. By caretaking less, I can put more faith in people to solve their own problems. By caring less, I'm really caring more. It's less about me needing to feel like I'm important or useful, and more about believing that we all have the capacity for greatness inside us. Often, the caretaker takes up space that the care-receiver can and should occupy for themselves. This also allows us to take care of ourselves. Caretakers often neglect themselves, which can create all kinds of problems like addiction, workaholicism, and burn out. By caring less, we are able to do more for ourselves and empower others to do more for themselves. The care receivers, whether patients, clients, or family members, become their own advocates and healers. Our role is no longer being heroes and rescuers, but hope merchants (to borrow a phrase from Dick Schwartz and Internal Family Systems) who connect people to their own Self energy by modeling a healthy connection to our Self. It seems counter intuitive but, caring less is one of the most loving things we can do for people. It's a way to love ourselves and others at the same time. Caring less may even be a virtue.