Caretaking vs Caregiving

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While many caretaking behaviors may be similar to codependent behaviors, my aim is to normalize them somewhat because I believe we all have a tendency to caretake from time to time.

Cynthia Orange

People are thrust into “caretaking” or “caregiving” roles with very little warning and even less training: a parent is aging, a partner is addicted, someone needs something. And we’re here for them… But the recipient isn’t always the kindest or most appreciative. And even when they are, this is overwhelming and emotionally exhausting work, no doubt about it.

So we have to approach the role carefully or we’ll violate our own needs and come to resent the person we’re caring for. And thus our distinction between caregiving vs. caretaking. Hint: one is sustainable and leaves space for the caring person to have real emotions and human experiences, to care without sacrificing themselves. And you guessed it—the other does not.

In this article, author and expert Cynthia Orange explains the many nuances and differences between those two concepts—caregiving vs. caretaking—and helps you stop "over-spending" yourself while you grow closer and closer to the loved ones who trust and rely on you. 

What the Love Songs Got Wrong

The other day, I awoke with the saying "Love knows no bounds" running through my mind like an inescapable jingle. Immediately I needed to revise the saying because it struck me as incomplete. It sounds vaguely optimistic. But it's a dangerous guidepost for people who have codependent or caretaking tendencies. Candy to a child and all that. I found myself adding a bold-faced, italics, underscored, all in capitals "SO" that screamed a warning to anyone who might take the saying at face value:

"Love knows no bounds... so we need boundaries."

But my monkey mind wasn't ready to let it go: two more familiar love songs shot to mind--this time accompanied by actual music. Obviously, I felt the need to make more revisions:

"What the world needs now... is love, sweet love... within reasonable limit."

"All you need is love... and balance."

Why Am I Setting Boundaries around Love Quotes?

I've seen the toll of providing too much for too many people. And I know from my own life how easy it is to get consumed with giving to others...and how quickly we forget to care for ourselves. Through trial and way too many errors, plus the collective wisdom of caregivers who have "been there and done that," I learned the difference between caregiving and caretaking. Here's how I describe it in my book Take Good Care: Finding Your Joy in Compassionate Caregiving.

"I think of caretaking as codependency's close cousin. However, while there has been a trend to think of codependency as a pathological disease that requires treatment (or a support group), I don't view caretaking through that same lens. While many caretaking behaviors may be similar to codependent behaviors, my aim is to normalize them somewhat because I believe we all have a tendency to caretake from time to time".

The Difference between Caretaking and Caregiving

I think it helps to think of caretaking as the out-of-balance and ‘self-centered' behaviors that reflect a person's deep need to be in control and accepted. On the other hand, caregiving consists of more balanced behaviors that reflect compassion and concern for others. You might say caretaking is more about getting love, while caregiving is more about giving it."

If you're like me, you most likely float from one side of the chart to the other, depending on the circumstances, the person, or the amount of love left in your heart. Sometimes—in an emergency or when a family member or loved one is incapacitated because of dementia, for example—it is even necessary to take charge and be more caretaker than caregiver. But even on ordinary days, I confess I can be a confident and compassionate caregiver one moment and an insecure, controlling caretaker the next. Truth be told, I came up with this list rather quickly when I honestly reflected on my own behaviors on my out-of-balance caretaker days.

Caregiving Is Listening and Responding

Caring for and loving friends and family with an open heart and helping hand are good things to work on to bring out the best in us, and I don't want to discourage you from performing acts of generosity and kindness when the opportunity arises. But when the act of caring becomes more about the caregiver than the person in need of care, something's out of whack. This cautionary tale is about the importance of becoming more self-aware so a caring interaction can be a rich and heart-felt one for both the caregiver and care receiver. It is about loving with your eyes and your heart wide open.  

Caretaking Is Seeking Control, Expecting Something in Return

When we love or care "without bounds," we risk opening ourselves and our hearts to unrealistic expectations. We may subconsciously believe that if we do something nice for someone, they will return the favor by doing something nice for us. I've been guilty of this more often than I like to admit. In my effort to be loved and accepted for being the perfect partner, mother, friend, relative, coworker, caregiver, and all-around good person, I used to set the relationship bar so high that no one could achieve the level of devotion I yearned for in return. Thanks to a wonderful therapist and a lot of honest self-reflection, I realized I was looking outside myself to fill a void within. I hoped others would provide the esteem I was so lacking in myself. Without knowing it at the time, I had become a "strings-attached" caretaker.

Expectations Set Us Up for Resentment

As I discovered, unmet expectations can lead to disappointment and even depression. In addition, as is often heard in recovery group meetings, "expectations are resentments waiting to happen."

These complex emotions can leave us especially vulnerable to problems with alcohol and other drugs. It can be tempting to try to numb feelings of being unappreciated, unloved, disappointed, or resentful, by having a drink or smoking a joint. And those in recovery know all too well how such emotions can create triggers that can lead to relapse.

How to Hedge Your Growing Expectations

As I stress in my book, healthy caregiving isn't about giving up all expectations in life; it's about sorting out the unreasonable expectations from the reasonable ones. For example, while it is unreasonable to expect someone to give us their total and constant attention and devotion, it is reasonable to expect to be treated with a certain degree of kindness and consideration. I also find that when words like always, never, if only, should, must, or supposed to creep into my mind or vocabulary, it's a clue I'm headed to resentment city. "I always remember her birthday, but she never remembers mine," is an example of a resentment-laden message.

One way to lessen our expectations is to practice random acts of kindness. Try doing or giving something anonymously. Mow a neighbor's lawn when they're out of town without being asked or needing to be thanked. Can you show such acts of kindness without telling anyone you've done them? These are just a couple of ways to exercise our compassionate caregiving muscles and to love with an open heart.

What We Accomplish with Good Boundaries

As I mentioned early on, loving within bounds is also about living with healthy boundaries, balance and limits. I write this knowing full well we all have different balance points, just as we have different tipping points. Here's another passage from my book that says more about this:

"Setting boundaries is about acknowledging limits, not building walls. The goal is to gain enough sense of self and of others that we can get comfortably close to other people without disappearing into their shadows or taking over their lives. When our boundaries are unclear, it is often too easy to get pulled into someone's pain and problems or give too much because we've lost sight of our own needs or limitations."

When we maintain healthy boundaries and balance and lessen our fierce hold on expectations, we are practicing better self-care, which, in turn allows us to be more compassionate caregivers and love with a whole heart. Although practice doesn't make perfect, putting in the extra work will make a difference in personal growth and improvement. We are, after all, imperfect beings just trying to do the best we can.

Final Remarks on Love and Caregiving vs. Caretaking

There is another saying that I believe requires no edits: "We love with great difficulty." But the important thing is we do it—we love. And, yes, despite all the challenges, "What the world needs now is love, true love"—especially in these days of derision and despair. I hope you'll open your hearts and your voices to sing it with me as we try our best to fill the universe with compassionate care for others and for ourselves.

Cynthia Orange is the author of Take Good Care: Finding Your Joy in Compassionate Caregiving and the Nautilus Award winning book Shock Waves: A Practical Guide to Living with a Loved One’s PTSD. She co-facilitates a caregivers’ support group and has written hundreds of articles about addiction, recovery, parenting, post-traumatic stress, and caregiving.

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