Releasing the Role of Emotional Caretaker. ~ Bethany Webster

Via Bethany Webster
on Oct 25, 2013
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Awakening to our full power is a process of subtraction—subtracting out the toxic messages and beliefs that we’ve acquired and replacing them with beliefs that reflect our authentic and undiluted truth.

This process of subtracting out patterns and beliefs can take years but it is a worthwhile journey. Unfortunately, there’s no short-cut or way to speed it along. It’s because as we go through this messy, and often painful process our heart is being refined and tenderized to be a more spacious home for the Divine within to emerge and live through us—a vehicle for true compassion to be expressed to the world.

The parts we’d like to skip over or speed up are precisely the steps that transform us into the divine beings that we truly are at our core.

True compassion requires the full acknowledgment of suffering—not a shying away from it. I recall one day in therapy, finally allowing myself to feel the full scope of pain I had been carrying and avoiding for years. While I felt like I was being ripped to the core by this grief and pain, I had an insight that changed my view of suffering.

It was precisely when I finally let myself feel the full truth and weight of the pain I had been avoiding that I could finally validate myself in a way that was impossible before.

The thought burst within me, “Of course I would feel this pain, it makes complete sense!”, and I was able to legitimize my feelings of grief, and this legitimization allowed the grief to transform into a profound relief of peace.

It became totally clear that other people always have a reason for their feelings and actions, no matter how unreasonable or off-base they may appear. There was this sense that everyone deserves compassion because we are all in some way suffering for very legitimate reasons.

We are all in the midst of major transformation.

By allowing my heart to be carved out by a pain I thought would kill me, more space was created within it to offer love—to feel love, to receive love and to be love.

I saw that the purpose of pain and suffering is to expand our capacity to love. Not a sentimental, superficial love–but a fierce love; a love that ceaselessly seeks and embraces truth.

As female children we are taught certain things about love and emotions. Mostly we are conditioned to be good girls—nice, sweet, polite, agreeable, quiet, convenient, understanding, accommodating and compliant. We’re taught boys are not supposed to cry, but girls are expected to feel all kinds of things—but to only express the “good” feelings.

As women, many of us have become accustomed to carrying the emotional weight of those around us as a way to survive and cope with this societal expectation. This can manifest as feeling a crushing responsibility for the emotional health of our families and partners, coupled with the depletion of not caring enough for ourselves.

We may overcompensate for those in our lives that are distanced from their own emotions. We’re generally expected to focus on the welfare of others, while neglecting the welfare of ourselves.

As we desire to live more authentically and in alignment with our genuine desires, the process of subtraction begins. The beliefs and patterns of care-taking and over-responsibilty begin to feel tight and uncomfortable. We start to see the situations and patterns where we are giving away our power by carrying the emotional weight of others, while attenuating our own feelings to keep things together or maintain the peace.

We begin to desire to feel the fullness of who we are and to really live it! Over time it can transform from a simple desire, to a full-on need—a need from your soul to live in a way that is true and can hold the full expression of who you are.

This is a holy desire to live in freedom—as the love that you are.

Giving up this role can create conflict with people in our lives that are accustomed to us carrying the “feeling” function of the relationship. Things that are imbalanced or one-sided will get shaken up and stimulated to transform.

However, there is a difference between being a caring, compassionate person and allowing oneself to be the dumping ground for the emotional problems of others.

girlI was raised in the kind of family where everything looked great on the surface, but the air was noxious with resentments and unspoken anger. As a female child I learned that I was valuable when I could make everybody happy. I believed that if I was really “good,” it would solve all the problems of the family. So I did my very best to always be sweet, kind, polite, silent, cheerful, optimistic, compliant and agreeable.

It was a way to feel in control of what felt like a very unsafe environment where I had no control. A big turning point came for me as an adult when I realized this pattern was still operating.

As a woman, I was still doing my best to be a good girl, and yet I saw that it had never solved the problems of my family. I realized I was still waiting for some kind of payoff for my hard work of contorting myself to please others, and that this was an unspoken contract I had with my family of origin and with the universe: “If I’m good enough, one day, I’ll get to be a real girl! (not a doll that always pretends to be happy.)”

Sadly, I saw that I had been sacrificing myself in the hope of redeeming my family.

I had to face the powerlessness I felt as a child that caused me to adopt that survival strategy of the “good girl” and the emotional caretaker and dumping ground for others.

