Involvement and Caring --- With Appropriate and Necessary Neutrality

By Mark S. Schwartz, Ph.D.

    This booklet focuses on managing over-involvement and inadequate boundaries in relationships, including family and friends. The central theme is realizing that people can care and show caring yet maintain one’s relative neutrality or separation as an individual, even with close family members. The theme uses an adapted version of the concept and metaphor of affective neutrality.

  Examples of Over Involvement
   Mr. _______ is 70 years old and has chronic pain caused partly by excess muscle tension. He also has insomnia caused partly by worry about his children. He has three children, including a 40-year-old daughter who is getting a divorce. Mr. ____ is very upset about this and worries about it nearly every day and night.

   Mrs. _____ is 70 years old. Her stress and depression are partly due to often worrying about her son’s continued family and financial problems.

     Mrs. ____ is 60 years old. Her daughter, age 35, is divorced in part because of her mental health problems. She has difficulty keeping a job. She often calls her mother and talking to her for hours about her troubles. She often shows up at her mother’s house crying and asking to stay there, which she often does for days or weeks. She makes demands of her mother for hundreds or thousands of dollars to pay her bills. The daughter sometimes gets drunk or takes street drugs and gets into legal trouble. She has been hospitalized for being a suicide risk several times. This has been going on for many years. This is very stressful for the mother, who has multiple physical symptoms aggravated by stress. Her sleep has been disturbed for years, and she often feels depressed.

   Ms. _____ is a college student and very involved with a girlfriend whose personal and family problems are a frequent focus of their almost daily conversations that often last an hour or longer. Ms. ____ likes her friend and feels she must listen and give advice. She worries about her friend, and that has resulted in lost sleep a few times a month. Sometimes, this interferes with study time.

     Mr. _____ is 60 years old. His 30-year-old son lives with him and his wife because he cannot get his life in order and maintain a steady job. Mr. _____ has health problems that seem to be worsened often by arguing with his son and with his wife about the son’s condition and future.

     Mr. ____ is in his 20s and in college. He is very involved with multiple volunteer organizations that require many hours a week. The organizations depend on him for his skills, time, and devotion. He also works part-time for several hours a week for necessary income. His grades are okay, but much less than he wants and needs. He does not have the time to study adequately.

    Mrs. _____ is 45 years old and has several health problems, including Fibromyalgia, anxiety, poor sleep, irritable bowel, and headaches. Her 25-year-old daughter often asks her to take care of the grandchildren. Mrs. _____ loves her daughter and grandchildren and feels she cannot refuse. However, Mrs. _____ is often tired, which is a physical strain.

  Mr. _____ is 55 years old. He has worked in the same job for 25 years. He works long hours, takes work home, thinks about it at supper, when he gets into bed, and while on vacation. He has sleep problems, occasional depression, and headaches. Thoughts of retirement worry him, although not for financial reasons.

  Mr. _____ is 60 years old and successful in his work and financially. He has many responsibilities at work, and he often volunteers for community projects and local and national organizations. He does not refuse most requests because he can and does make valuable contributions to many of these projects. He also enjoys the social interactions and appreciation of others. However, he feels the nearly constant or frequent pressure of performing and living up to the expectations of other people and himself. He barely has time for himself or his family. He has health problems for which treatment includes relaxation therapies and less life stress.

  Mr. or Mrs. ____ is 45 years old and has insomnia, headaches, and other related symptoms. He (or she) worries that his (or her) mother and father are not complying with their physician’s recommendations and are arguing with each other a lot.

  These examples of over-involvement can and often do result in adverse effects on health and essential life priorities. Fortunately, each can be changed in ways that can be acceptable to the person and with healthier results.

  This booklet and the metaphor of affective neutrality explains how people can have meaningful and valuable relationships with family members, friends, jobs, school, and even volunteer project and missions in their lives without the damaging effects of excessive involvement, affecting frequent and unnecessary distress.

