06/06/2013 11:01 am ET | Updated Aug 06, 2013

Are You a Caretaker?

Life happens. Circumstances change. You get married. You have kids. You work full time. You might get divorced. You might become a single parent. You might get laid off. Your kids will grow up and move out (hopefully). Regardless of the shifting life events, it's vital to your emotional well being to understand the difference between caretaking and being responsible.

Responsibility is the ability to respond to your environment, your circumstances, and to those within your circle of influence. It's also the ability to respond to your thoughts, your words, your deeds, your choices, and your decisions.

All too often you might find yourself stretched and stressed by what you believe are your responsibilities, but in reality are not. You might just be a caretaker if:

  • You're late for work because little Suzy forgot her homework and you brought it to school for her.
  • You stay up late compiling a report for your boss' presentation to the CEO tomorrow morning
  • You pick up little Tommy's trail of dirty clothes even though Tommy is fully capable of doing that himself
  • You blame yourself for the choices and decisions other people make
  • You say yes to everyone else but yourself

I remember when my first husband left for greener grasses. I was beyond overwhelmed. I had a house that needed repairs from a recent ice storm, one daughter in college and the other in high school, a demanding career, and a failed first marriage. I thought I was responsible for the entire mess I found my life in. Five months after my divorce was final I was diagnosed with breast cancer. And that's when I learned the true meaning of responsibility.

My life became my number one priority and my number one responsibility. No one was going to take better care of me then me. During my Summer of Chemotherapy, I realized that although I thought I was able to respond to the needs of my teenage children, they had to learn how to respond to their own needs. They didn't need me to do their laundry, pack their lunch, or make sure their homework was done.

I began to teach my children to take responsibility for their own lives, their own choices, and their own decisions. In teaching them I learned that what I had been doing nearly my entire adult life was "caretaking," which masquerades as being responsible.

Melody Beattie, the author of The Language of Letting Go, defines caretaking as "the act of taking responsibility for other people while neglecting responsibility for ourselves."

Beatty asserts that caretaking "involves caring for others in ways that hamper them in learning to take responsibility for themselves." I believe her. I never held my ex-husband accountable for the choices he made. If he spent too much money, I figured out a way to take care of it. In fact, I got us out of serious debt not once but twice! When my ex told me he had an affair, I figured something must be wrong with me. I ended up taking on his actions as if they were my responsibility. In reality I did a huge disservice to both of us because caretaking doesn't work.

Caretaking is a breeding ground for resentment, anger, and broken relationships. If you mistake caretaking for responsibility, you are sending a loud and clear message, "I don't think you are capable of responding to this situation." If you are the one receiving this message, you might feel victimized and you might want to shoot laser beams through your death stare at she who thinks she's being responsible.

I was lucky. I became aware of my backward thinking. Breast cancer taught me how to take responsibility for myself -- my thoughts, my words, my actions, and my circumstances. And it also taught me to allow my children and even my ex-husband to take responsibility for themselves.

I challenge you to take an inventory of your responsibilities and hold each one up to the litmus test and ask yourself if you are caretaking or being your true, authentic, responsible self.