There was grief for all the years I spent striving and struggling to heal my family and prove my lovableness to them. It was a huge moment of seeing that my family was just incapable of knowing or seeing me the way I wanted because of their own un-healed wounds. This was nobody’s fault—just the way it was.

It opened me up to a lot of grief, anger and eventually deep compassion for them. It also freed me to fully embrace myself and my life. It’s possible to free ourselves from constricting roles and unspoken contracts

I discovered there were a lot of unspoken contracts in my family. I saw that my mother had an unspoken contract with me, expecting that I would never surpass her and always act as her therapist and advisor. My father had an unspoken contract, expecting that I would always protect him from my mother’s issues by serving as her therapist and their mediator and peacemaker.

When I decided I would not do these things anymore, the family went into crisis. The structure imploded as I set healthy boundaries and ceased to protect them from their own problems.

As the oldest daughter, it was stunning to realize I had served as the emotional caretaker of the family. The dismantling of the unhealthy structure was a heartbreaking process yet completely necessary for the greater health of all. Some family structures are strong and healthy enough to weather storms like this and some, unfortunately are not.

What women have to ask themselves in this kind of situation is, “At what cost?”

Your emotional and physical well-being is not worth the cost of protecting people (friends or family) from their own problems that they are not invested in solving or addressing.

You are not responsible for the emotions of other people.

Releasing the role of emotional caretaker for others is not only a gift to yourself—but also to others, even though they may protest when confronted with having to take back the responsibility that they had put onto you. Ultimately, it releases the responsibility and the reward back to them, for their own transformation, for their own journey. And it puts your own journey front and center in your own life.

We are each solely responsible for ourselves.

While there are definite costs to being the emotional caretaker, such as exhaustion and loneliness, there are also payoffs and we have to be willing to give those up.

Payoffs include having a feeling of control and feeling needed or valued.

Jungian analyst and author James Hollis states that the primary challenge in all relationships, whether between parents and children, or between life partners, is to honor the “otherness” of the other. What this means is to have the courage to take on the largeness of our own journey without asking our children or partners to bear it for us. It is the gift of honoring the “other” in their separateness, their “other-ness.”

It seems paradoxical that true intimacy is really possible when we fully own our own separateness and honor that in the other–their right to be “other,” to be utterly and totally themselves.

As we own our power and release ourselves from the the role of emotional caretaker, we free others to own their power.

Healthy relationships have a general balance of giving and receiving emotional support; of mutual sharing and listening. When we want to live as authentically as possible, the relationships in our lives that are the most imbalanced will be challenged to come into balance. Sometimes the process of letting go of the outdated roles we have played in our lives can feel like dying because certain aspects of us are dying off and more authentic, truer ones are emerging.

It takes incredible courage and bravery to birth yourself into authenticity, separating out who you really are from the cultural patterns and mandates we have picked up along the way. But remember that you are not alone. As you free yourself from outdated roles, women around the world are doing the same, and who you really are, in your full-bodied realness, is a gift to the world.

Some examples of releasing the emotional caretaker role:

▪   Not rushing in to solve the problems or fix the suffering of others. Instead, just being present with them.
▪   Knowing when to stop trying to explain yourself to people who are not invested in actually hearing what you have to say.
▪   Letting people have their upsets instead of rushing in to comfort, explain or apologize (especially if their upset is about their own stuff).
▪   Allowing people to have their misperceptions of you without feeling a compulsive need to correct them and make them understand you and where you’re coming from—etc.
▪   Walking away from people and situations when it’s clear they are not for your highest good, (even when they are pleading for help).
▪   Risking external disapproval for making the choices you know in your heart are right for you.
▪   Setting boundaries with people or situations that want more of your time and energy than you are willing to give.
▪   Loving and validating yourself and your body—your ideas, your feelings when other people are unable to support you because of their own wounds—without making the other person wrong

Questions to contemplate:

▪   Have you played the role of emotional caretaker for others?

▪   What role did you play in your family?

▪   Have you ever felt the responsibility or impulse to caretake?

▪   What unspoken contracts might be operating in your life? Between you and life? Between you and family members?

▪   What are you willing to do differently to own your power and give others their power back, even if it is uncomfortable or painful?

I invite you to leave a comment below on any thoughts you may have on this topic. Thank you for reading!


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Assistant Ed: Kathryn Ashworth/Ed: Sara Crolick

 {art credit: title unknown by Tran Van Can}


About Bethany Webster

Bethany Webster is a writer, transformational coach, international speaker, and what you could call a midwife of the heart. Her work is focused on helping women heal the “mother wound” so that they can step into their full feminine power and potential. In addition to writing and teaching internationally, Bethany offers online courses and a private coaching program for women leaders who desire to take a quantum leap in their leadership.


