We are the Lost Children. With no steady parental guidance we can become the caretakers of our own parents who are emotionally, just children in adult bodies. We may have experienced raising or being raised by siblings, or being left to our own devices, coming home to an empty house to spend our nights alone. No structure, no protection, surrounded by chaos or addiction and unpredictability - these kinds of things can turn us into Little Parents.
We grow up too fast and learn to get love by taking care of others. And yet, no one takes care of us. This yields a sense of deep sadness and a mourning for a childhood that eluded us. It yields a sense of rage of our own powerlessness over love, rejection and abandonment because these are all tied up into one thing: learned self-abandonment. It leads to an outside-in orientation that we must unlearn if we wish to find true fulfillment in our lives.
I remember being a child that was highly attuned to both of my parent’s emotions. I was always very sensitive; always watching, observing and feeling. I could feel the depths of my mother’s hopelessness and confusion and my father’s anger and sadness. I knew they were both good people that deserved better than what they were doing to each other. From my perspective both were villains and victims, but I was regularly coached to view my father as the monster.
I was one of six children, number three, the youngest of the girls and older than my three brothers. There are pictures of me in a pink onesie crashing my sisters' play table and destroying their little party. I’m having the time of my life, they are both crying. There is still that part of me that relishes ruining things and maybe it comes from feeling like an outsider. Ok, so maybe I wasn’t always an empath…nurture vs nature, anyone?
With so many siblings, and for all intents and purposes being raised by a single mom, with my dad working and traveling a lot, there wasn’t always time or attention and available for me. My mother never let motherhood stop her from pursuing her dreams, which was a blessing and a curse. She was Miss Congeniality in the Miss Illinois pageant, a professional racquetball player, a local soap star and actress, model and aerobics instructor for 26 years all while being an active member in our church. I instinctively learned to get love by helping my parents, by being a good girl: “mom’s little angel." I wanted them to be happy. I began to take care of their emotional needs because mine "were not important." This is what I learned. There were a handful of early childhood moments that really cemented this concept in that if I were to be worthy of love, I’d have to be useful. I’d have to be available, loyal and self-sacrificing. I became a therapist, a cheerleader and a comedian very early on. I would offer comfort and reassurance when my mother would cry, I would champion my parent’s causes, I would take on the role as the family jester to get attention and to break through the tension of the volatile anger that could unpredictably erupt when my father returned home.
All of the kids, as we grew, learned to laugh in the face of anger. It was our only coping mechanism for dealing with what we saw as irrational and weak behavior. My mother heavily judged and chastised my father’s rage, she took the road of passive aggression through manipulation and shame. Her aggression was viewed as appropriate and palatable while his was unacceptable. I learned to bury my rage, numb my feelings and to navigate my world externally to survive and get the love and acceptance I so craved. My nickname was Private Smiley when I joined the Army because I would burst out laughing when the drill sergeants would scream at us. Not good. Boy, I did a lot of push-ups...but I did learn to look more into laughter as a defense and protective mechanism.
It wasn’t until I had my first long-term adult relationships that I realized I was unconsciously playing out all of the buried and the not so secret dysfunction in my family. There were patterns of betrayal, addiction, enabling, numbing and avoiding emotions. I had married a caretaker who wanted me to help him take care of his family. At the end, I was surprised to learn that he didn’t know who I was. I didn’t know who I was. I had been reacting and attending to the needs of others - I was never really loyal to myself and what I wanted. I took crumbs, scraps and downplayed the importance of my own wants and dreams. Deep down, I didn’t think I was worthy of having what I wanted.
Let's talk about you now. What's your story? What are the memories that float to the surface when you think of childhood? Do you see yourself in any part of my story? Was there time and attention for you or did you have to fight for it? Perhaps you gave up and learned to depend on no one.
Some signs you may have become an emotional caretaker:
You often tailor your behavior to consider other's feelings before you speak or act.
You like to make your intentions crystal clear so there’s no confusion.
You over-communicate so that people can “get it.”
You think that if you can communicate perfectly, they’ll finally "understand” you.
You will always err on the side of being overly available.
You have trouble saying no…mostly to that romantic interest.
You instinctively think of your needs second. Outside stimulus and needs will cause you to snap into helpful mode.
You feel anxious and worried about how others may react to your real needs and wants.
You worry that if you don’t take care of someone else’s feelings you will be rejected.
You will worry about others feeling abandoned and neglected (like you do) when you don’t put them first.
You are hurt and angered by other's lack of consideration because you are carefully considerate.
You may not know how to ask for space since you weren't taught proper boundaries.
You may not understand other's need for space and take it personally.
Many of these are not bad traits, in fact, they make you a very compassionate, empathic person who's kind and considerate. It makes you a beautiful person, a good friend, and a loyal partner. Again, not a bad thing. It's only bad when it runs your life and your ability to be authentic because you are so worried about others. It becomes a bad thing when you take yourself for granted and you see a pattern of others doing the same to you. Sound familiar? If you are the family empath, then you are likely an emotional caretaker.
Here are some questions to help you to re-orient yourself to an inside-out approach: