By Sara Joy David, Ph.D.
Published in THE NEW TIMES, Seattle, Washington
Many years ago I came across an article titled “The Compassion Trap.” The author shared insights about the dangers that all professional “helpers”, social workers, teachers, psychologists, and “helpers” (mothers, spouses, friends) encounter when understanding another gets in the way of one’s own needs and desires.
It is a gift to offer another person acceptance of her or his feelings, empathy for the circumstances she/he finds her or himself in, and, through the caring thus communicated, a sense of wellbeing. However, when the boundary between caring and catering is crossed, the costs to all outweigh any seeming benefits. What began as giving “to” becomes giving “up” – giving up one’s integrity, giving up equality, giving up a sense of self-worth.
We cater to others to gain something we do not trust they will give of their own free will, often because we erroneously think we do not deserve what we want. We compromise ourselves which inevitably leads to feelings of humiliation or resentment. Since we end up feeling used and diminished by such sacrificing, we often later end up punishing the person we have catered to.
To make things worse, the self-respect that is lost when we cater makes us vulnerable to those who cater to or surrender to us. Both parties are then faced with being unable to rely on the truthfulness of the other which undermines trust and intimacy. Both parties risk losing touch with their own inner authority and the resultant confusion can lead to needless pain and suffering.
There are many rationalizations we give ourselves for this behaviour. We imagine the other person is the only provider of a needed service or that we will not be considered or heard unless we surrender, or that we could not cope with another’s anger or withdrawal. We tell ourselves that we don’t really care which movie we see, the restaurant we go to, or activity is selected – all that we care about is being in the company of the person we are with.
Soon we may cease caring or knowing what we want. In fact, if we believe we must cater to another in order to gain that individual’s acceptance and approval, it would be an inconvenience and an interference to be aware of conflicting wants and desires of our own. Therefore,we block out potentially troublesome wants and the resulting feelings that would be evoked by unmet desires. We become numb and indifferent without any awareness of how this came about or the toll it is taking.
Usually this pattern is learned when we are small children, more often than not in our interactions with parents or other caregivers. Children who have already experienced losses, rejections, or excessive criticism are especially vulnerable since they are dependent on these adults to meet their basic needs for acceptance, approval, and affection and have been wounded by the emotional turmoil of these earlier stresses.
Those who have catered to parents, partners, and bosses, often also cater to their offspring, thus giving rise to omnipotent children who do not consider others and further victimize their parents. The world becomes increasingly unsafe for the caterer. The medical system, school system and other social or community services all include individuals who are accustomed to being deferred to and can be condescending, authoritarian or even abusive. The caterer is usually easily intimidated whenever disagreements occur and easily questions her/his own perceptions and intuitions.
It is difficult for the caterer to take a stand, defend her or himself, and find the courage to speak the truth in the face of an opposing point of view. This is the stuff of which co-dependence is made up. The parties become so entangled that it is no small task to unravel the resultant mess.
The way out begins the moment we own the pattern and become willing to observe how costly it is, how pervasive it may have become, and to glimpse the possibility of restoring the choice to be true to ourselves. Since the loss of self-respect leads to feeling powerless, the path to a more creative, honest pattern of interaction often requires great patience, persistence and willingness to face fear and do what is called for regardless. Since catering behaviour frequently sets us up to be victimized, we may have to experience, express and transform intense reactive feelings that have been denied – such as sadness, grief, guilt, frustration, anger, fear and their many variations.
The good news is that once the energy bound up in these stifled feelings is released, it becomes available for the gentleness, tenderness, love, joy and excitement that most of us long for. As we correct the mistaken, usually self-critical thoughts and belief systems that catering produces, (i.e. “I am inadequate”, “I am unworthy”, “I am incompetent”, “I am stupid”, “I am unlovable”) we open doors to empowering, truth-centred thoughts (i.e. ” I am acceptable”, “I am loving and lovable”, ” I am appreciated and valued”).
Every time we take a stand, every time we risk telling the truth the willingness and commitment to continue this freeing and empowering integrity is strengthened. An increase in self-confidence and self-esteem often accompanies such right action.
Often, catering leads to boundary blurring, to trusting others who have not earned our trust and who misuse shared information. Wounded, we may retreat from others and erect barriers that shut out potential allies. The challenge is to gain the wisdom to trust appropriately, to develop our radar systems so as to identify those still caught up in the dysfunctional patterns of expecting or demanding that others cater to them, or alternately, of surrendering their power by catering to us. We must then confront persons treating us in these ways. If they are unreceptive to feedback, we must become self-loving enough to cease relating to them for they do not offer true friendship.
The catering response has ripple effects that are often so subtle and pervasive that they become difficult to spot. It may be as seemingly minor as answering the telephone when it is not convenient or allowing others to join one at a public restaurant when there is a preference to have tea alone quietly. It may be calling a family member weekly out of felt pressure, or waiting for an inordinate length of time to accommodate a dentist, doctor, chiropractor, or lawyer. Once alert to this, similar examples present themselves to us incessantly, giving us many opportunities to change our habitual responses.
I still find that I need to be vigilant about taking the responsibility to know what I want. It requires great courage and boldness to inform others of these wants no matter what response I may then have to deal with. I find it important to acknowledge myself for every small step I take in the direction of integrity. I still fall back into catering sometimes and have to forgive myself and continue forward. Ceasing to be a caterer is one of the most worthwhile and rewarding changes a person can make in the journey to wholeness.