The capacity to care for others or ourselves is vulnerable.

Caring, like loving, can be very satisfying and fulfilling, but it can also be very painful.  If we care, we allow our feelings to depend on the behaviour and feelings of others, not just ourselves.  Caring can affect others’ feelings as well as our own, but it cannot control them totally.

It can be destroyed by our own defences against pain; by alcohol, by legal or illegal drugs. It can be destroyed by training, by war, by abusive upbringing, by trauma.  In childhood it can be damaged by traumatic separation from loving parent-figures.

Caring can be diverted, so that we care more for an ideal, someone or something we feel is bigger or better than any real, human, imperfect actual person; which can lead to acts of heroism or terrorism, of creativity or destruction.

It can be subverted, so we think we are doing something caring when in fact we know we really intend to damage, to hurt, to spoil something good.

It can be misguided or misinterpreted or misunderstood, so we think we are doing something caring when to someone else it looks destructive.  Caring may include having to destroy something.

Our care for our mothers is deeply connected to our care for ourselves.  On a symbolic level, our care for our environment, for our society, our institutions, our religion, our family may all be based upon our care for our mothers, and our awareness of how we were (or were not) loved and cared for when we were very small.  Often, when working with people who are ill, I have found that they are more concerned about and for their families than they are about or for themselves.

Conversely, if we are to live our own lives and care for our own children, at some point we have to break free from caring primarily for our actual mothers.  If we are lucky, we will feel we have our mother’s approval for this separation; but we may not be.

The concept of a ‘Good Object’ encapsulates the observation (made by psychoanalysts), that we have a sense of an idealised mother/father-figure, both inside and around us, who protects and loves us, and is both protected and loved.  For some people this figure is robust; it can tolerate a certain amount of anger, or displeasure or disapproval without being destroyed; for others, the slightest attack or damage means that a brittle, cartoon-like Good Object splinters into a thousand smithereens, leaving a multiplicity of Bad particles. (One of the characteristics of a Good Object is that it is whole; when we are angry, unconsciously, in fantasy we can cut or chop or bite it up into many bits, which may then be felt to be attacking back from all directions, or hanging over us as the ‘black cloud’ of depression.)

A robust Good Object helps us to hold onto our belief in goodness, our hope for the future, our hope that our own badness will not outweigh the good in us.

‘I don’t care’ is a child’s ultimate defence against powerful adults.  It is usually a lie, and known to be one by all concerned.

The capacity to care for others and the self can be split off, so that the person is totally unaware of it for a time.  See ‘Tearing the hair off a doll’ (


About thetroublewithillness

I've been a counsellor for people with physical illnesses for a long time now, and learnt a lot about what it's like living with your own or someone else's illness. I want to pass some of this on.
This entry was posted in carers, emotions related to illness, health, relationships, talking about feelings and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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