By Beverly Rodgers MS, LMFT, PhD
Published in Christian Counseling Today, Spring 2003 Issue
Not all addictions have a negative connotation. There are some addictive behaviors that the world and even the church applaud. Churches praise the pastor who puts his needs aside to be available to his congregation 24/7. Patients love self-sacrificing physicians who have great bedside manner and go the extra mile. Clients admire the Christian counselor who makes him or herself available for evening and weekend appointments. After all, aren’t these caretakers following the scriptural mandate in Galatians 6:2 to “bear one another’s burdens and thus fulfill the law of Christ.” Are they not following a Godly example as depicted in Psalm 147:3 when the psalmist talks of “healing the brokenhearted and binding up their wounds?” Shouldn’t we esteem and commend these caring behaviors? The answer is not as simple as it might seem.
Years ago, I treated a husband and wife team who were very successful in their respective careers. They had sold everything they had to move to Charlotte, North Carolina because they thought that God was calling them to work with a large televangelism ministry. This put tremendous stress on their marriage. Within a few short years, the ministry folded in scandal, leaving them devastated. They were spiritually depleted and emotionally drained. While their sacrifice was admirable, their motivation was unhealthy. This couple felt guilty about the success they had received so they thought they had to spurn prosperity and accomplishment by imposing sacrifice and suffering on themselves. They thought that they could earn God’s approval by self -sacrifice and martyrdom.
Another client, a minister, felt terrible guilt if he was not readily available to everyone in his five-hundred-member church. His guilt contributed to his low self-esteem and depression. He felt like it was his duty to care this much for the people God sent to him. He took Romans 12:1 literally, and actually gave his body as a living sacrifice in Christian service to emulate Christ.
These people suffer from what I call care addiction. They are careaholics. Their caring has moved beyond what is praise-worthy and has actually become extremely unhealthy for them. The reason I know this condition so well is because I suffered from it. Twenty- two years ago my husband took his first pastorate in a young growing church. I had just finished my master’s degree in marriage and family therapy and saw that the needs in our church and community were indeed great. I was the only Christian-based trained counselor in the area and people seemed to come out of the woodwork to see me. My heart ached so much for them that I had a hard time turning anyone away. Not to mention the fact that I did not have anyone to refer to. While this made practice-building easy, there were many pitfalls to my blessings. My over-caring caused me to schedule too many people, take too many phone calls and give too much of myself in sessions. I mistakenly thought that if these clients asked me for help, then God must have sent them and it was my Christian duty to see them. I over-loaded my schedule to the point of utter exhaustion but, like my minister client, felt that I was doing this as a sacrifice to God. I thought that it was my Christian obligation and good use of the gifts that God had given me. I did not know it then, but I was a careaholic.
What is careaholism? It is a spin-off of work addiction but with a noble conscientious twist that makes it feel more acceptable. The truth is that caring is a wonderful attribute when the motivation is purely altruism and compassion. But when the impetus for caring is to make you feel better about yourself or more acceptable to the Lord and others, then it can become addictive.
Careaholics care for others to medicate their sense of inadequacy and worthlessness. They depend on their profession to meet their emptiness inside. They have a compulsive need to feel overly responsible for others. Often they feel like they owe God a life of caring service in trade for their salvation. This cheapens grace because God’s love is a free gift to his children and can never be earned.
Why do people become careaholics? Like any addictive behavior, there is an exhilaration involved in caring for others. In a recent interview, a tireless volunteer at the World Trade Center ruins was asked the question why he worked full-time and volunteered every evening at ground zero. He said that it gave him a “high.” Caring can make you high, especially if part if the excitement is serving the Lord. Unfortunately, like any addiction, it will eventually prevent you from reaching the Lord even when the behavior is designed to help you try to be closer to Him.
Another reason why counselors and pastors fall prey to careaholism is the sense of significance they receive from caring. Often the sense of “If I don’t care, then who will?” causes them to feel important when they see that they can make a difference. Carmen Renee Berry in her book, When Helping You Is Hurting Me, refers to this as the messiah complex. Careaholics like feeling the all-powerful and all-knowing sense that they are capable of solving everyone’s problems. This can mistakenly enable Christians to feel like they are being Christ-like. Unfortunately, this is not the case because they are ministering from their own unhealthy need and not from Christ’s strength within them.
