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Addicted to Helping: Why We Need to Stop Trying to Fix People

Caregiver

“Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals.” ~Pema Chodron

After college, I was hustling hard to get a work visa so that I could stay in the US.

But then my mom got caught up in a political scandal, and without much reflection on how much this would alter my life’s plans, I dropped my dream of staying in America, drove 1,000 miles, and flew another 500 to be by her side.

Would she have crumbled without me there? My mama is a tough chick, so I highly doubt it.

But at the time, I (subconsciously) believed that when the ones we love are hurting, their pain trumps everything. Their pain gets top priority, and whatever goals and dreams we’ve been working toward now pale in comparison.

At the time, I thought that love meant tending to the other person’s needs first—always.

And this form of self-sacrifice came naturally to me (I’d behaved this way even as a young child), so I was lucky, right? Having inherent caregiver qualities is a beautiful gift, right?

Yes. And maybe not.

Are You a Natural Caregiver?

You’ll know if you have this trait too, because people will often tell you their secrets mere minutes after meeting you.

When someone has just been in a car accident or broken up with their boyfriend, you wrap your arms around them and for the first time that day, their body fully relaxes.

People tell you they feel at home in your presence. Safe. Heard. Cared for.

There’s so much beauty in having a trait like this. Without much effort, you nurture and care for those around you. It is a gift you give us all.

But there’s another side to the caregiver coin.

Helping other people can become addictive. It can begin to feel like the only way to show your love is to prostrate yourself at the needs of others.

Oh, you’re hurting? Lemme swoop in and save the day.

Oh, you’re broke? Lemme dump my savings into your bank account and all will be well.

Oh, you’re single again? Lemme set you up with my neighbor’s son.

Whatever your ailment, I’ve got a fix for you!

And the gratitude from the people we’re supposedly ‘fixing’ tends to flow so steadily that we become convinced of the healthiness of our stance.

We’re confident that healing every sore spot we see is not only natural and enjoyable, but it’s the main reason we were put on this planet.

When you carry the Nurturer Gene, fixing other people can easily become a destructive self-identity. 

You will martyr yourself over and over again in order to meet the invisible quota of Lives Helped that floats above your head.

You will obsessively analyze how every choice you make might impact those around you.

You will assess every meal, every dollar spent, every vacation taken (or not taken) based on how it will impact the people you feel a responsibility to care for.

Because, in this unhealthy version of caregiving, our understanding of love has become warped. Love now looks like a relentless string of sacrifice.

Your thoughts might go something like this:

If I don’t love her with my constant presence, she will feel sad and lonely.

If I don’t love him with my attentive eye observing everything, he’ll get sick again, or maybe even die.

If I don’t love them with my efficiencies managing everything, someone will get hurt. Things will go very wrong if I’m not here to take care of them all.

Sometimes, love calls on us to invest our energy and time in tending to someone else’s pain.

But not 100 percent of the time. And not with the nurturing going down a one-way street, pouring out of the same person, over and over again.

If you see this pattern in any of your relationships, consider what it would take to expand your definition of what it means to nurture, to love, to care for.

A healthy caregiver not only nourishes the needs of others, but also nourishes her own.

Holistic nourishment. Nourishment of the whole of us, for all of us—which includes you.

Self-nourishment might look like hiring a babysitter so you can have a romantic getaway with your hubby.

Self-care might mean taking the job on the other side of the country, even though it means you’ll only see your parents twice a year.

Self-love might be quietly soaking in a bubble bath instead of probing everyone for a detailed account of their day.

You are not responsible for the world’s pain.

Share your talents and resources. Generously give your time and attention. But you cannot pour a magical tonic on the wounds of every person walking the planet. It’s not your job. And if it were, it’d be a sucky job because you’d fail at it every single day.

Especially when we identify as being “spiritual,” we can lift up words like “compassion,” “generosity,” and “kindness” to such a degree that we forget that even “compassion” sometimes must say no.

Even “generosity” has to allocate some of her resources for herself.

And even “kindness” must muster the nerve to walk away sometimes.

If you are the person in your relationship or family or company that defaults to caregiver and wound-tender, give thanks for the ease with which you dish out your love.

But be careful about inhaling that caregiver role to such a degree that your identity becomes dependent on having someone nearby to nurture.

Give your love. Freely and deeply.

