Mothers: Taking Care of Everyone, All the Time, Like It or Not

sad mother holding young childOne of the common themes I come across when working with mothers experiencing depression and anxiety is perfectionism and people-pleasing. Moms get worn out when they are trying to make everyone happy all the time.

There are often good reasons for a tendency to be over-responsible for the feelings of others. Many of us come from families where there was an unspoken expectation that a child must be “good,” because one or both parents were unable to tolerate the challenge of even normal childhood misbehavior. Or sometimes, children develop an unconscious habit of caretaking for others as a way to get their own needs met.

However this pattern develops, it likely served a valuable purpose, which is why it became second nature. Children learn to intuit the moods, thoughts, and feelings of others. They modify their own behavior in an attempt to manage the responses of others. Often, this behavior is rewarded. Who doesn’t appreciate the helpful child who asks her mom if she needs a hug when she seems sad, or goes and plays quietly in her room when there is tension between her parents?

People-pleasing behavior is rewarded by friends and family, at work, and at school. A people-pleaser is there for her friends when they need support and earns the love and trust of her partner. She knows what to say and when to say it, at least most of the time. The cost of this unconscious caretaking is a loss of connection to the self. When your thoughts are focused on intuiting what others want and need, and your actions are focused on pleasing others, there is little space to experience your own feelings, thoughts, and needs. You may not even notice when your needs go unmet or when emotions are pulling for your attention. Sometimes, these unmet needs and unfelt emotions cause physical symptoms—headaches, back or stomach problems, or other tension-related difficulties. These symptoms temporarily draw our attention back to ourselves, making it harder to attend to others and focusing more attention on ourselves and our discomfort.

Having children can push what is already a difficult emotional burden into overdrive, creating anxiety, depression, exhaustion, and even worse physical manifestations. While you may have been able to keep your friends, employer, partner, and family happy before, when a baby comes into the picture, a whole new level of exhaustion ensues. Now you’re sleep-deprived, have a baby whose needs are never-ending, a partner who is stressed out, and it is truly impossible to make everyone happy. This is when, for a lot of moms, things hit a crisis point. Anxiety becomes unmanageable, or exhaustion leads to crippling depression. However, it is also an opportunity to address a long-standing pattern of behavior that has prevented you from taking care of yourself. It is a necessity to learn to increase your attunement to yourself and to let go of unconscious patterns of caretaking.

Looking at how these patterns play out in everyday life can be illuminating. You may discover that ways in which you are caring for others are based on assumptions of what people want or need from you, and that these assumptions are often wrong. You may find that your unconscious perpetual caretaking actually makes you less available when others truly do want or need something from you. So often, people-pleasing behavior leaves us resentful and feeling less generous to those we love. Compulsive caretaking can actually make us less available to others in concrete ways.

One way to begin to address people-pleasing is to become aware of how much of your thinking takes the form of “I should.” It is important to examine all the thoughts about what you should be doing/saying/feeling. Who says you “should”? What will happen if you don’t? What do you really want to do? One way of improving self-care and reducing people-pleasing is to challenge the “shoulds” whenever you become aware of them. Another is to check in with people about what they really do want and need from you, and more carefully balance the stated needs of others with what you truly need to do to take care of yourself. And making conscious choices to do for others is emotionally quite different from unconscious caretaking. It is done in the spirit of generosity, not because it is what you are supposed to do.

Learning to tune into your own feelings and needs and becoming conscious of making choices to balance them against your sense of responsibility to others is one of the most powerful ways to regain a sense of personal power. Regaining a sense of power in your life helps make you a better, stronger, and healthier mom and partner.

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Meri Levy, LMFT, therapist in Lafayette, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Adriana

    January 16th, 2014 at 6:07 PM

    I have always known that my one true calling in life was to be a wife and a mother but I guess I ndidn’t realize how much of myself I would have to give up to be really good at both of those things. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love being able to give to my family and do the things for them that they need me to do but I guess that there are times when I want to ask what about me, when is someone going to do for me the things that I am constantly doing for them without question or complaint? But I guess it goes with the territory, so I continue to do it because I kind of feel like that’s what goes along with the job description to some degree.

