The Dangers Of Being A “Careaholic”

The key to avoiding compassion fatigue comes down to setting emotional boundaries.

AlenD/ Shutterstock
AlenD/ Shutterstock

“Care is no cure, but rather corrosive, for things that are not to be remedied”—William Shakespeare

“It’s a quarter after one, I’m all alone, and I need you now,” Lady Antebellum sang, “And I don’t know how I can do without. I just need you now.” These beautiful lyrics illustrate how desperation of needing someone can lead to a careaholic relationship. The word, “careaholic” might sound odd. And you might even ask, “How can you care too much?” But there’s a difference between healthy caring and corrosive careaholism.

What Is A Careaholic?

A careaholic is someone who has a strong need to be needed and uses caring and helping in the same way alcoholics use booze to self-medicate pain or cope with stress. They overload themselves with other people’s problems as a distraction from their own worries and stresses. Caring is counterproductive when helping others becomes a means to avoid or self-medicate your own pain. If you’re focused on taking care of someone else, you don’t have to think about your own burdens. And if you have unfinished business of your own, you’re not likely to let someone else struggle with theirs.

The Case Of Stephanie

When Stephanie took her first-ever vacation from her husband, kids, and job to visit her sister, she made sure everyone would be taken care of in her absence. She cooked, labeled and froze meals for each day she would be gone. She washed their clothes, cleaned the house and arranged for her children’s car pool. At work where she was a staff supervisor, she delegated her responsibilities and assigned tasks to be completed while she was gone. Natural actions of a loving mother and caring colleague, right? Hold on. There’s more to the story. During her “vacation,” Stephanie worried that her family and coworkers couldn’t manage without her. She found it hard to relax and enjoy her sister’s company because she felt guilty for being away. Upon her return, much to her chagrin, she discovered that everyone had done quite well in her absence. She felt badly that they hadn’t needed her more and felt guilty for feeling that way. On a deeper level, she recognized that a part of her would have rather things go wrong than run smoothly so the people in her life would lean on her, satisfying her need to feel important.

Compassion Burnout

As this case illustrates, the inability to focus on yourself eventually works against the care you give. If you feel emotionally depleted when you give to others, ask yourself if you’ve taken time to give to yourself first. Your inability to say no and put yourself last takes its toll. And, if you’re a careaholic, when you don’t have anyone needing you, you start to feel empty and lack purpose. As the stress cycle kicks in, the relief (over-caring) eventually becomes the problem. Careaholics hit bottom from compassion burnout which shows up in a variety of ways: depletion of emotional energy and physical fatigue, gastrointestinal irritations, insomnia, despair, hypertension, lack of purpose, or depression.

Don’t get me wrong. Helping others is a wonderful thing that makes the world-go-round. But there’s a difference between stressful care-taking and compassionate caring. If you take pride in anticipating the needs of others and meeting them before they ask, or if you insist on helping someone—even if they don’t want, ask for, or need your help—you might be taking more than you’re giving. You might be feeding your own needs instead of practicing selfless compassion. You know you’re genuinely caring when you have an unselfish desire to give without making others overly dependent on you or taking away their ability to care for themselves. You give only as much help as is needed. And sometimes you even let people fall down without rescuing them because success is built on failure.

6 Steps For Healthy On-The-Job Caring

1. Be realistic about what is humanly possible for you to do. Remind yourself you cannot save the world and make sure you save yourself first before trying to help coworkers. When you’re already overloaded and need time for yourself, let that be a sign that you’re not in a position to take on more emotional commitments. Every time you say “yes” when you want to say “no,” you do colleagues and yourself an injustice.

2. Examine your motivation for helping. Do you believe fixing others will fulfill a greater need in you than in them? If the answer is yes, you could be taking more than you’re giving. Sometimes the best way to care is not to get involved with someone’s problems and not to help them if it robs them of learning and standing on their own two feet. 

3. Respect another employee’s refusal for your help. It ‘s important to let a coworker know you would like to help. If they say no, it’s important to honor their request instead of pressuring them because you see something that needs fixing.

4. If you end up helping someone, make sure you’re in the habit of showing them how to fish instead of feeding them fish. In other words, if the help you give makes a colleague or friend dependent on you, you could be holding them back when they might be ready to fly.

5. Set emotional boundaries. Encourage colleagues and love ones to become emotionally independent. Avoid over-identifying with their feelings and don’t take other people’s problems home with you. By leaving problems with their rightful owners, you allow them to grow by finding their own solutions. Some of our best lessons come from learning from our mistakes.

6. Practice what you preach. Before you embark on a helping campaign, help yourself first. Let others benefit from cleaning up their side of the street while you tend to the potholes in your own neglected side. Examine unmet needs in your life that you might’ve avoided. Take time out for yourself in the same ways you tell others to care for themselves: positive self-talk, meditate, bathe in nature, and learn to enjoy your own company.

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