And trust that even if you’re not there to ‘fix’ them, everyone will be just fine.

Photo by Valerie Everett

Profile photo of Annika Martins

About Annika Martins

Annika Martins is a spiritual curator, which is kinda like being a museum curator. Except instead of curating paintings, she curates spiritual practices, like art, meditation, and dance. She’s bringing together her favorite spiritual seekers for a revolutionary spiritual conference and she wants to see you there! See the Sacred. Your way. It’s all going down at AnnikaMartins.com.

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  • This is a hard lesson to learn when you work in a “helping profession.” It has taken me awhile to learn, but I think that you are most helpful to others when you encourage people to help themselves. Plus, sometimes people don’t need your solutions, they just need an ear.

  • Hi Annika,

    This reminds me of a lesson which I learnt in the past, “don’t take my kindness as a form of weakness”. Just because I like helping people to solve their issues, people will take advantage of me by giving me more work when I was working. In the end, I had to knock off later because I had to finish my work after finishing theirs. Thankfully, I learnt that lesson early in life and I will never help people do things that they can do themselves from then on.

    I feel that I should not help people to the extent where my needs are sacrificed. Challenges are meant to make people stronger and everyone has a unique set of challenges that they have to go through in order to grow as a person.

    In fact, I agree with what Paul Dooley mentioned in his previous comment, “People Don’t Need My Solutions, They Just Need A Listening Ear.”

    Edmund

  • lucygoosey

    Hi Annika,

    Thank you for your post! It definitely resonates with me. I was literally that person you described to the exact detail of self-sacrificing. After hitting rock bottom, did I learn to take time to do the self-care and realize “Hey! People can’t take care of themselves and solve their own problems! I’ll be there when I can to lend a hand, be the shoulder or provide the warm hug…when I can.” Again, thank you for the reminder. 🙂

  • Sophia

    Thanks for posting this Anikka,

    The person you described, the caretaker, reminds me of the archetype of the ‘fixer’. The person who has the natural tendency to want to help people resolve their issues. It is nice to have people like that in the world. As you pointed out in your post, you also need to look after yourself too. This can be a weakness of the person who naturally is the ‘carerer’. Being caring begins with us looking after ourselves first. This may be difficult for some, due to their programming. The programming may say, “It’s bad to put your needs besides others’.
    The other point to consider, is why are you looking to help the other person; fix their issue. Sometimes there may be something in our life that needs attention, needing to be fixed.

  • Guest

    Nicely written! You’ve got to figure out how to navigate your own internal adventure before helping other people with theirs. To show people “the way” you’ve got to have been there yourself. Well, that’s my theory anyway.

  • Hi Annika, you’re absolutely right. I used to be terribly guilty of this a few years ago until I realised that instead of supporting people from the sidelines I was actually running onto the pitch to grab the ball and try and score for them. Not only was it exhausting for me, but it was stopping those I thought I was helping from experiencing the happiness of getting their own ball in the back of the net! Sometimes care involves letting people work through their own issues, and we all learn from the stumbles & mistakes we make along the way.

  • “sometimes people don’t need your solutions, they just need an ear.” You’re so right.

  • Trtlhedache

    Thanks for this article! It serves as a gentle reminder that compassion does not equal self sacrifice to the point of detriment to yourself. Sometimes when I look up things about this topic, I interpret the articles as harsh and almost shame-inducing. I know this is my perception, but I do feel that you have used language in a way that kindly and positively provides insight into a dilemma that is not easy to navigate by yourself. I’ve also misinterpreted very good, fundamental advice exactly as you point out: “Especially when we identify as being “spiritual,” we can lift up words like “compassion,” “generosity,” and “kindness” to such a degree that we forget that even “compassion” sometimes must say no.”

    I feel like you were describing me here “Love now looks like a relentless string of sacrifice.”

    Pretty trippy! Glad to say that finding support through voices like yours has made a world of difference for me. Want to add for anyone out there struggling with this, celebrate the fact that you are seeking. “What you seek is seeking you.” -Rumi

  • Great post. Another point to consider is that “help is the sunny side of control.” We must be careful not to assign ourselves an identity of anybody’s savior and to examine what we are truly getting out of running to everybody’s rescue. Being loving and nurturing is one thing, but when it ventures into the territory of codependency, we have to ask ourselves if perhaps we are helping others not so much for them, but for US. Are we attempting to create relationship insurance (“if they need me, they won’t leave me”)? Are we struggling with self-esteem issues? As Sophia pointed out, are you possibly avoiding problems in your own life and shifting focus onto others? Our generosity and love should be freely given as a gift, not because someone “needs” us.