Many people become careaholics to avoid dealing with their own pain, especially from their families-of-origin. Career development studies indicate that some professions draw more careaholics than others. A high concentration of adult children of dysfunctional families is found in helping fields such as counseling, social work and the clergy. When I was deep into my care addiction, I did not realize that I was avoiding dealing with my unresolved feelings of hurt from my family by focusing on the pain of others. I unconsciously gravitated to the counseling field in some ways to heal my own dysfunctional family.
Like so many people helpers, addiction was rampant in my family. I played the role of the hero and caretaker. When chaos was all around me, I would manage to rescue the situation and make everything all right. I became good at, so good that I did not have time to care for myself, so good in fact, that I did not have to look inside or feel my feelings. In the book, We are Driven: The Compulsive Behaviors America Applauds, Hempfelt, Minirth, and Meier state that addiction-prone families produce driven people who practice compulsive behaviors in an effort to compensate for the family shame or anesthetize the memory of deeply buried family pain. My careaholism provided an avenue for me to quell the shame of my family’s addiction as well as avoid dealing with the pain that it had caused.
How to heal? Healing my care addiction was one of the hardest pieces of work I have ever had to do. First, it involved a recognition that I really did have problem. Then I knew that I had to feel the original pain from my family-of-origin that I was burying in my addictive behavior. I needed guidance in doing this, which meant that I had to receive help instead of always being the one giving it. Many counselors are more comfortable giving than receiving which causes them to resist getting counseling for themselves. Robert Epstein in his 1977 Psychology Today article, “Why Shrinks Have So Many Problems,” says that human service professions can be hazardous to your health if you do not know when and how to seek help. This can be particularly true for care addiction because it seems like such a necessary, noble notion, that many do not readily see the need for help.
One study by James Guy PhD, Dean of the School of Psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary, found that while three out of four therapists surveyed reported being distressed, they were reticent to enter counseling because of feelings of embarrassment, doubts concerning the efficacy of therapy, and a sense of superiority that hindered their own need for treatment. Seeking help in facing your childhood pain can be very helpful in healing care addiction.
Discovering God’s unconditional love and finding new ways to experience it also aid in recovery from care addiction. As I stated earlier, many careaholics feel unworthy so they try to earn God’s love and approval. Developing a healthy understanding of grace helps them see that God’s favor is a gift, which tends to stop them from their compulsive over caring behaviors.
The last thing that helped me recover from my care addiction was learning how to practice self-care. Slowing down and finding ways to nurture myself really helped me find balance in my life. I developed a support group of other helping professionals who could not only keep me accountable but also fellowship with me and lend their support and prayers. I learned to laugh and play more and not be so serious. I worked on building my marriage. Often this is an ignored area of support, especially if your spouse is in a helping profession as well. Both my husband and I practiced romancing each other and enjoying the lighter things of life more.
Being a people helper is one of the greatest callings in life. It is indeed a sacred honor, but taking this call too seriously or having unhealthy motives can taint the gift of healing which God has entrusted to us. Learning to care in a balanced sensible way is pleasing to the Lord, as well as healthy for our clients and ourselves.
About the Author
Beverly Rodgers, MS. LMFT co-owns Rodgers Christian Counseling and The Institute for Soul Healing Love with her husband Tom in Charlotte, North Carolina. She has 22 years of experience in private practice. She and her husband conduct workshops across the country, train pastors and counselors in marriage counseling, and speak at many AACC workshops. Together they have co-authored three books Soul-Healing Love, How to Find Mr. Or Ms Right, and Adult Children of Divorced Parents.
Robert Epstein, “Why Shrinks Have So Many Problems.” Psychology Today 30 (1997): 58-65.
James Guy, Wade Wahl, Catherine Brown, Joan Brady, “The Relationship Between Psychotherapist Burnout and Satisfaction with Leisure,” Psychotherapy in Private Practice 12 (1993): 51-57.
We are Driven: The Compulsive Behaviors America Applauds (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1991),119.
Carmen Renee Berry, When Helping You is Hurting Me (New York: HarperCollins, 1988).