Like me, many other women in my life are compulsive caregivers. And I have sometimes watched in dismay as they emerged from their caregiving, or attempt to ‘fix’ others, depressed and worse off in many ways, wondering what they had done ‘wrong’. I have to admit that I wasn’t aware of this dysfunctional pattern until, during a time of exhaustion that caused me to self-reflect, I came across this line in Atlas Shrugged, by Ann Rynd: “I swear by my life…and my love of it…that I will never live for the sake of another man…nor ask another man…to live…for mine.”
The words made such an impression on me at the time that I wrote them in my diary. I had just begun work at a health ranch in Florida, where I cleaned the guests’ rooms in the mornings and cooked the vegetarian evening meals. Many of the guests had health problems they wanted to heal by fasting or eating healthy meals. Yet while they focused on detoxifying their bodies, they had forgotten that it was also important to detoxify their minds.
As I went about my daily work they bombarded me with their fears, worries and negative thinking, considerably extending the time it should have taken to clean their rooms. It also began to erode my normally positive and enthusiastic outlook on life, reminding me of how my childhood optimism and wonder at life was greatly diminished living with unhappy parents who frequently fought. Instead of my parents reflecting back my happiness and wonder, I saw worry, anxiety, fear and unhappiness on their faces. And I tried to ‘fix’ them with my love.
This is what I saw in the faces of the people who came to the ranch with all their health issues. And I began to feel depressed, for as I had done with my parents, I became a conducting wire (like copper) for their negative feelings, unconsciously absorbing them into my body while suggesting a more positive way they could view their situation.
In his book, Iron John, Robert Bly suggests that a child in a messed up family feels the tension between her parents, rage in one and sorrow in the other, for example, and can become a professional bridge. He wrote:
The boy who becomes a conductor values himself for the current that runs through his body, for his ability to conduct wrath to the ground by a quiet reply, for the self-sacrificing stretching out of his arms to touch each pole [of opposites]… The son loses his distinctiveness as a man by becoming a conductor; the daughter who accepts this task becomes, similarly, a bridge, not a woman. When either son or daughter reaches adulthood, they will notice many opportunities for similar bridging.
Men and women, then, often become conductors not from bravery or openness to change, but for longing for comfort, for peace in the house, for padded swords, for protective coloration, a longing to be the quail hiding in the reeds… We lose our childhood and a lot of our playfulness by becoming copper wires. (pp. 170-172)
Finally my back began to ache and became so sore from all the negativity I was unconsciously trying to conduct, that I took a few days off. Lying in bed I thought about a friend who constantly gave to others. I remembered the day I asked her to draw a circle in the sand to represent how much she gave. She hopped on one foot and drew a huge circle. But when I asked her to draw a circle that represented how much she allowed herself to receive, she drew a circle with her finger no larger than a dinner plate. “How can you keep giving so much when you only allow yourself to receive so little,” I asked.
It wasn’t until a gnomish man from New York came to the ranch and invited me to sit under the lychee tree to have a talk, that I was able to see that my friend’s circles also applied to me. I was surprised when he said he had been watching me for some time as I went about my work and had come to the conclusion that I gave too much. “You need to learn to be a little selfish,” he advised. I have to admit that I didn’t know how to be a “little selfish,” for when I couldn’t meet others’ needs, anxiety always gnawed at my stomach as if some sort of punishment would be metered out for being such a ‘failure’.
Then a friend loaned me a Ramtha tape to listen to, and when I heard these words, I knew I had to change…
[Breakdowns are caused by] the inability to satisfy everyone around you… Madness, is trying to become everyone else’s ideal and not your own… Don’t ask anyone how you’re doing. Don’t ask anyone if they love you. Don’t ask anyone how better you can be for them. Instead, take all of these questions and ask you. Madness is trying to be everyone else. You cannot be that… If you will love yourself and know that you are worthy of everything that is, you’ll be the happiest person you will ever know.
What I didn’t know then was that this compulsive pattern to nurture and take care of others began when I was a child. Just as I had done with my parents, I tried to heal what was beyond me to heal: the pain of their unmet childhood needs and the inner emptiness this caused. Often I rushed to ease another’s pain and heartache as if my own survival and happiness depended upon seeing them happy again. My underlying belief was that I had to be ‘perfect’ for others and be what they needed me to be for them.
This drew needy people into my life as if I was a high-powered magnet. And as I had done as a child I strived to fill their needs, unconsciously hoping to get the love that was missing from my parents. My success at regulating my parents’ and other people’s moods to make them ‘happy’ became the measure of my self-worth. My happiness depended on other people’s well-being. In this way, my life became a roller coaster riding on other people’s fluctuating moods and needs.
Understanding this brought about a major internal shift. Knowing that happiness is an inside job and that I am not responsible for other people’s feelings or what happened to them in their past—just as they are not responsible for mine—frees me to do what makes me happy to do. It also frees me to become my authentic self instead of being what other people need me to be for them. Rather than striving to fill up the gaps and empty spaces in people’s lives, I can now honour their intelligence by encouraging them to do this for themselves—as I have done.
Living for myself rather than living for the sake of another person’s happiness and trying to meet needs only they can fill, frees up my energy to not only meet my own needs, but to create and share from the fullness and richness of my inner being. I recall the tears that came to a friend’s eyes when she looked through a portfolio of my paintings and how surprised she was at my ‘hidden’ talent and think, “Isn’t this a much better way to create good feelings and happiness in the world—along with a sense of wonder in what it means to be a unique human being.