Stop Walking on Eggshells

When someone in your life has borderline or narcissistic personality disorder

Are You an Emotional Caretaker?

Caretaking can feel like intimacy, but it's not

Are you who are overly empathetic, self-sacrificing, generous, perfectionistic, deferential, more willing to put other's needs before your own, and uncomfortable with conflict? Then you are more vulnerable to being emotional caretaker, according to Margalis Fjelstad's new book, Stop Caretaking The Borderline/Narcissist In Your Life: Let Go Of Their Life And get a Life of Your Own (Rowman & Littlefield, Feb 2013).

"Yes" answers to these questions may indicate you're an emotional caretaker:

Beliefs

  1. Do you have trouble knowing what your limits are?
  2. Do you trust someone else's view of reality better than you do your own?
  3. Do you hope that sacrificing yourself will make your partner want to fill your needs?
  4. Do you believe that your love can heal your partner?
  5. Do you see your job as fixing others and/or making them happy?
  6. Do you aspire to perfection you never can seem to reach?
  7. Is "selfish" the worst thing a person could can say about you?
  8. Do you believe in a lot of "should's" and "shouldn'ts" and other rules?
  9. Do you believe it's your obligation to continually "prove" that you love your partner?
  10. Do you believe in rigid roles for males and females?

Feelings

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  1. Do you feel guilty if you talk about your partner to other people?
  2. Do you feel like nothing without a partner? Is a bad relationship better than none at all?
  3. Do you have low self-esteem; unworthy as you are?
  4. Are you angry a lot of the time?
  5. Do you distrust your partner, even though you think trust is essential for good relationships?
  6. Do you usually lack chemistry with kind, stable, reliable people?
  7. Do you need to be needed, or are you attracted to needy people?
  8. Do you seek approval from others?
  9. Do fear, obligation and guilt guide the way you behave in relationships?
  10. Do you have more empathy for your partner than she has for you?
  11. Do you feel responsible for other people's emotions?
  12. Do you obsess about your partner?
  13. Do you feel isolated, depressed, hopeless, or helpless?
  14. Do you feel guilty for having thoughts and feelings that are different from those of your partner?
  15. Do you love your partner for who they are right now, or who you wish them to be?
  16. Are you preoccupied with dreams and wishes that could be rather than the reality of your relationship now?
  17. Do you detest conflict and try to avoid it?

Actions

  1. Do you have a hard time setting boundaries?
  2. Do you routinely give more than you get in relationships in an effort to try to please?
  3. Do you ignore your own needs or have trouble taking care of yourself?
  4. Have you ever lied or kept secrets about your partner' behavior?
  5. Do you usually defer to your partner's wants even though he rare does the same for you?
  6. Do you usually bow to your partner's demands even when it hurts, such as cutting people out of your life?
  7. Do you protect your partner from the consequences of his negative behaviors?
  8. Do other people tell you that you shouldn't put up with your partner's behavior?
  9. Do you distrust this advice, even though you agree with them about most things?
  10. Do you make excuses for your partner's behavior?
  11. When the excuse no longer applies, do you come up with a new one?
  12. Do you assume most of the responsibility for household chores and daily responsibilities?
  13. If you are a man, does your partner lay her hands on you in any way?
  14. Do you tell yourself you can take it because you're bigger than her?
  15. Do you have trouble standing up for yourself and acting in your own best interests?
  16. Do you do things for other people that they can do for themselves?
  17. Have you gone back to the relationship after spending time with the authorities for false accusations?
  18. Do you stay fiercely attached to other people and situations even when you know you're being damaged?

According to Dr. Fjelstad, who has a private psychotherapy practice in Ft. Collins, CO, emotional caretakers are fixers and rescuers who often have had a borderline or narcissistic family member.

As a caretaker, she says, it is your job to please and take care of the BP/NP first and foremost. To do this you will have learned to ignore your own needs, adapted to a highly emotional tense and chaotic environment, and become hyper-vigilant to the BP/NP's emotional reactions. Your job is to do everything that the BP/NP is not willing or able to do, give in to whatever the BP/NP wants, and carefully monitor the family's image in the community.

When you become the caretaker you take on the role of making the BP/NP feel safe, secure and loved at all times. In addition you may also feel it is your job to "teach" the BP/NP to act more appropriately and to help the BP/NP "get better."

Dr. Fjelstad says that to become a caretaker, you need to be highly intuitive of the needs of the BP/NP, intelligent enough to learn the distorted and contradictory rules the BP/NP needs to function, observant enough to keep track of all the nuances of the fast changing emotional family environment, creative enough to find ways to calm and appease the BP/NP, and have a low enough self-esteem to not think that you deserve better treatment, more consideration or equal caring in return.

While emotional caretakers take pride in their self-sacrifice, it is a double edged sword.  Partners who are emotional caretakers usually come from a family in which some of their basic emotional needs were unmet. Unconsciously, as adults they compensate by finding and nurturing others who seem very needy. They see attempts to change their partners as we wish them to be not as controlling, but as gestures of love—even when they've made it clear they don't want to change.

Being a caretaker can lead to a heady feeling of being a strong, wise, and needed person. Playing this role as a child can make you feel equal or even superior to the adults in the family. Unfortunately, being a caretaker means learning to be overly vigilant of the needs of others and pretty much ignorant of your own feelings, needs and reactions. But you may not even notice that since you are so focused on the BP/NP.

Whenever the borderline acts normally, you become immensely elated believing, time and time again, that now "everything will be better," only to be let down when the s/he returns to his dysfunctional thinking and behaving again. This makes you vulnerable to over-functioning in relationships and putting up with a partner who is severely under-functioning.

When the narcissist does something especially thoughtful, you think that s/he has "turned a corner," matured, and will now be the loving partner you want. It seems so logical.

But none of these changes lasts longer than a few days or hours.

The BP/NP has had many rejections in love before you came along. Others have experienced the BP/NP's controlling and even selfish behaviors in relationship and have left.

You, however, see the clues but don't leave. Instead you feel drawn in, you may feel normal, you may feel the BP/NP needs you, and you may feel rewarded for your Rescuer responsibilities. You feel a level of excitement and hope. You see a match. At first this seems like a comfortable relationship. To you nothing seems particularly amiss. Somehow you know all the corresponding moves in this relationship dance and you feel like you have a wonderful chance to make life better for the BP/NP. However, this is not intimacy. It is the familiar Drama Triangle of Victim/Persecutor/Rescuer.

Getting Better

Here are some links to articles that discuss overcoming caretaking:

http://www.coda.org/

http://www.thebridgetorecovery.com/overcoming-codependency.html

http://sciencedaily.healthology.com/mental-health/article1095.htm

Randi Kreger is the co-author of Stop Walking on Eggshells.

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