  Who is this booklet for?
This booklet is for you if your physical or mental symptoms are significantly affected by the adverse effects of over-involvement with:   

  • Problems of your grown children or other family members
  • Boundary problems with your parents or other family members
  • Problems of other people, such as friends, neighbors, or others
  • Work or school
  • Volunteer organizations and missions
  • Any combination of the above

For example:

Your grown children   

  • Are your children over age 30, and do you worry a lot about them or get angry with them?   
    • Are your emotions still intertwined with their lives?
    • Do your physical symptoms seem to increase or intensify with your worries and conflicts associated with the problems of your grown children?

Friends and Family   

  • Are you the person many other people in your family and friends come to talk to, get advice, and get help?
  • Do you feel it is your responsibility to help friends, family, neighbors, co-workers, and others when they ask and need your help?
    • Are your emotions still intertwined with their lives?
    • Do your physical symptoms seem to increase or intensify with your thoughts and worries about the problems of other people?


  • Do you lose sleep over worrying about your work even though your job is not at risk?   
  • Do you sometimes think that your job is your primary identity and value?   
  • Do you sometimes feel that no one else could do your job as well as you do?   
  • Are your emotions intertwined with your job?   
  • Do your physical symptoms seem to increase or intensify because of the problems with your job work?   
  • Are you fearful of retiring because of not being at this or another job?

Volunteer Organizations and Missions   

  • Do you belong to and active in multiple organizations, find it difficult to say no to those who ask you and pressure you to be active?   
  • Do you have difficulty managing your involvement, and this involves considerable time and stress that could be adding to your emotional and physical symptoms?

Your parents or other family

  • Do you often worry about your parents, including their arguments with each other, their problems, their beliefs that differ from yours, or other aspects of their lives aside from severe health problems? Do these worries and their problems negatively impact your mood, your sleep, your physical symptoms, and your time needed for high-priority tasks?

The previous questions are examples of the kind of questions to ask. If your response is true to some of them, then this booklet might be for you. Some of your reactions to the problems of other people in your life may be working against you. Your body reactions and your mental reactions are probably not neutral. Your attitudes about these relationships and interactions might be that there is no other way for you to act. There are, but it might seem you have no choice.

This booklet contains some ideas that could help you develop more efficient relationships with your grown children, with other people, with work, and with some volunteer mission-like activities. These ideas might help you reduce physiological and mental stress, help some of your symptoms, and help you find the emotional and time resources to accomplish your essential tasks.

What is over-involvement?
Some people are over-involved with their grown children, other family members, other people, work, and other projects. They do not keep a reasonable emotional boundary or line between themselves and other people’s problems. Many people do not know it is acceptable to be neutral or at least much less involved.

A typical general example is the person who has physical and emotional health problems but still feels they must help take care of other’s problems.

For example, is your age about 60 to about 80, and do you worry, lose sleep, feel depressed, or become physically upset when your children, who are in their 30s to 50s, are having major marital problems, work problems, or problems with their children -- your grandchildren?

Sometimes, family members (or close friends) are not living up to their expectations and your hopes and expectations. Sometimes, they are going through tough times in one or more of the many ways that can overly intrude upon us. They are not getting along with their spouse. Their finances are poor. They have management problems with their children or grandchildren. They are not advancing their career. They are depressed. Perhaps they have health problems that are annoying and distressing, although not life-threatening.
The issue here is whether their problems become, in essence, your problems by adopting their problems into your emotional and physical life. Are your time resources sapped substantially by the over-involvement?

Why are people over-involved?
You might believe that your proper role is to be emotionally involved in the lives of your grown family members, such as your children. Your physiological arousal, tension, and symptoms are a sort of proof to you that you care and are living up to your expected role as a parent. Perhaps you are saying to yourself that if you do not get upset, then it might mean that you do not care or you will not be practical or helpful. Some of this is a habit. Perhaps you do not know how to care, how to be loved, how to be helpful, and still be relatively neutral.

Does over-involvement have risks?
It sure does. Your health is at risk. You risk being angry, worrying, and being depressed. You risk losing sleep, increasing or maintaining physical pain, and having stomach, bowel, heart, blood pressure, and other physical problems worsened. You risk losing vast amounts of time that interfere with your high-priority tasks.

  What is “Affective Neutrality?”
In the present context, I define it as appropriately and sensibly caring about another person, job, or mission but knowing where the boundaries are in the relationship and maintaining a prudent and practical distance or boundary between you and the other person’s problems, the job, or the mission. Thus, it is maintaining a reasonable and necessary degree of neutrality.