13 Responses to “Releasing the Role of Emotional Caretaker. ~ Bethany Webster”

  1. Allison says:

    Thank you for this. You’ve put many of my feeling into words I didn’t have. I feel like it can be ok.

  2. Erin says:

    Thanks for your article Bethany. I have been letting go of this role for the last two years. I have shifted relations with my parents, some 'friends', and unfortunately, my marriage is not surviving the shift. I plod along towards authenticity in my self. However, I still often find myself trying to explain my actions to some of these people. Reading this acknowledged that others understand this process. And maybe with that, I might be able to start to quiet the explanations and just feel and love this process of unfolding.

  3. Dawn says:

    Thanks for this article. It resonated (sometimes uncomfortably so) on many levels. You did a brilliant job articulating this.

  4. Bethany says:

    Hi Allison, Yes it can definitely be OK. Thanks for your comment!

  5. Bethany says:

    Hi Erin! Glad to hear you've been moving in this direction for some time. I commend your courage and commitment to your authenticity amidst the shifts in your relationships. The impulse to explain is something I can usually feel in my body. I get a certain feeling in my gut that tells me I'm over-explaining, there's a drop in energy from the other person and the balance shifts. I think we each can find our own way to decipher this one as it can be quite subtle. It can also be a fun thing to experiment with and gain confidence in. Thanks for your comment! ~Bethany

  6. Bethany says:

    Dear Dawn, thanks for your comment. I'm glad it resonated with you! ~Bethany

  7. Alison says:

    Thank you so much for this article! I have been trying to release myself from this role and have been worrying that I am being selfish (or maybe that others will perceive me as being selfish). It is reassuring to know that I am not alone.

  8. Being Hahn says:

    The waiting is particularly difficult for me. I know that everything, good and bad, passes. I recently separated from a sex addict who dumped on me for all his problems. I just started a blog ( as a sort of post mortem. I am rediscovering myself and learning to value my positives again. For the first time in a long while, I feel liberated… like I don't have to worry about and work hard to solve problems that aren't my own. I get frustrated that people won't know the full story, but I need to be okay with that.

  9. Bethany says:

    Dear Being Hahn, So happy for you in being able to finally not worry about or work hard to solve problems that are not your own. Bravo to you for your courage to heal and move on. You are making room for better things to come into your life–the more you honor yourself, the more others will too. May you always feel deserving of all that you want. With love, Bethany

  10. Bethany says:

    HI Alison, Worrying about being perceived as selfish is common. Glad you are breaking through this as many get stuck there. Keep going! Love, Bethany

  11. Lisa says:

    Thank you for this. It definitely resonated with me, too. I am 43 and when I turned 40 I started to create some massive changes in my emotional life. I have done a lot of healing work and am now reaping the benefits of it as I have been able to create a wonderful business that I couldn't have done while filled with so much self-doubt and taking on the problems of others in unhealthy ways. I used my 40th birthday as a catalyst for this 'new me' and it has been wonderful. Fortunately, my marriage and kids have benefitted greatly from this. My family of origin doesn't understand it at this point and I have distanced myself from them, but I feel in the long run we will all benefit from these changes. It just takes patience, and I do have to work at giving up any attachment to the outcomes for other people.

  12. womboflight says:

    Dear Lisa, So great to hear how you are reaping the benefits of all the work you have done. It takes guts to make these changes, especially when family of origin doesn't understand. I agree that even if they don't understand they do benefit on some level. Thanks for your comment! Bethany

  13. Virginia says:

    Wow! This article describes my childhood and daughter role in adult life perfectly.
    "Your emotional and physical well-being is not worth the cost of protecting people (friends or family) from their own problems that they are not invested in solving or addressing." I think I should have this statement tattooed on my forehead! It is good to know that I am not the only one. When I think of all the wasted time, energy and resources and the consequences of my misplaced priorities on my own husband and children, I feel great regret. But I am trusting that God will use all of it to make me into the person He has created me to be and to make a positive contribution. As I was reading from a devotional the other day, I came across a great thought – being a child of God does not mean that we never mistakes or that we never suffer. The inheritance of a child of God is that He promises to use every circumstance for our own growth and good. He won't waste anything in our life, even the things that we regret. So, we have hope even as we look back on our mistakes and shortcomings. I just wish I had been ready to face the reality about my role in my family a little sooner in life.