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:
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.
Here are some links to articles that discuss overcoming caretaking:
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Randi Kreger is the owner of BPDCentral.com and the Welcome to Oz online family community. You can find her books "The Essential Family Guide to Borderline Personality Disorder," "The Stop Walking on Eggshells Workbook," "Stop Walking on Eggshells," and "Splitting: Protecting Yourself While Divorcing a Borderline or Narcissist," at her store at BPDCentral.com.