Codependency: Helping Others in Service of our Selves
Codependency. It’s a word that has gained popularity in the mental health field and with it comes a lot of confusion about what it means, what it looks like, and how it feels.
Let’s start with what codependency is NOT. Codependency does not simply refer to being dependent on another person. Codependency does not refer to someone who is too loving. It does not simply refer to someone caring about other people or their opinions too much.
Although all of these things I mentioned may show up in someone who is codependent, this is not the essence of what codependency means.
Codependency involves an inability to tolerate pain, anger, sadness, confusion, or any other unpleasant emotion in another person, so much so that we try to rescue that person from those feelings, attempting to make them happy, peaceful, grateful, loved, or any other pleasant emotion. When we feel too uncomfortable with the way someone else is showing up and we attempt to “fix” things for them so that they (we) are relieved from the discomfort. In short, my definition of codependency is this: Codependency is the illusion that you’re taking care of others when you are really taking care of yourself.
Since I identify as an incredibly codependent person, I’ll use a personal example to illustrate this concept. A piece of background information you need to know about me is that being an older sister is a title I hold dearly. Being an older sister that my younger siblings lean on, trust, and feel loved from is an important and sacred part of my identity.
So, when my 22-year-old younger sister Sophie comes to me with a problem, you better believe I forget all my training as a mental health professional and immediately give her advice or try to solve it for her.
A few years ago, my sister called me when she was having a particularly hard time with a friend of hers who was being unkind to her. Sophie shared that she was feeling insecure, like she wasn’t good enough to be this person’s friend anymore, and she didn’t understand what she could have done to deserve this kind of treatment. Sophie was in tears at this point, and I could clearly hear her pain about this relationship rupture.
How did I respond? I responded in a frenzy to try and scoop my sister up from her pain and convince her that it had nothing to do with her, that she deserved friends who wouldn’t treat her this way, and that she should forget this friend and consider herself better off without that kind of a person in her life. I spent time telling her all of the things I loved about her, told her stories that proved she was a great friend herself, and anything else I could think of to wash away all her sadness. Sophie responded to my flood of compliments with a quiet, reluctant acceptance. She eventually said “Okay, yeah I guess you’re right. I’ll be okay.” I felt a sense of accomplishment about changing her perspective and correcting all of her negative self-image assumptions.
Looking back on this story with my current understanding of myself and my codependency, I have a new understanding of what happened.
When Sophie called me with pain, I was filled with unconscious anxiety. This anxiety came from my love for my sister, and my self-proclaimed responsibility to be the best big sister. I needed Sophie to feel better, her pain was too much for me to sit with. So, out of anxiety I did my best to fix, to make her feel something that would be more comfortable for me to sit with. I was attempting to rearrange her emotions into something that made me feel at peace, and like a good older sister. By desperately attempting to erase her pain, I was handing her my anxiety and implicitly saying “Please feel better so that I don’t have to sit with your pain. Please be happy so I feel like I’m doing my job as a good big sister.”
Sophie had called me with her pain, and I had unconsciously turned the conversation into her needing to take care of me, her needing to protect me from her pain.
Although it was a somewhat slow learning process, I now approach the discomfort of those I love differently. Now, if Sophie or anyone else in my life calls me with pain, I still feel that buzz of anxiety in my chest, but I do my best to sit with them, to ask what they need from me so that I can show up for them instead of recruiting them to give me peace or a sense of being “good.”
Many people could listen to that phone call conversation and tell me that I was being a good big sister. They would praise me for cheering my sister up, confronting her “thinking errors,” or helping to change her perspective. This is where the illusion comes in. I thought I was taking care of her when I did these things. I had no awareness that I was desperately trying to relieve my own anxiety, and if you told me so, I would have rejected the idea that I was doing anything other than helping my sister.
Now before you swear off ever giving compliments, cheering someone up, sharing your perspective, or helping someone solve a problem they bring to you I have to clarify something. These approaches might be appropriate and even healing to someone. The shift is to make sure that you’re not imposing onto another person what you think they need. Rather, the invitation is to ask what another person is wanting from us, and then assessing whether or not we can give that to them. My sister does sometimes call me and very clearly ask for my advice, in this case it is wholly appropriate to offer a suggestion or perspective. The difference is that I am managing my own anxiety so that I can show up for her. I am giving her an opportunity to tell me what she needs rather than making her responsible for my needs.
When we show up in our relationships trying to fix, help, rescue, or soothe another person without checking in with what they’re seeking--this does not mean we are too loving, it means we are acting out our anxiety.