Boundaries Series Part 1: Caregiving vs. Caretaking

I confess; I have acted like God in the lives of others. I have participated in caretaking behavior or enabling. Merriam Webster defines “enabling” as, “One who ENABLES another to achieve an end; especially one who enables another to persist in self-destructive behavior, such as as substance abuse, by providing excuses or by making it possible to avoid the consequences of such behavior.

How did I do this? First, I felt like I knew how to direct the lives of others. This led to controlling behaviors on my part and frustration when others did not yield to my sage advice. I did for others what they could easily do themselves because I could do it better and then I could have my peace. I selfishly kept others from experiencing the hard knocks of life to keep the chaos out of my own life. I had my eyes constantly on the lives of others but didn’t see the huge speck in my own eye.

It all was so seductive. Wasn’t I loving others by helping them? Didn’t they really need my help? Isn’t it selfish to put my eyes on life? Satan knew just how to trap me in this game. As I child I felt little control over my life. A fierce lion lived in my house and I never knew when it might strike. I learned to be perfect (of course that was an illusion) in an attempt to distract the lion to other prey. I watched my dad use these same tactics to survive. The rule was, “Do not talk about the lion in the home and do everything you can to keep it calm”.

I left home at age 15 as I began to see that I was as tall as the lion and refused to bow down. I was done. Now I was free to run my life and heal. But that just another illusion.

Without counseling, I was ripe for orchestrating the same dynamics of my family of origin in my new life. I met a young man who had a problem with alcohol. My role was to do everything I could to make him happy. If I could just please him, then the heavy drinking and abuse would stop. Wrong!

Then I got into a relationship with someone who suffered from a mood disorder, unbeknownst to me in my 20’s. Life was a constant roller coaster ride. If I could just help him to get his life together, he would be the perfect guy for me. Many years later, I was exhausted, physically sick and at the end of my rope.

One Sunday afternoon, I sat on a lawn chair in my backyard and cried out to God. I officially waved my white flag that day and surrendered. I could no longer try to control my world and the lives of everyone around me. I gave up. I joined a Codependents Anonymous 12 Step Program. I realized I wasn’t the only person who enabled. With the love and support of other women, I changed. It was painful, but it was the most rewarding journey of my life. God healed.

As a pastoral counselor, I often tell the rich story of the paralytic to my clients who have the same struggle. I say, “The paralytic spent agonizing years sitting near the healing waters but he was never actually able to reach them. Along comes Jesus. He walks up to the paralytic and says, “Do you want to get well?” That question rocked my world for quite some time. Why would my loving Jesus ask such a dumb question? Of course, the paralytic wanted to get well. But, Jesus knows our hearts. For many years I didn’t want to get well. I was getting a personal reward by keeping up this dysfunctional behavior. I was too busy boosting my self esteem by “helping” others. I wasn’t ready to lay it down yet. Next Jesus tells the paralytic to pick up his mat and walk. What? Doesn’t Jesus know that the paralytic would likely fall over when he attempted to walk. His muscles had to be atrophied. He’d need physical therapy to even take one itty bitty step! But, again Jesus knew better. If Jesus had carried the paralytic to the healing water, then he would have enabled and taken away his power as a person. Jesus loved so much that He insisted that the paralytic do this task by himself.”

So, who are you enabling or caretaking in your life? It’s often hard to see healthy boundaries clearly. In order to help them see if they are enabling someone, I give my clients a handout that I received in a training. It is part of a book, Freedom from Codependency: A Christian Response by Phillip St. Romain, available as paperback, downloadable PDF, or Kindle from shalomplace.com. This handout changed my life, taught me how to caregive, and has helped others to evaluate their relationships to a model of living more like Jesus. I pray it might help you as well.

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