  • Prissy Rodriguez

    I was in tears reading this. Thank you. I needed this more than I can express.

  • Yes, I def second Cat’s comment. Sometimes we don’t realize that when people are hurting, often the most helpful thing we can do is to help them feel seen and heard. Being witnessed is how we care for them.

    And I’ve often found that any “solutions” I went into the interaction with pale in comparison to what they come up with when I sit back and just listen.

    Sending gratitude and love to you in your work, Paul. Sounds like honorable stuff. xo

  • Thank you for sharing, Lucy. 🙂 It’s not always easy to make that transition from total self-sacrifice to trusting others’ ability to care for themselves (with help from us, when it’s supportive for everyone). Brava to you. 🙂

  • Absolutely, Cat. I’ve done a lot of that too. For me, it felt like it was heavily tied to self-worth (“I’m important because I’m so helpful”).

    It’s tricky to untangle our worth from our ability to “score” for others, but on the other side of it, is an awareness that our worth isn’t at all dependent on what we do or who we know. It’s unceasing.

    Sending love to you. xo

  • What a beautiful share! Thank you so much. Lovelove. xo

  • lv2terp

    Wonderful post! Thank you for sharing your wisdom, this is something that I have been working on as well over the last cpl yrs or so. It is very freeing to find this place! 🙂 The quote you chose is powerful, thank you! 🙂

  • DE

    Annika- Self love is very important. If we love ourselves, be happy and support ourselves that it is much easier to help others. However, I have experienced a lot of people view self love as a selfish act. It is a very delicate balance to maintain your own interest and also to help others.

  • Thank you, Prissy. Putting my hand on my heart and sending you love. Care for yourself. xo

  • Thanks! It is an ongoing process. When I think I’ve found a healthy balance, something happens and I slip. That’s the process: remembering and forgetting. Remembering and forgetting. 🙂

  • True. There is often judgement of our choices to pull back from tending to others in order to tend to ourselves. I try to remind myself that their judgement of my self-love says far more about what they’re going through than it does about me. And the best (and really, only) thing I can ever do is focus on making choices that are aligned and supportive for where I’m at, in this moment. That’s all. 🙂

  • Lori Piper

    This article is so relevant, and here is another aspect of the same issue: I have a chronic, debilitating illness and many people have been very kind and supportive when I have needed it. I appreciate it, I really do. But there are some people who just keep on helping–they help with one area, and then they decide that I shouldn’t be handling this or that by myself so they’ll take care of that, and perhaps they even begin interjecting themselves in my life as a kind of ‘friend.’ This is a really sticky line because I know most people’s hearts are in the right place when they do this, but I need and want to do the things I’m capable of doing. Yes, I need help at times and I so appreciate the help, but I don’t want everything taken away from me! It’s important that nurturers take care of themselves and learn to set boundaries for themselves–and recognize boundaries set by others.

  • Lori Piper

    Kelly, I hadn’t read your comment when I left mine, but YES–I very much agree with what you’ve said. It relates to my situation as well, where people may be ‘helping’ me too much because, as you said, ‘help is the sunny side of control.’

  • RT

    Hi Annika , I can relate to your story because I have always been a natural caregiver, but today I must admit I have changed. I attracted my husband and his family because they couldn’t believe how caring someone could be. I always offered my help from the first day I met him and his family.
    I always believed and was brought up to believe, you always helped family. You found time and made time.I did not make time for myself or my friends because I was always too busy helping them. They had practically become my own family.
    I never thought anything of it until,the time I needed them because I was in a crisis and finally realized what kind of people I had attracted.
    It had always been about what they could get from me and not about helping. This family watched me struggle with spinal problems for almost a year and actually told me they didn’t have to help me if they didn’t want to.That was my first wake up call.
    I can’t say it didn’t break me but I was determined to not allow myself to be part of this family again. I deserved better and there was no more saving or sacrificing my time for them again.
    The unfortunate thing was about six years later my husband also reacted the same way. I had a burn out and instead of helping me he became angry because I couldn’t be the carer I had always been and he was missing out.
    That was my second and greatest wake up call, which hurt me the most.
    Where I am today,finally separating which is a blessing. Not a position I wished or ever expected to be in after 28 years of marriage but I am so glad I’m in. I finally learnt, that we natural caregivers are not responsible for other people’s lives who do not want to be responsible for their own. We are human beings and deserve to also live a life where we are not expected to or are responsible to always be there for others.
    It hasn’t changed the natural caregiver I will always be and I believe even more so because I have removed myself from this situation. But it has taught me that I also deserve to live my life without feeling that I am responsible for others.

