The Caretaking Trauma Response: How We Try to Earn Love Through Acts of Service

Have you ever spent time with a person or a group of people and found yourself becoming the resident care-taker? Suddenly, you’re making sure everyone’s had enough to eat, checking in on people’s feelings, asking if anyone needs a refill on their drink or to sit down for a second? If so, did you get home and realize you were physically, mentally, and emotionally drained? Maybe you realized that while you were tending to everyone else, you completely neglected yourself?

I think there are many reasons why some of us default to this caretaking behavior, but today I’m going to focus on one reason in particular: caretaking as a trauma response.

Whether it was in our childhoods or later in adult life, some of us learned that love has to be earned. Someone showed us that love was given conditionally, based on what we had to offer. When we failed to provide enough of whatever it was they wanted—time, attention, money, affirmation, or whatever other limited resource we had—they withdrew their love. We are smart people, able to notice patterns and adapt to them. So, with time, we learned that the best way to receive consistent, if unsatisfying, love was to keep giving whatever we had to anyone who wanted it.

But at least we were loved, right?

The thing about striving to earn love is that eventually we reach into our pockets and have nothing left to give. And, as many of us have learned, coming up empty usually means finding ourselves alone. No longer in possession of whatever resources we used to purchase love, approval, and belonging, we learn that we are expendable. Unremarkable. Useless.

And this, my friend, is trauma.

No one likes to feel discarded. Especially when it feels like the discarding is a response to our sudden lack of value in the eyes of the person we thought loved us. As a result, we adapt once again. We plunge ourselves into the business of earning our keep. We resolve to never run out of value—to become an endless vessel of tangible resources that we can trade for love and acceptance.

We resort to over-achieving, working tirelessly to accomplish more and more. If we have the right connections, can open the right doors, maybe we will be worthy of love. If we have enough prestige, enough clout, enough money, then people will love and value us.

We become hyper-vigilant, constantly monitoring the environment to see if anyone’s needs have gone unmet. We get so consumed with everyone else’s needs that we don’t notice our own, catering to everyone else while simultaneously disappearing into the background. We nourish ourselves from the fleeting goodness of being accepted, yet in the quiet of our own thoughts, we feel desperately alone.

Dear reader, I’m here to tell you that this is no way to live. It’s not what we deserve. It’s not meant to be the way we sustain relationships with others.

I’m learning that the worth I bring to the table resides within me. I have intangible worth—incalculable value that should be evident to everyone who knows me. You have the same. Our caretaking as a means of earning love was created in us by someone (or many someones) who treated our worth indelicately. They told us that our worth was measured only in what we could offer to them, and because our self-esteem wasn’t fully formed yet, we believed them. So, we went on to devote our lives to the exhausting work of caretaking in order to not lose love.

It’s time to let go of that.

When we notice ourselves resorting to the trauma response of caretaking in a relationship, it’s time to reevaluate that relationship. A positive side effect of trauma responses is that they tell us something about our environment. When we find ourselves leaning into a trauma response, that’s when we need to take a critical look at our surroundings. If we are defaulting to people pleasing and care taking, that means we do not feel safe, loved, or accepted in that environment. The people in our orbit are giving us signals that we need to earn their love and approval, so we get to work.

The right environments and relationships won’t trigger our trauma responses. In fairness, we may always struggle with the automatic reflex toward caretaking when we feel uncomfortable in our relationships. However, the right relationships won’t keep us in that caretaking state for long. They will reassure us of our worth. They will notice when we are caretaking and will gently coax us out of that role. Most importantly, they will constantly remind us that we are worthy of love, regardless of what we bring (or don’t bring) to the table.

If your relationships don’t feel like that, it’s time to have some hard conversations. And if you’ve had those conversations and nothing is changing, dear one, I think it may be time to consider walking away.

You deserve to have people in your life who love you for who you are, not for what you can do.

Amber Wardell is a doctor of psychology and author who speaks on women’s issues related to marriage, motherhood, and mental health. Subscribe to the free newsletter to get exclusive content delivered to your inbox and to never miss an upload.


One thought on “The Caretaking Trauma Response: How We Try to Earn Love Through Acts of Service

  1. My husband have been married going on 6 years and together for 12 years. I have been in therapy for the last 5 years and I have realized that I’m a caretaker. I have worked so hard the entirety of our relationship to earn his love just for him to withdraw it to control me in some way or other. He’s also an addict, however that’s more recent. Through my hard work with Nar-anon and my therapist, I have learned what triggers my caretaking response and started focusing on self care. What I have come to understand is that the love I thought I was working so hard for wasn’t genuine or healthy. I love this article and I will be sharing it with everyone I know so it may help someone who is a caretaker save themselves from years of exhaustion and mental/emotional anguish. Thank you Amber for posting this.

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