by Jennifer N Martin, LPC
Last week I had two different clients, both of which are extremely caring, sensitive individuals, say something to me that brought about a revelation regarding what I like to call the caregivers of the world. Both of these individuals, following extremely emotional previous sessions, had essentially apologized to me for the sessions. Both shared that they felt guilty or bad about “putting” their “stuff” on me and for telling me things that probably made me feel uncomfortable or bad. In response, I was able to disclose to both of them that being a therapist means helping people to explore those extremely difficult stories and the impact those stories have had on them. I was also able to share that I do this work because I find it deeply meaningful and enjoyable. I challenged each of them to consider that respecting other people and other people’s boundaries means giving other people the option to have their own thoughts and ideas and feelings, without attempting to shield them from the world or to read their mind. Both clients seemed to have an epiphany about how they have been “doing” relationships throughout their lives. Giving people the option to identify and expose their internal world with us isn’t just about respecting boundaries, it is also at the core of intimacy. We can never truly know anyone without their willingness to expose themselves to us. Projecting our own feelings onto others, even if motivated by caring, removes the other person from the equation and robs them of the work that they need to be doing in the relationship, which is to understand themselves and be willing and able to communicate that honestly.
Projecting our own feelings onto others, even if motivated by caring, removes the other person from the equation and robs them of the work that they need to be doing in the relationship, which is to understand themselves and be willing and able to communicate that honestly.
The Impact of Childhood Emotional Neglect
Most extremely caregiving individuals came from homes with a narcissistic or emotionally unavailable parent. Often they were raised by families that for one reason or another were simply not able to give them the emotional attentiveness that children so desperately need. Perhaps one parent was an alcoholic and the other parent was frantically trying to manage in a home with the chaos that addiction can bring, or perhaps one parent was struggling with chronic depression and the other was entirely focused on preventing the floor from falling out of their lives. Whatever the case, the caregiving child coped with his or her own neglect by meeting the needs of the parents, supporting the parents who were in emotional pain themselves, or walking on egg-shells to protect themselves from random angry outbursts. However it came about, the caregiving child took on the strength and poise that would be expected of an adult five times their age. The caregiving child learned early on to read other people’s cues, to see past the facade of temporary silence, to predict an oncoming explosion, to comfort the sadness, to take on the household duties or take on the despair of the family. This was all done at a time in life when what the child really needed was someone to be teaching them about their own feelings and how to manage their own age-appropriate worries. Often the lack of boundaries in the family and the over-exposure to adult content that the child experienced, lead to the child feeling that it is normal to be uncomfortable in relationships, that being in relationships means tolerating discomfort and pushing aside one’s own feelings in order to support another.
If the child spent their childhood outwardly focused and managing what was happening in the home and with the parents, the child learned to get basic needs for connection and identity met through giving to others. They became skillfully adept at tuning into those around them, often being able to read pretty accurately what others needed or wanted from them. For the child, this became a survival skill, a skill that was honed to perfection. However, while the child spent most of their life focused outwardly and dismissing and minimizing their own internal experiences, they likely grew into an adult that, while extremely gifted at reading and attending to others, finds it extremely difficult to truly engage with their own inner world. The message that others had needs that were vastly superior and exceedingly urgent is a message that often becomes engrained in these children. To be strong, to not be needy, to be the giver in relationships, becomes the core identity of the caregiver, one that gives them a solid sense of identity and intrinsic value. Not surprisingly, this identity often sticks and becomes the very foundation of every relationship that they develop as adults.
Emotional Neglect Can Lead to Boundary Problems and Self-Sacrifice Schema
In addition to the caregiver learning early on to push aside their own feelings in order to connect with others, these individuals often have very little understanding of boundaries. Boundaries are all about identifying and operating within the areas of life which we have dominion. We have control over our own beliefs, feelings, behaviors, etc. However, if you grew up in a home where, in order to survive and be safe, you had to try to read other people’s minds, manage other people’s feelings, or control other people’s behaviors by altering your own perceptions or your own behaviors, then you are inherently set-up for poor adult relationships. Rather than a
If you grew up in a home where, in order to survive and be safe, you had to try to read other people’s minds, manage other people’s feelings, or control other people’s behaviors by altering your own perceptions or your own behaviors, then you are inherently set-up for poor adult relationships.
healthy expectation that other adults whom you are in relationship with will identify and name their own feelings, you likely do this for them. In order to manage as an adult and engage safely and successfully with your world, you likely spend a good deal of your time using your finely tuned emotional radar to try to read others. In order to get connection you likely try to change your own feelings, thoughts, or behaviors. However, this sort of overstepping of boundaries often leads to a complete lack of intimacy and lack of fulfillment in relationships. While these types of behaviors led to survival in your childhood world, they will likely lead to loneliness and despair and burnout in your adult world. In the world of Schema Therapy, this type of behavior is known as Self-Sacrifice. Self-Sacrifice schema is all about being other-focused: deferring to others, putting others first, sensing an obligation to others, dismissing your own feelings, feeling guilty for your own needs, and lacking poor boundary definition between yourself and others.
Changing Self-Sacrifice Schema and Caregiving Tendencies
If you are someone who relates to being a caregiver or having the Self-Sacrifice schema, there are steps that you can take to lessen the impact of it on your life:
- Start by getting into the habit of being mindful of your internal experiences. Foster trust in your own experiences by validating your own feelings and experiences as being your truth. It doesn’t matter what other people tell you that you should feel, at the end of the day you are responsible for yourself.
- Become quick to recognize when you are attempting to mind read or when your emotional radar is alarming that someone needs you. Remind yourself that you are an adult in control of your own feelings, thoughts, and behaviors, and the same is true for other adults.
- Work hard to respect your own perspective and the perspective of others. Recognize that the only perspective that you are responsible for is your own. Being in relationship with, and loving others, doesn’t mean that you always agree one hundred percent with them. It does mean that you respect your differences and allow each other to own your differences and negotiate a potential middle ground where needed.
- Be attentive to the compulsions that you feel to rescue or comfort others. Make sure that they have voiced what they need and want from you and that you are respecting those requests. Resist mind-reading, as this prevents others from fostering their own ability to be vulnerable and experience intimacy.
- Expand your emotional vocabulary so that you can identify what you are truly feeling and can share this with safe individuals in your life. A big part of being a chronic caregiver is a profound sense of loneliness and lack of intimacy. Intimacy means that you know others but that they also know you. True intimacy means that both people are known and valued in the relationship.
- Be willing to walk away from extremely Narcissistic individuals in your life if they do not respond to opportunities to validate your feelings, own their own behaviors, and change where needed. Sometimes making healthy changes will initially lead to a loss of unhealthy relationships, but if you can get past the initial loss and recognize the signs of healthy individuals, then you will be well on your way to finding satisfying, mutual relationships.
To read more about the characteristic of strength in caregivers and the impact this has on intimacy, see Intimacy: When Your Strength Overshadows You.
To read more on over-ownership, a characteristic of caregivers, read Ownership: Do You Under or Over Own in Relationships.