  • nikky

    Why is that people like DR EZIZA that are genuine are hard to find. After i have searching for help for almost all the corner of this life concerning my marriage and all to no avail it was Dr Eziza that finally helped me out,he wiped away all the agony i was going through with my lover and me him stop the divorce he was planning. Any one out there who beleives all is over in his/her marriage contact DR EZIZA on ezizaoguntemple@gmail.com or +2348058176289 and join those that are happy through his handwork.

  • kit

    sigh…this makes me so sad. I had crippling depression a few months ago…my husband, a natural caregiver, was there at my beck and call. Amazing, thoughtful man. but one day, after telling me loved me…never came home. said he could no longer ‘take care of me’ and never came home. I know depression is hard….i took care of him when he was suffering a few years back. but being my ‘caretaker’ (i was in a bad place, but was seeing a therapist on m town and taking action..slowly), was too much. h text me that night saying it was too much…and that was the end of my 8 year marriage.

    I’m still numb and confused. drawing the line is important, but damn…communicate!

  • LL

    Yeah, in the past I have wanted to help people so much that I’ve cried because they wouldn’t let me. I guess it comes from a good place but it’s just insane really. And it’s so easy to try to help everybody else when really the time would be better spent helping yourself. I know that sounds harsh but I have enough problems of my own to sort out. There’s also the danger of adopting a guru ego identity which is NOT cool imo. So yeah all these things are traps. TRUE serving, TRUE helpfulness, meanwhile, is not a trap. Real service is awesome as we all know. And I hope we can all become better at providing that true helpfulness. 🙂

  • josh

    this post has actually opened my eyes to the fact that I am a natural caregiver. I’m young, so I haven’t yet come across these problems but now I am aware of these unhealthy habits. Thank you for this!

  • SJP

    Wow, i just read this & it absolutely sums me up. Especially in relation to the situation I find myself in now, with a boyfriend who has recently been diagnosed with a psychological illness. I’ve been thinking lately I should leave him not only because I cannot cope with his issues but also because I feel he needs to sort himself out alone, albeit with professional support & care, but without me to depend upon or carry him. I’m sure it will make him stronger in the long run, I just don’t know if I have the courage to leave after 11 years…

  • Thanks for this. A necessary reminder. In order to be there for others in the best way sometimes we have to just be there for ourselves. It also gives others the space to find ways to draw on their own inner strength, too.

  • James

    “And trust that even if you’re not there to ‘fix’ them, everyone will be just fine.” — I literally cried on to this line because I’m exactly in this situation right now. I needed my life back so after 3 years of nurturing a friend, we’ve separated ways 10 days ago.

  • LostConfused

    I grew up in a stable environment and all my siblings are college graduates. At 32 years, I suffer from mild self-destructive behavior (underemployed, high school drop out, quit jobs, withdrawal from people who want friendship or dating, numerous failed college/career attempts). However, I tend to be very good at helping others but myself. What’s weird is that I get no gratification from it, nor “warm and fuzzy” feelings either. My cousin once called me “amazing” for helping out with something. This is crazy and it doesn’t make any sense.
    .

  • Cristalexi

    I work in the so-called caring professuon in a non-clinical position and I can say without a shadow of doubt that the quote at the beginning of this article is spot on. When I started at my current place of work I would say “Good morning” to the clinicians when they came in but no response whatsoever from any of them. I thought maybe they didin’t hear me. However when they came into the reception where I worked to get a file out of the cabinets I would say “Good morning”, how could they not hear me this time but still no response whatsoever, like as if I was invisible. So I thought okay maybe they’ve got other things on their minds. However I could no longer use this excuse when after 6 months not one of them had interacted with me on a human level just as a dehumanised clerical worker. Subsequently, I started to complain about it and immediately this illicited a response from them “How can we help to fix your problem” smh.