Mental health professionals who provide psychotherapy must learn and apply this skill early. Other healthcare professionals, such as physicians and nurses, also need to learn this to cope with the demands of caring for physically ill people, especially those with serious illnesses. The results of not being able to master affective neutrality are often physical and psychological symptoms among health caregivers. Thus, healthcare professionals, especially mental health professionals, need to care, need to show they care, and need to be reasonably available and helpful. Yet, they also need to maintain clear boundaries, and they need to avoid taking their patient’s problems into their personal lives, such as meal times, sleep time, and other personal times. The critical point here is that I do not intend the term to imply a total lack of caring or emotion.

What is the origin of the term “Affective Neutrality?”
The origin of the concept is borrowed from the late Carl Rogers, Ph.D., a very distinguished and very influential psychologist. In his writings about the relationship between mental health professionals and their patients, Dr. Rogers encouraged us that we can care for and be effective with our patients yet remain neutral. This combination is crucial for long-term success and endurance as a therapist. Others have different views. Any discussion of different views and definitions is beyond the purposes of this paper.

What does a health professional’s relationship with a patient have in common with your relationship with your children and work?
Your relationship and interactions with your family and work are similar to the interactions and relationships between mental health care professionals and their patients. Think about their interactions and relationship with you. For them to be more effective with patients, they need to care. For them to be effective, you need to believe that they care about you. To enjoy what they do for most, and hopefully all, their career, they care about their patients.

  However, to sleep at night, they also need to be neutral. For them to have the necessary emotional energy for all their patients, they must be neutral. For them to avoid depression stemming from work, they must be neutral about their patients. They need to know where your life boundaries end and where theirs begin and vice versa. They must understand and accept that they did not cause your problems and are not entirely or unrealistically responsible for your cure and improvement. They have a significant role and essential responsibilities for helping you, but they must always recognize the boundaries of those roles and responsibilities.

  Ideally, your mental health care professional cares about you. Hopefully, they will do all they can to help you. Ideally, they communicate caring for you. Ideally you will feel that they care. What they will not or should not do is get physically or emotionally upset if, for reasons beyond their reasonable skills, influence, and responsibility, you are not complying with recommendations or not improving. They will continue to be available for you. They will continue to listen within reasonable limits in their life. If you call them, they should talk with you but not for excessive time that interferes with their other priorities unless it is a true emergency. They have a reasonable chance of making a noticeable difference.

  In other parts of your life, you are in similar roles as the mental health professional, except it can be a family member or friend. The relationship and involvement have essential differences, of course. However, if you worry, lose sleep, or get physical symptoms, you are permitting more of someone else’s life into yours than you have the emotional and physical resources or cushion to handle. You are allowing their problems to impair your health. You might feel helpless to manage these situations any other way. However, you can.

  • You can reduce the overlap of your lives   
  • You can establish more functional boundaries and limits   
  • You can show them that you care without it draining you   
  • You can keep the situations in a better perspective

You probably will still have some upsetting thoughts about them and their situation. The goal is to create a better balance between affective and neutral by shifting more to the neutral side or reducing the overlap of their lives and problems into yours. The faster you reestablish perspective, more effective boundaries, and elements of neutrality, the more you can preserve your health.

For Whom is “Affective Neutrality” Useful?
This may be useful for you if you are:   

  • Spending excess time with and/or worrying excessively about the problems of grown children.   
  • Spending excess time and/or worrying about the problems of friends or other people.   
  • Spending excess time and/or worrying about work problems   
  • Having physical and/or emotional symptoms due partly to your time and/or worry about your grown children, other people, and/or work.

Can I and should I apply affective neutrality to work?
Yes. You can be competent, helpful, and productive with work without over-involvement. You can care about your employer, co-workers, and job and work hard without over-involvement.

Can I apply affective neutrality to my grown children?
Yes. You can be a good parent, care about your grown children, and be helpful in many ways without the adverse effects on your health. You can have worthwhile relationships with your grown children without over-involvement.

