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Setting Limits to Caregiving

By Roberta Satow

(Page 3 of 3)

If we feel needy and deprived because we have an insecure internal attachment to our early mother then it is hard to say “no” or “enough” to somebody else. People who have difficulty saying “no” often get angry at people who ask them for anything. After all, asking them for something sets off their conflict. Thus, setting limits with needy elderly parents can be extremely difficult if we are needy ourselves—which we usually are if we had needy parents. We vacillate back and forth between identifying with their neediness and feeling we have to save them; and feeling angry at them for needing so much from us and wanting to run away so that we do not drown. Adults with a secure attachment do not feel “needy”—or are able to work their way out of that feeling fairly quickly. They have needs, of course, but they are not “needy.” The feeling of being needy is a feeling of desperation for someone else to save you and to provide sustenance. In addition, it easily gets projected on to other people so it’s had to stay clearly separate. Caregivers who have an internal sense of secure attachment have secure boundaries and have less difficulty saying “no” or “enough” in a way that does not necessitate hitting the other person over the head with it or running away from a person who is needy. They can say: “I wish I was able to do that for you, but unfortunately I’m not.” But that does not come naturally for many of us. We have to remind ourselves that when we confront an ocean of need, all we need to do is bring a cup.



Roberta Satow is the former Chairperson and currently a Professor of the department of Sociology at Brooklyn College and a practicing psychotherapist in New York City. She has written numerous articles on sociological and psychoanalytic subjects that have appeared in numerous journals and magazines such as Partisan Review and Psychology Today. This article is an excerpt from her new book: Doing the Right Thing: Taking Care of Your Elderly Parents Even if They Didn’t Take Care of You (Jeremy Tarcher Publishers, 2005.)


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