  • Jeff d

    January 17th, 2014 at 2:10 PM

    Okay I agree that there are alot of moms out there doing all the heavy lifting.
    But please don’t forget that their are dads out there doing their fair share as well.
    You can’t lift one to simply marginalize the other.

  • Gladys

    January 17th, 2014 at 3:45 PM

    My son is such a people pleaser and I don’t know where it all comes from. It is like this is a force within him that pushes him and compels him to always do more and work harder but I fear that it is always for all the wrong reasons. I get the sense that he is doing it not for a sense of achievement or accomplisment in himself but rather that he is seeking out something from us that he feels like he isn’t getting. But I don’t know what we don’t give him- we have always loved him, always told him how proud we are of how hard he works and his achievements. Have we somehow inadvertently led him to always seek our approval, and have to look for new ways to impress us all the time? Because he doesn’t and I have told him this and I have this fear that he is going to run himself ragged always trying to impress us or top his last action when we just want him to be happy and find what he loves.

  • Barbara

    January 18th, 2014 at 6:16 AM

    I have spent a whole lot of time feeling like I was doing the right things for other people when in reality I don’t think that they wanted this from me at all. So I wasted a whole lot of my time doing things and wearing myself out over things that others really didn’t want me doing in the first place! I don’t know what started me on that path, I guess that I have just always been a giver and this is what felt right to me, to take care of others whether they needed or wanted it from me. I hope to distance myself from those kinds of actions a little bit better because now I see that I neglected myself for a long time doing things that fifn’t make a difference to too many at all.

  • tonya c

    January 20th, 2014 at 4:57 AM

    Why should I always be the one feeling responsible for making everyone else happy? No one else feels this about me, this is my own personal journey to make my life what I want it to be. So why should I feel that it is mine to make theirs perfect?

  • Meri Levy, MA,

    Meri Levy, MA,

    January 20th, 2014 at 9:40 PM

    I really appreciate all the thoughtful comments. I think lots of moms struggle with how much to give to others and how much self-care they deserve and can allow themselves. When all the caretaking begins to take a toll on the caretaker though, it’s time to start reevaluating. I love the metaphor “Please secure your own oxygen mask before attempting to assist others.” If we become physically and/or mentally ill from excessive caregiving, we are not operating in a sustainable way for a healthy mom and a happy family.

  • Simon

    January 21st, 2014 at 3:47 AM

    I just had a thought that maybe moms who are feeling like this come from backgrounds where they were always forced or expected to be the care giver so this is a role that they have carried into their own adult lives as well. It may be that this is how they have always gotten positive recognition or it cvould be that this is so habitual for them that they know no other way to interact with other people. Regardless of the issues with which they deal I think that they are probably losing out on a whole lot in their own lives by continually trying to please others and make them happy at their expense.

  • mackenzie

    January 22nd, 2014 at 3:43 AM

    anyone can get into this pattern, mom or not. Sure momes may be a little more susceptible because they have a lot of people looking to them for a whole lot of different things, but it is not exclusive to just them.

  • Heather

    January 26th, 2014 at 8:17 PM

    Becoming a nurse first then becoming a mother, are jobs in this remit of people pleasing. Finally my job now as a psychotherapist has given rise in my understanding that I am a people pleaser and always will be, however now I am aware of it, I address it when I feel frustrated by others as it’s usually me and not them.

  • Marilyn

    January 28th, 2014 at 3:41 PM

    I have always taken care of people and now their is no one to take care of as aged parents are gone and children are adults I am in a depressed state.

  • admin2

    January 28th, 2014 at 4:17 PM

    Hi Marilyn,
    If you need someone to talk to, you can always look on the GoodTherapy.org therapist directory. Many therapists listed with us work with aging issues and depression. You can look for therapists in your area here: http://www.goodtherapy.org/advanced-search.html

    Best wishes,
    The GoodTherapy.org Team

  • Martha

    January 29th, 2014 at 8:59 AM

    This is the way it has always been for mothers and the way it will stay. This is the role that has been ingrained in us and I don’t see that changing.

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