Codependency: Are You Caretaking or Caregiving?

Caregiving is a healthy and compassionate act of providing support and assistance to someone in need, such as a family member, friend, or loved one.

Caretaking, in contrast, is a behavior associated with codependency, where a person takes on the role of “fixer” or “rescuer” in a relationship.

Young woman hug man tied to boyfriend in relationship. Girl embrace guy in codependent unhealthy couple relations.

Codependent individuals often derive their self-esteem and sense of self-worth from the approval and validation they receive from others, especially the person they are dependent on. This need for external validation can lead to caretaking behavior, which is a central aspect of codependent relationships.

Caretaking is often motivated by unhealthy, self-serving goals, whereas caregiving is a selfless act based on genuine empathy and love.

Codependent caretaking can be unhealthy for both parties involved, as it can perpetuate dysfunction and prevent personal growth and autonomy.

What is Caretaking?

Caretaking refers to the act of taking responsibility for the physical, emotional, or practical needs of another person.

While caretaking may appear as caregiving on the surface, the underlying motivations, goals, and expectations differ significantly.

Motivations and Goals

The motivation and goals of caretaking for codependents are often driven by deep-seated emotional needs and dysfunctional patterns of thinking and behavior.

Although a caretaker’s intentions may appear genuine, their primary motivation behind helping and supporting others is to receive appreciation and feel a sense of purpose.

Codependents often have a strong need for external validation and approval. They believe that by caring for others and meeting their needs, they will receive praise and validation, which boosts their self-esteem and sense of self-worth.

Additionally, caretaking is often an attempt to fill a void or emotional need. Codependents may believe that by helping and being needed by others, they can find purpose and satisfaction in their own lives.


Caretakers expect that sacrificing their needs and feelings for others will be met with gratitude, approval, and validation. However, this usually only leads to disappointment and resentment when the other fails to meet this expectation.

Even if caretaking does temporarily provide some of these benefits, it often leads to unhealthy, dysfunctional, and ultimately unsatisfying relationships in the long term.

Over time, it can result in burnout, resentment, and a sense of emptiness for the codependent individual.


Codependent individuals with caretaking tendencies often have trouble establishing and maintaining boundaries. They may have a hard time distinguishing where their own needs, emotions, and responsibilities end and where those of the other person begin.

Having such blurred boundaries often results in caretakers neglecting their own needs and emotions in favor of the person they are trying to help. They may struggle to say no and feel compelled to meet the needs of others, often at the expense of their own well-being.

The strong sense of obligation to care for and please others, which is often a hallmark of codependency, can lead to burnout and emotional exhaustion.


An important distinction between caretaking and caregiving is that caretaking, especially in the context of codependency, often does not provide genuine help. Instead, it serves to enable and perpetuate the other person’s dysfunctional or unhealthy behavior.

Enabling can include covering up for the other’s mistakes, making excuses on their behalf, or shielding them from the natural consequences of their actions.

This behavior can inadvertently reinforce and maintain unhealthy dynamics within the relationship because by consistently rescuing or fixing the other person’s problems, the caretaker prevents them from taking responsibility for their actions or seeking necessary help.

What is Caregiving?

Caregiving refers to the act of providing physical, emotional, or practical support to another based on genuine love, selflessness, and respect.

Motivations and Goals

Caregiving is motivated by a deep sense of empathy and compassion for another person. It’s not about receiving approval or feeling needed – it’s about genuinely wanting to alleviate the other person’s suffering or improve their well-being.

The goal is to support the person’s ability to make decisions and maintain their dignity, while helping them overcome challenges, achieve independence, and experience an improved quality of life.


Caregiving is often characterized by its unconditional nature, where the caregiver provides help and support without expecting anything in return.

It is a selfless, kind, and compassionate act that focuses on the well-being of the person receiving care without expecting any material rewards, recognition, or reciprocation.


Caregiving means help is provided when it is needed and asked for. Caregivers respect the autonomy and dignity of the individual receiving care.

They do not overstep on the other person’s boundaries or impose their own values or preferences. Instead, they work to support the person’s choices and decisions.

Additionally, caregivers understand the importance of practicing self-care themselves and implementing firm boundaries to effectively help others while also maintaining their own well-being.


Caregiving is fundamentally about empowering the other person to take control of their own life and maintain their independence, while caretaking may inadvertently enable dependency and hinder personal growth.

Caregivers aim to empower the individual they are caring for by helping them develop the skills and resources needed to maintain their independence. This might involve rehabilitation, education, or assistance in gaining greater self-sufficiency.

Caregiving emphasizes support that is sustainable in the long term. It aims to create a foundation for the individual to manage their own well-being, even after the formal caregiving relationship ends.

Are you a Caregiver or Caretaker?

The following is a list of questions that will help you to identify whether you might be a caregiver or a caretaker. If you answer yes to a majority of these questions, you are likely engaging in caretaking behaviors.

Please note that this is not diagnostic. If you find that your responses indicate a pattern of caretaking that is causing distress or imbalance in your relationships, it may be beneficial to seek guidance from a professional who can help you explore these dynamics further and work toward healthier and more balanced relationships.

Take some time and consider the following questions:

  • Do you often find yourself putting the needs and desires of others ahead of your own, even when it means neglecting your own well-being?
  • When you help someone, do you do it primarily because you genuinely want to support them, or do you expect something in return, such as validation, approval, or a sense of self-worth?
  • Do you struggle to set and maintain healthy boundaries in your relationships, finding it challenging to say no when someone asks for your help?
  • Are you afraid that if you don’t provide assistance or support to others, they will reject you or abandon the relationship?
  • Have you noticed that you often take on the role of “fixer” or “rescuer” in your relationships, trying to solve other people’s problems even when they haven’t asked for your help?
  • Are there times when you feel emotionally drained, overwhelmed, or exhausted due to the care and support you provide to others?
  • Do you ever enable or cover up the destructive behaviors of someone you care for, even if you know it’s not in their best interest?
  • Is your sense of self-worth closely tied to how well you can meet the needs and expectations of others?
  • Have you experienced a loss of your own identity or personal boundaries in the process of caring for others?
Motivation is validation from othersMotivation is empathy and genuine concern
Seeks to control or change the other personRespects the autonomy of the other person
Weak or non-existent boundaries Healthy, well-defined boundaries
Discourages individual autonomyRespects and supports autonomy
Provides short-term reliefOffers sustainable, long-term support
Encourages dependencyEmpowers and supports independence
Conditional, expecting something in returnUnconditional, selfless support
Often enables destructive behaviorsSupports personal growth and healing
Draining and emotionally exhaustingBalanced, maintains caregiver’s well-being
Neglects personal well-beingPrioritizes self-care and self-preservation

Julia Simkus edited this article.

Saul Mcleod, PhD

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Educator, Researcher

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in peer-reviewed journals, including the Journal of Clinical Psychology.

Olivia Guy-Evans, MSc

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MSc Psychology of Education

Associate Editor for Simply Psychology

Olivia Guy-Evans is a writer and associate editor for Simply Psychology. She has previously worked in healthcare and educational sectors.

Anna Drescher

Mental Health Writer

BSc (Hons), Psychology, Goldsmiths University, MSc in Psychotherapy, University of Queensland

Anna Drescher is a freelance writer and solution-focused hypnotherapist, specializing in CBT and meditation. Using insights from her experience working as an NHS Assistant Clinical Psychologist and Recovery Officer, along with her Master's degree in Psychotherapy, she lends deep empathy and profound understanding to her mental health and relationships writing.