Caretaker Overkill


I’ve written about how my brain chases dopamine hits and that, for years, a big way that hit came was in the form of food.


In an effort to find non-food, non-addiction-based hits of dopamine, I asked some friends what they do to take care of themselves, to be kind to their bodies and minds.


The responses all involved time and/or money: Massage. Facial. Spending time with a friend. Pool time. Pedicure.


While these all sound lovely, the “cost” of time and money acted as a barrier to entry for me.


One friend shared that she had recently found a local beauty school that provided $10 styling sessions. She got her hair shampooed, conditioned, and styled for only $10. Amazing! She decided to gift herself this $10 treatment every Friday.


Every Friday.


That’s $40 a month!


The thing is, she’s not spending $40 a month to get her hair done. I mean, she is, but ultimately, she’s spending $40 a month to be treated. To be taken care of. Pampered. To sit and do nothing for a set amount of time.


I’ve been learning more and more about a therapy modality called Internal Family Systems (IFS). The idea is that inside our minds are many parts. Just like a human family is made up of many members, within each of us are a host of characters (or parts) that make up the family of our internal world.


To use food as an example, one part might want to indulge in food for comfort with the message, “You’re not really going to keep yourself from having a treat, are you? You worked so hard this week. You deserve to have however much you want of whatever you want.”


Another part might want to control what we put in our bodies with the message, “Don’t eat that. You know what happened last time. Leave the kitchen and don’t come back until dinner.”


These two characters would be the Indulger and the Controller, respectively. In this example, the two parts are at odds, which often creates internal conflict. One message says, “eat it; you deserve it” and the other says, “don’t you dare; walk away.”


These parts were often created in childhood when, whether real or perceived, we needed some form of protection. Both the Indulger and Controller are trying to protect in the above example. The Indulger is protecting us from feeling the fatigue, letdown, and burnout of a hard week’s work. The Controller is protecting us from eating too much and feeling poorly or gaining weight.


Another part of the family is the Caretaker. I recently read a description of the Caretaker, with regard to food addiction, that noted the Caretaker sometimes uses food as fuel.


To take it further, in my own terms, the Caretaker might tell me I need to make sure I eat enough before engaging in an activity, so I don’t end up feeling depleted. It could go further and try to convince me that if I feel depleted, I might end up eating my feelings later, so it’s best to eat “enough” (meaning more) now to prevent a collapse later.


In a different scenario, the Caretaker might team up with the Indulger and craft a story that I deserve a treat as a reward for showing up and doing something hard, even if it was something I chose to do. For example, I used to get a chai at Starbucks after almost every audition. It was my way of rewarding myself for showing up and doing the work. High five!


Within the IFS world, the way to work with our parts is to get to know them, to understand how they are trying to protect us, and to ask them how old they think we are. Often, our parts think we are quite young. They were created in childhood to protect us but never got the message that we grew up, circumstances have changed.

Enter the Authentic Self.

The Authentic Self is your current age. The Authentic Self gets introduced to each part and is used as a way of helping the parts release their grip. The Authentic Self shows a part how old you currently are. The Authentic Self makes decisions based on the realities of the world as it is today, not based on the fears and wounds of our pasts.


Back to my quest for a dopamine hit that doesn’t involve food. Back to my resistance to spending time or money in order to obtain such a hit.


A friend and I recently discussed this Caretaker part. I was familiar with the Indulger, Controller, and Authentic Self, but the Caretaker was new to me. I had previously only been identifying with the ways in which my Caretaker encouraged me to eat as a means of preparing for a long day or as a way of soothing after taking a risk.


In exploring this Caretaker part, I hadn’t yet brought my Authentic Self into the picture, and I hadn’t gotten curious around what other messages the Caretaker might be feeding me.


When my friends shared their tender ways of treating themselves that involved spending time or money, it triggered my “there’s not enough” messaging system. This message shows up in many areas of my life, and I imagine it is the cry of a lot of my parts. If my parts are protecting me, protecting me from running out of time, energy, food, and money, they will tell me whatever they need to in an effort to keep me from taking risks in these areas.


Because I have a basic fear of not having enough, it stands to reason my Caretaker would not want me to spend time or money!


I can’t believe I’ve never seen this before!

In order to keep me safe, to make sure I don’t run out of time or money, my Caretaker tells me I don’t have time to go for a walk with a friend, don’t have enough money to get a pedicure. Because of the belief that I don’t have the time or money, the Caretaker feeds me a line that it’s not worth the risk. The Caretaker, seeing me as a vulnerable child, is trying to protect me from wasting my time and money. Two limited resources.


But remember, my Authentic Self is my current age. She knows how much money I actually have. How much time I have. She also knows that I never spend money treating myself. She knows my struggles with food. She knows the state of my emotions. She sees the bigger picture and can make an informed, mature, adult decision.

This realization blew my mind. I wish that identifying it meant the Caretaker was off blissfully sleeping somewhere, never to be awakened again. She’s not. She’s currently acting like that annoying little kid who incessantly taps their mom’s leg, saying, “Mom, Mom, Mom, Mom, Mom”. She’s not convinced that her view of the world isn’t current. It may take some time for my Caretaker part to trust my Authentic Self, but, thanks to this realization, we’re off to a pretty good start.

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