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The Shadow Side of Caring

Friday, September 28, 2012 by Marianne Elliott

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Everyone carries a Shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.” – Carl Jung

All Superheroes have a Shadow Side.

In fact some people have argued that Batman is only a superhero because he has embraced his Shadow Side, without this self-knowledge (and the power that comes with it) Bruce Wayne would not be Batman and that it is in the very recognition his Shadow Side, that Bruce Wayne gives rise to Batman.

In her book “Superheroes and Superegos: Analyzing the Minds Behind the Masks”, Sharon Packer describes a new kind of superhero who emerged in 1973 (the year after I was born). These were anti/heroes who had, in Packer’s words, confronted their Shadow Side. One of my favorites is Wolverine, perhaps because – like me – Wolverine had been exposed to war, death and killing and had experience of mental illness. In order to ‘recover’ from his psychosis and become Wolverine the hero, he had to learn to work with his Shadow Side.

Jung also said that:

In spite of its function as a reservoir for human darkness—or perhaps because of this—the shadow is the seat of creativity.”

So it made sense to me to follow up my interview with Batman and my post about my own superpower (caring) with an exploration of the shadow side of caring. What are the murky motivations or hidden risks in caring? And how can I be more aware of those shadows, so that my caring – and the action it motivates – is more conscious, more constructive.

The Shadow Side of Caring

Last week I visited a healer trained in the traditional use of herbal remedies. Given what I wrote last week about my superpower you may not be surprised that the very first comment she made, as she assessed me, was:

You need medicine for a caregiver.”

I nodded.

Not in the sense of someone who takes physical care of another person,’ she continued, ‘but in the sense of someone who cares deeply for the earth and for the people on the earth, and who has lost the boundaries they need to be able to take care of themselves.”


The reason I write, read, study and teach about practices that help us care for ourselves when we feel called to care for others, is because this is the medicine I need too. This is what I need to learn, what I am constantly learning.

I believe we can do good and be well. But I also believe it takes work. It takes a willingness to ask some hard questions, like ‘What are my real motivations for ‘doing good’?’ and ‘What harm might I be doing to myself or others when I think I am ‘doing good’?’

What are the perils of caring? What is the Shadow Side of my so-called ‘superpower’? As usual when I have a hard question, I asked my wise friends. These were some of their answers.

Overwhelm, Burnout and Compassion Fatigue

“Anger, overwhelm, rage and shutdown are what happens to me when I care too much. What fuels you to get involved in the first place can be the flame that ends up burning you.” – Davian Den Otter

“It is so easy to drain yourself before you realise that you’ve given too much time energy and money to others and you are running on empty.” – Grace Bower


“Love does not manifest as a greedy concern for others, and in fact overconcern interferes with the flow of love because it can be a compensation for a lack of the capacity to really let yourself go with love. Instead it masks an undercurrent of control and manipulation and is more about meeting our needs than loving the other.” – Lianne Raymond

Disappointment, Resentment and Frustration

“What about the possible and inevitable letdown. Heartache. Heartbreak. Loss?” – Julie Einstein

“I have to accept that I care – and sometimes others don’t. I can talk to them about it – but I can’t always expect that they will hear me.” – Sue

“Feeling like you don’t receive as much caring as you give, because you give so much.” – Helen Lehndorf

Caring vs Interfering

“Sometimes caring can translate into rescuing which really isn’t helpful to either party in the long run.” – Arihia

“What about caring so much that we interfere with someone’s experience. We may try to control or direct the outcome of their issue and end up preventing them from gaining insight or wisdom. Everyone gets their lessons whether or not we want them to.” – Vance

“Caring is a wonderful superpower. But caring to much and being “involved” can just be too much. I know some very caring people in my life (I think I am one) but I sometimes want to say “butt out”. There is a fine line between caring and interfering.” – Cameron

Murky Motivations

“We often think we’re coming from a genuinely altruistic place, but when we’re honest with ourselves and dig deeper, we find that we’re not. For me, that makes the difference between resentment, burn-out, etc and the altruistic caring which expects nothing and seems to have natural boundaries and detachment.” – Mahala Mazerov

“Motivation is all-important. If we’re *expecting* certain outcomes for ourselves or others as a result of our actions, we’re bound to be disappointed (as all situations are infinitely complex), and this disappointment leads to burnout and resentment.” – Helen Kemp

What does it all mean?

To me, this all serves as a reminder. None of it is new to me. If you’ve read Zen Under Fire, or been reading my posts for the past six years, you know this is territory I’ve been exploring for a long time. I’ve been asking myself the hard questions, checking my own motivations and noticing when my expectation or need for control are getting in the way of my being of service.

And yet, I still find myself getting overwhelmed, over-tired and over-wrought. Over and over again I have to come back to the basics. Which – for me – means coming back to these fundamental truths:

  • I am enough, even if I can’t save the world (so it’s okay to have a rest)
  • It’s not all up to me (so I don’t have to do this alone)
  • I am not in control (so I won’t always get the ‘outcomes’ I hope for)
  • I don’t know everything (so it’s okay to make mistakes)

I come back to my breath and my body, and I come back to my yoga mat. And I ask myself again, what is it that I can do to be of service that will also nourish and nurture me. Because when I’m well-nourished, I can serve others. It’s a message we hear so often, and yet it still seems so hard to absorb. So I’ll keep repeating it for you, and for me.

What can you do this weekend that will nourish you at least as much as it serves others?

My answer is: decorate my new home and then curl up on our new couch and read. 

What’s yours?


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3 Responses to "The Shadow Side of Caring"

  1. Åsa says:

    Wow! This post really hit home!!

    I’m on my way home frome work, just quickly browsing through the emails in my personal mail box before I close down the office. I thought I’d just quickly read through this post but I couldn’t stop reading. I felt like I had to absorb every word of it. It really started something off in my head and in my heart. Thanks for sharing your interesting world with us.

  2. LaGitane says:

    Such a true post. I think all people who work in service to a community must struggle with these exact issues. I am a huge fan of the Buddhist practices around compassion – lovingkindness meditation for example, which allow you to be compassionate without equating compassion to action. It’s very un-Western – but sometimes that is exactly what we need – to be OK to feel, and then let go.

  3. Lubna says:

    Sorry, I was away for a long time, my blog where I had blogrolled you is no longer operational (I shut it down), and I had forgotten your url. Glad to be back. Even happier that you took some “me” time. Hope you had a great weekend.

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