    Another example: I cycle to work and one time all the racks where being used, so I decided to chain it around one of the pergalo posts but it was a tight fit so I was struggling a bit to get it round although I knew I could do it. One of the clinicians, who never speaks to me on a human level, was walking by and saw me struggling and offered to help which I declined. However, instead of just continuing on her way she just stood there watching me, which I found a bit creepy. As she continued to stand there I repeated that I was fine and reluctantly she continued on her way.

  • Iwaola Dayo

    Hello Annika, Thank you so much for this beautiful ly constructed article. You read all my attitude towards others with these message. Being a caregiver and placing people’s problem has cost me alot, financially, material wise, and almost losing my marriage.But my problem remains the same, I just can’t turn a blindeye. Please I need your counseling ?

  • James

    you pretty much nailed my entire life 🙂

  • Amo

    As bad as it sounds, I don’t know how to stop this helping thing. It’s genetic, can’t get rid of it, but I’m practicing how to control it. I always consider other peoples pain as my own, and I know sometimes I could be a pain when I never stop helping, I just can’t help it. I like your article, it makes me feel better to know that I’m not the only one having this lucky trait 🙂

  • Vickie Smith

    I somehow ended up getting the same idea in my head as a child. I have gone through phases in moving away from that thinking I started with, to where I am now. Early in mid life I realized I often wasted my time on people who just didn’t respond to being helped – my fault not theirs – although I’m not sure I realized that then. At one point after that a very wise friend told me “people don’t like to be beholden.” She didn’t mean all people all the time. Obviously those wanting handouts don’t care about being beholden but I saw where she was going with that. Sometimes people don’t really want help and we fail to see this. They don’t want someone to do them a favor they didn’t ask for and then feel they owe anything – including a debt of gratitude. They may want to talk about an issue and bend a friends ear for a moment. I pondered this for years and now beyond that I have clarified for myself that it it ridiculous and unreasonable for me to feel the need to save every living being around me from something. It puts undue stress on my mind for one, and secondly (I tell myself..) who do I think I am anyway? It’s a little arrogant to think I can do this. I am not God, I am not qualified, don’t want to be, and no one else wants me in that position either. It’s a huge relief to remove this unreasonable expectation from myself and I believe it helps me to focus on more important things like mindfulness and etc. and to be a better person. I do have to remind myself, often, not to take up old habits, but the new healthier ones are taking hold.

  • Akuwa Arhu

    This applies to me on such a level it’s unreal. I thought I was crazy into thinking I have some sort of helping complex but it’s good to know I’m not the only one.

  • NameNick

    Well if you’re going to have an addiction, then helping others is surely among the best.
    It’s safe, constructive and stacks up well against other kinds.
    As long as it’s not doing you permanent damage, it’s an acceptable addiction.
    Ultimately, it’s a way of showing care – and if that’s the only way you have of expressing it because you’re somehow alone, then it’s working for you too.

  • NameNick

    Only give for your own pleasure – or it becomes conditional giving (ie – resentment when it’s not reciprocated). Giving is only valuable when it’s done with joy – otherwise, it’s not really scoring any points for anyone.

  • NameNick

    Mother Teresa of Calcutta (who was actually Albanian) once said “Give – but give until it hurts”.
    To my mind, this is insurance against the angst of feeling you could have done more to save someone dear.
    I will never regret the help I have given.

  • cdidd

    diej

  • rolanda Jenkins

    i swear this has been my life until recently!!!! my husbands family is the exact same way but his sister takes the cake for needy, petty, and disrespectful!!!! she had even gotten to the place that she did not even ask us if she could spend the night, she would just show up!!!! well recently i had enough when she got into an arguement with her husband and stormed out of the house, and ended up on our doorstep at 4am without even asking!!!!!!i was so pissed!!!!! i just finally had to tell her she had to go and their is no room here with my own family, and it was very disrespectful for her to show up like that unannounced!!!! needless to say she is very pissed at us but now she knows the help boat has sailed, and i felt so good about it that i have adopted that way from that point on. Since then, i have only been dealing with me and my immediate family issues. sure if someone needs me ABSOLUTELY NEED ME, i will help but nothing extreme!!!! i can breath again, i can rest without disturbances and my health has even improved!!!!!! so I am living proof that its absolutely ok to Love people, and periodically tell them to drink a bleach cocktail!!!!!!!