  With whom else should I consider attitudes and feelings of affective neutrality?
Co-workers, neighbors, friends, extended family, and in-laws are those with whom affective neutrality can be wise and reasonable.

  When can involvement change?
When to apply affective neutrality?
There are no hard-and-fast rules. There are no specific times in your life when this must be done. Each person and situation is unique. However, consider these guidelines. When your child reaches about age 30, it is almost always time to make a significant shift to affective neutrality. Ideally, it would have happened many years earlier.
Conversely, if you are about age 30 or, at least, in your mid to upper 20s, it is likely time to eliminate excess enmeshment with your parents. It is time to stop dependency. Nothing is sacred about the mid to late 20s up to about age 30, but it is a very common guideline. There could be exceptions.

  Does affective neutrality have risks?
Sometimes, yes. There are people in your family, friends, and co-workers who might strongly disagree with you about the neutrality portion. If you change your behaviors too much and/or too soon, there is the risk of upsetting the other person(s) in the relationship. For example, if your 30-year-old daughter is in a crisis, this is probably not a good time to make a significant change in your availability. However, it might be an acceptable and necessary time to adjust your thoughts, attitudes, and physical reactions, mainly if it negatively affects your health.

Are there exceptions to the advice to develop and maintain affective neutrality?
Yes. If you have the emotional and financial resources, good health, and enough time to be “over-involved,” and you choose to do so or feel the need to do so, then do it. The advice in this booklet is probably not for you. It is like buying something for yourself or a gift for someone else. If you have enough money to buy retail plus a significant mark-up in a high-priced store in a high-priced location, and if doing so does not involve sacrificing anything else important to you or your family, then spend as much of your money as you want and do so the way you want and can afford. However, you know there are many situations in which you should try to buy the item much less expensively or not at all, at least not now.

  How do I develop affective neutrality?
Think about new ways of viewing your relationships, your attitudes, and your health. Read about new ways to manage these situations and relationships. Consider getting counseling and advice from a mental health professional—and then practice, practice, and practice.
  I intentionally do not include detailed examples in this paper. To do so would require several examples, and that would lengthen the paper considerably and excessively.

  What are some examples of applied affective neutrality?
You care about your family, close friends, other people, and your job. Sometimes, perhaps often, other people need you. That is good. The occasional event is normal and acceptable. People like to be needed and feel needed. The problem arises when these events are excessive for you, occur often, take much of your time, stimulate your body in ways that are unhealthy for you, worsen your health, or interfere with healing taking place.

  Examples of applied affective neutrality:
These examples can be the focus of homework for you and counseling sessions. How can you respond verbally and emotionally, show that you care, and remain relatively neutral?   

  • Daughter or son calls with bad news in her life:   
  • Son or daughter is having significant money problems:   
  • Son or daughter makes another foolish decision in his or her life:   
  • Son or daughter asks for money:   
  • Son or daughter wants to move back in:   
  • Son or daughter is getting divorced:   
  • Daughter or son asks for help caring for your grandchildren:   
  • Son or daughter again has not followed your advice or the advice of a competent health care professional.   
  • Your elderly mother or father is not taking good care of her or his health and/or having intense arguments with each other.

Is Affective Neutrality Related to Parental Rights?
Yes. Parents of adult children have rights. In one book (Stockman & Graves, 1994) focused on adult children who have not grown up, there are six (6) rights noted. These are the right :

1. To love your adult son or daughter
2. To “let go” of your adult offspring
3. Not to feel unreasonable guilt about the past and not be controlled by the guilt others would place on you in the present
4. To say no to requests
5. To be free of verbal abuse
6. To feel physically safe from harm by your adult offspring

These are related to Affective Neutrality. Briefly, parents have the right to separate themselves from extended dependency by their adult children.

  Conversely, adult children have at least six (6) rights.
1. Love their parents
2. Let go of their parents
3. Not to feel unreasonable guilt about the past and not to be controlled by the guilt some would place on the adult child in the present
4. Not to live up to parental expectations
5. To disagree with parent’s life choices for them
6. To be free of verbal or physical abuse

Thus, both groups have the right to maintain relationships depicted in graphics 2 or even one rather than in graphics 5 or 4.