Are You a Caregiver or a Scapegoat?

Many of my clients have the tendency to assume excessive responsibility for others problems. They make frequent sacrifices in an attempt to help others overcome adversity. Some who are excessively responsible feel worthless and deserving only of pain and punishment. They strive for others approval to combat inescapable inferiority. They are wrought with guilt for others struggles and have critical thoughts about themselves when they fail to prevent others problems. This self-condemnation serves to confirm their existence as a worthless individual, but they prefer this to the pain of being judged.

They may have been cast as a caregiver who is in charge of pleasing others. This is a role that was dictated by their parents and siblings, who have made them out to be the scapegoat for the ills of the family. As children, their parents may have said to them, “Look at what you made your sister do,” and they get on the band wagon. Another may have a sibling who gets all the credit, while they get all the blame when things go wrong. Now as an adult, when there is a disaster, such as a job loss, a divorce, or a death, they are predisposed to assume blame (“If only I’d done more, this wouldn’t have happened,”) and feel angry with themselves for not preventing it.

You are not required to assume the fault and guilt of others. If a loved one breaks a dish, catch yourself about to assume fault. (“Oh, I shouldn’t have left it so close to the edge.”) This is an absurd waste of your time and energy. Life is too short for such carryovers from our childhood roles.

You can choose to replace your old, deferential mind-set with a one oriented around regret. Regret is the wish that things were other than they are. But they aren’t. This thing happened, and it’s regrettable. We can live with the regret that we are less than perfect. Saying “I’m sorry that it happened” is a statement of regret. Like when someone passes away, we say “I’m sorry for your loss.” This doesn’t mean we take ownership over causing their loss, but it means we regret their pain. It’s a sign of personal strength and self-respect.

Instead of giving well-intentioned advice, their homework is to find out for themselves what please them and then do it, perhaps for the first time in their lives.

1. What Pleases Me?
The first difficulty in carrying out this homework is that people do not know what pleases themselves. They have been so busy living up to others standards of good or bad, they have not had the confidence to develop standards of their own. I tell my clients to choose to do something that they would have passed up for concern of what others might think. We can decide that we have as much right to do it as anyone else. We can catch ourselves about to discount it as “scary,” “pointless” or “frivolous.” These are obstacles from our past, which prevents us from changing for the better. We can also catch ourselves about to reject this opportunity, because it might not turn out perfectly. Instead, we can agree it doesn’t have to.

2. I Have To Choose
Now we come to a second difficulty. Performing this task requires a choice. If we don’t make choices for our own happiness, who will? Many people are not used to making choices because they do not trust their own judgment (it is not good enough). Many people feel obligated to depend on the “superior” judgment of others. The necessity of making choices on our own behalf is an act of control. This is not merely reacting anymore, this is initiating an action. That can be scary for some. What if we make a mistake? That’s where courage comes in. Courage is the willingness to take a risk by doing what is hard and doing it anyways. This includes the risk of making a mistake. By making a choice anyways and using their courage it is a success. Success comes from doing what is hard. Making a choice for ourselves for the first time is hard and that is why it is a success regardless of the outcomes.

3. What Doesn’t Please Me?
A third function of this homework is that it requires people to ask themselves for the first time, “What doesn’t please me?” If worrying about what other people think is pleasing to us, we can choose to continue. If it doesn’t please us, we can make another choice. We can choose to stop! If bad-mouthing our spouse gives us pleasure, we can continue. But if it makes us unhappy, we can choose not to do it.

As the process continues, it occurs to many that the simplest choice is to stop doing what makes them unhappy. For instance, if nagging our partner about leaving their shoes in the hall pleases us, we are free to continue. If it turns out that we hate doing this, we are free to stop. Instead we can choose to say, “It makes me angry when you do that, I would prefer that you pick up after yourself.” When we start to please ourselves, we use our adult judgment to make the appropriate choice as to when, where and how much we need to say.

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Shared by: Aaron Karmin, LCPC, Contributing Blogger

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