Over the years, I have learned a crucial lesson from my counselling interactions with my female clients: when it comes to mental and emotional health, understanding the dynamics of caregiving for a narcissistic or borderline parent is very important. I say this because many of my female clients exhibit a tenacious personality trait; that is, they like to take care of others as their own responsibility. This trait seems stem from their family and childhood history, taking a toll on their lives and relationships. In this article, I will explore the seven traits that indicate you maybe be a caretaker for your narcissist or borderline parent, examine the factors contributing to assuming this role, and provide three ways to dis-identify from it.
Seven Signs You Might Be a Caretaker
Recognizing that you are playing this role is the first step towards healing and reclaiming your sense of self. Here are seven traits that indicate you may be a caretaker for your narcissist or borderline parent:
- You are highly intuitive of the needs of your parents and others; always looking out for their emotional needs.
- Guilt and obligation bind you tightly to your parents.
- You are more emotionally overresponsive and over-responsible to others than the average person; therefore, you are more prone to being manipulated by guilt and fear.
- You have a strong need to be liked by everyone; having a disagreement or conflict makes you feel very uncomfortable.
- You have many unmet needs, but you are constantly fulfilling the needs of others, which makes you very frustrated and resentful inside.
- You have difficulty sharing your real thoughts, feelings and beliefs with your parents and others.
- It is difficult for you to receive love, care, affection, and attention, even though your heart desires them.
How You Became a Caretaker
Here are two common reasons for how family environment can shape a person in a caretaker role:
- Blaming the Children
Children with narcissistic or borderline parents often accept the blame for everything that goes wrong. Such parents cannot take responsibility for themselves, so they need to find someone who can, and that person is usually their own children. When children are continuously blamed in this way, they will believe that they actually are responsible and therefore feel guilty for their “wrongdoing”. In an attempt to gain their parent’s approval, avoid further blame and remedy their guilt, children assume the role of a caretaker, dedicating themselves to meeting their parent’s needs and solving their problems.
- Taking on Rigid Family Roles
In a healthy family system, role-playing is flexible, broad, and fluid: You can do A, and you can also do B. The relationship among members is supportive and equal, and no one is necessarily more important than the other. But in a dysfunctional family with a narcissistic or borderline parent, children are often cast into specific roles, such as the lovable one, the responsible one, the troublemaker, the caretaker, the smart one, and the funny one. If you try to break out of your designated role and play something else, you will be punished and denied. The caregiver is expected to be fully committed to protecting and caring for the feelings and needs of the parents, whose needs come before other family members.
Three Ways to Stop Being a Caretaker
- Heal Your “Saviour Complex”
The “Saviour Complex” refers to a psychological pattern where an individual feels compelled to rescue or save others, often at the expense of their own well-being and boundaries. Caretakers often have a potent saviour complex, believing that through selfless giving, their parents and loved one will eventually change, mature, and become the loving parent or partner they want.
In addition, caregivers may seem selfless on the surface, but their giving is never unconditional. In their giving, there is a need to be needed, and they also have the expectation of receiving love and care through giving. These issues are worthy of discussion in counselling, which will help caregivers be aware of their underlying motivations to break this psychological mechanism.
- Learn and Correct Your Misconceptions About Responsibility
Caretakers have a propensity to be responsible for everything. They often take too much responsibility for things they are not responsible for and fail to hold others accountable for their actions. This is because, growing up with a narcissistic or borderline parent, they usually develop some distorted beliefs and attitudes about responsibility, and they may also lack a sense of boundaries.
Dr Henry Cloud & Dr John Townsend once said in their book Boundaries, “We are responsible to care about and help others in our lives, within certain limits.”
- Rebuild Your Self-Worth
Rebuilding self-worth is of utmost importance for caretakers of narcissistic or borderline parents, as they often struggle with deep-seated beliefs that they are inherently unworthy of love, care, and affection. They often crave love but cannot receive it when love and kindness knock at their door. As marriage and family therapist Karyl McBride mentioned in her book Will I Ever Be Good Enough, “Caretakers often have an inability to take care of themselves because they believe they don’t deserve it.”
Learning to redefine yourself and restore your sense of self-worth is crucial in recovering, especially if you do not want to remain a caretaker who is often used or unappreciated.
This topic touches me deeply because I also have some caretaker traits, reflected in my family life and work. Being a caregiver is not inherently negative. It entails virtues like resilience, compassion, and practical caregiving skills. However, being an unhealed and unaware caretaker who constantly pleases and fixes others’ problems can be exhausting. I hope this article can give you a clear picture of how you have been moulded into the caretaker role and what you can do to break free from it.