Is there a point when caring is actually causing more harm than good?

As a nurse, mother, wife, friend and someone who valued caring,  I’ve had lots of opportunities over the years to ask myself this question.

When I was nursing, I cared so deeply about my clients that I would spend a lot of mental and emotional energy focused on their well-being.

With my kids, especially as they became teenagers, I cared SO much that I would try and control what they were doing so that they wouldn’t make the same mistakes that I did.

I put a lot of time and energy into what other people were and were not doing.

When people didn’t follow through on what I believed was the best course of action, I would become judgmental and either increased my efforts to get them to change or withdraw with a sense of frustration and/or resentment.

As I look back now, I realize that even though my intentions were always good, I somehow felt that I knew what was best for the other person.

I began to wonder whether I was actually caring too much.

And then the universe gave me what I needed to make a shift and change how I viewed what it means to truly care about others.

It gave me a crisis of my own. It gave me a crisis, which forced me to turn the spotlight back on myself.

It was a crisis precipitated by the fact that I had been so concerned and focused on others and what they should or shouldn’t do that I had lost my sense of self. All this outwardly focused energy in the name of “caring” left me feeling drained.

The truth is that many of us feel selfish when we turn our attention back on ourselves. We feel like we’re not caring or helping enough.

Here’s what the universe and my wake up call taught me about that belief.

Other people cannot learn from our mistakes and will need to make their own mistakes. This is a particularly hard pill to swallow when it’s our children or those closest to us.

From a spiritual perspective, the universe will provide us with what we need and often not what we want in order to grow. If we don’t get the lesson from one experience, the universe will repeat the same lesson in a different experience. And it will be like groundhog day until we finally get it.

As much as we may want to, and as hard as it is, we can’t prevent other people from suffering.

If we look at it another way- suffering is often the trigger for much-needed growth. Without the discomfort of illness, a relationship ending, or some other crisis, we wouldn’t grow.

Abraham Maslow, an American psychologist who was best known for creating Maslow’s hierarchy of needs,  put it this way in the book Toward a Psychology of Being, “Not allowing people to go through their pain, and protecting them from it, may turn out to be a kind of over-protection, which in turn implies a certain lack of respect for the integrity and intrinsic nature and the future development of the individual” (p. 8).

In other words, when we care too much we may be stunting other people’s growth. And, I also happen to believe we are stunting our own growth because we are overly other-person focused.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to help another.  There is, however, a fine line between being there for others in a way that promotes growth and intervening in a way that stunts or prevents growth.

And, more importantly, when we try and intervene when not asked, even though our intentions are good we are interfering with the spiritual principle and the lessons we are meant to learn related to reaping what we sow.

I now realize that it’s more “helpful” to have learned how to sit with the discomfort of suffering- both my own and others than it is to put energy into trying to determine which lessons people should have and trying to prevent the hard ones from happening.

What can we “do” to let go of the worry and stress caused when the people we care about are making decisions that concern us?

  1.  Ask yourself: How does this directly impact me? If it does, then out of self-respect you may consider taking thoughtful action that honours both the other as well as yourself. When you ask this question you may notice that you get all worked up and worry about something that doesn’t directly impact you. If it doesn’t impact you directly- other than the worrying about what might happen, you can try the following:
  2. Use a God or worry box to write out your worries and turn it over to a higher power. I have used this practice in my own life and find it to be really valuable for letting go of worries that are out of my control. You can read more about how to start one here.
  3. Notice when your mind is making up stories about what might happen and bring your attention back to the present moment by taking some long, slow, deep breaths and grounding yourself in your body. Elisha Goldstein shares a STOP practice which is very helpful for the worrying mind and stressful moments.
  4. We all have a life force energy that flows through us. This energy needs to be directed somewhere. Put your energy back into your own life and create more space for the other person to live and accept responsibility for their own life and choices.

This anonymous quote sums it up nicely:

My life. My choices.

My problems.

My mistakes.  My lessons.

Not your business.

Mind your own problems before you talk about mine.

My life is not your story to tell.

  1. Spend some time reflecting and developing awareness about the root motivation of your need to help, fix, solve or impart your advice or wisdom. Is it to avoid looking more deeply within yourself and doing your own work? Is it because you are uncomfortable sitting with challenging emotions? Is it because you get your sense of self from helping others?  Is it because you have the belief that you actually know what is best for another?

And after careful reflection, if you decide that you have found that delicate balance, we’d love to hear how you arrived at it.

How have you navigated the dance between being there for others while simultaneously creating space for both your own growth and the growth of others?