Care Workers: Is There Such Thing as Caring Too Much?

There’s a thing care workers say in our field sometimes, whispered with a grave shake of the head behind a colleague’s back: “Oh, so-and-so is over-invested in the clients. It’s great she cares but she cares a little too much.” It never felt like the right take, but when I went home with a hurting heart, sometimes I thought maybe I cared too much as well.

For the last two years, I have been studying and reflecting on how workers can stay in care work without losing our well-being. Caring too much has not emerged as one of the issues.

There are some things we are too invested in, but the problem isn’t caring about our clients. I am going to talk about the real issues over three articles.

I believe that a primary cause of our pain is that we over-invest in the outcomes that we envision and hope for our clients. When we are attached to outcomes we can’t control, we set ourselves up for suffering.

I worked with a caring team of frontline workers at a shelter serving vulnerable young people. For reasons we will never understand, a young man we worked with attacked and seriously injured his friend when they were hanging out. Thankfully, the friend healed. The youth who became violent was arrested. The young man was only 17, a newcomer, smart, musically talented, and very traumatized when he came to the shelter. Before the incident, it was easy to picture two paths laid out before him: one involving mental illness, addictions, and incarceration, and another involving education, creative expression, and managed mental health. When he was arrested, it felt as though the second path was lost. Like a death, it was painful. We grieved.

Picture description: Youth seen from the back carrying a skateboard. Credit: Jeff King on Unsplash.

Hoping that young people get to experience their futures is a natural part of care. Pain and grief is impossible to avoid when tragedy threatens or destroys those futures. As we get to know young people, they begin to reveal their interests, talents and hopes. Sometimes they clearly articulate their goals and dreams, and sometimes we fill in the gaps ourselves to give some direction to our support. And in this process, we may start to get attached to the future we want for them. That attachment makes it so much harder as we watch them struggle. I think, however, that we can manage our attachment to the future. We can detach not from the young person but from that image in our minds.

Young people may not experience the future they (we) want. Of course, the injustices that suffocate the futures of young people are unacceptable. And yet, as youth workers, we have to accept that they will experience pain and struggle, and that they might die. Acceptance quiets worry, leaving a more manageable level of discomfort and sadness. When we resist reality, getting smacked in the face with it is so much more painful.

There were not only two possible futures for the young man. There were a multitude. Last I heard he wasn’t in jail at all. He had been released into the care of a family and was on medication. His situation continued to be tenuous, relying on quite a lot of things going right. However, this was already a third path I hadn’t imagined. And that is how we resist worrying about the sad path and over-investing in the path they deserve: believing that there is at least a third fork in the road.

Most importantly, we can stay in the present moment with our clients: to meet them where they’re at, enjoy them, and appreciate them for who they are now.

Audrey is an educator, counsellor, and curriculum developer running her own business in Toronto. She writes about social services, mostly.

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