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Taking Care Of versus Caring About


A conflict that comes up a good deal in therapy is whether we can care about someone but no longer want to be responsible for taking care of them. Discussion of this topic arises more often with people who are co-dependent than with those who aren’t. In fact, it’s often a tip off of their over-focusing on other’s needs. 

Here are two examples. A client broke off a long-term relationship with her boyfriend in another state. They hadn’t lived together for a while and slowly became more friends than lovers. My client made great strides in therapy, more or less leaving her ex in the dust, while he continued to be jobless, live with his parents, and do drugs. They’d been each other’s support for decades and she still had deep feelings for him, but she was tired of him calling to complain and always make himself out to be a victim. 

Another client has a narcissist mother who can be charming with her grandchildren, but emotionally abusive with my client. They live a few hours apart and my client is leaning toward not having her elderly mom visit because she inevitably picks a fight with my client in front of the children and says horrible, off the wall things to her. My client understands how her mother’s childhood shaped her narcissism and abusiveness, but also must consider Mom’s impact on her and her children. She still loves her mother but wants to set boundaries about her visits.

Basically, caring is a feeling while taking care of or caring for is an action. They are two different animals. The former is internal and the latter extends out into the world. It may make people uncomfortable but sometimes it’s best for us to stop taking care of people we still care deeply about. I’ve ended friendships because I no longer wanted certain people in my life. This doesn’t mean I don’t give a hoot what happens to them. I do. I wish them well, but I do not wish to be in their lives because of how they treated me.

Separating caring about from taking care of requires nuance. It’s impossible to do if you have all-or-nothing thinking. It’s also impossible if you can’t hold two emotions at once, that is, having generally fond feelings for someone, but not wanting to spend time with or talk to them. This situation is complex and requires emotional maturity. To get a healthy balance for yourself requires setting aside guilt or shame and acknowledging what complicated creatures we are. 

It also requires putting yourself first which is often hard for dysregulated eaters. To learn more about how to establish a comfortable balance, you need to develop a caring distance with certain people. That may not make you happy, but it will make you wise.