“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