What You’ll Learn Today:
- What codependency really is
- Four simple questions to ask yourself to know if you’re being codependent or supportive
- Four steps to practice to get out of codependent patterns and into healthy, fulfilling relationships
- A 3-Step Exercise for Practicing Loving Detachment
The words “enabling” and “codependent” have been around for many years but so many people think they only refer to partners of alcoholics or parents of drug addicts. These words apply across the spectrum and can happen to anyone, no matter how healthy or well-meaning.
So, let’s get down to business. First, let’s start with some definitions. The simplest definition for codependency is that you’re depending on something outside of yourself to provide some sense of your well-being. This could mean a lot of things, such as:
- If you feel anxious because your mom told you it was a big mistake to let your son, Johnny, drop out of baseball and now he’s going to be a quitter the rest of his life
- If you feel hopeless when your partner comes home in a bad mood again
- If you feel enraged every time you see your boss because she passed you over for that promotion six weeks ago
- If you feel guilty that you said “no” to helping out with the bake sale at your kid’s school (even though you’ve helped out with the past 20 bake sales)
- If you cover for your husband (again) when he’s too hungover to make it to your kid’s soccer game
- If you’re overly-worried or obsessed about someone else’s emotions
- In any way doing more than you should normally do, all because you’re looking for someone else’s approval or avoiding someone’s upset
- Doing something in your relationship out of fear (you’re afraid that your partner will leave you, so you act a certain way; you give money to your deadbeat brother because you’re afraid he’ll become homeless otherwise; you call the school and beg your kids’ teacher to give your kid another chance at the math final)
Now, we’ve all taken part in feeling crappy around someone else’s behavior. It’s not about feeling a certain way momentarily. It’s about how long that feeling lasts and how often you stew about it.
The next time you’re not sure if you’re doing too much for someone else, I’d like you to ask yourself these four questions. These filters will help you answer the question, “Am I being codependent?”
- Who’s working harder? The first question I want you to ask yourself is, “Am I working harder than the other person?” If you’re helping someone else out in a given situation, they should be putting at least as much effort in as you are. If you’re the one running around ragged, and they have time to watch a movie, then you’re being codependent. If you’re the one worried about whether they’ll make their rent, and they’re telling you it’ll all work out and not to worry about it, then you’re being codependent.
- What’s my motive? The next question I want you to ask yourself is, “Why am I doing this?” Are you doing this for yourself, or for the other person? You want to check your motives and understand the “why” behind your actions. Is it to make yourself feel better or to get something done quicker? Are you doing this out of guilt, shame or to avoid embarrassment? Do you like the feeling of other people needing you? In other words, what’s in it for you? Sometimes you’ll check in and see that your motives are completely altruistic and, other times, you’ll notice that this is more about you than the other person. Doing things for others out of fear isn’t love; it’s selfish anxiety.
- What does my gut say? A lot of times we know what we’re doing is wrong or unhealthy because we get a “funny feeling.” It’s important to listen to that voice inside your head. Are you feeling resentful or disappointed with the other person when you’re helping them? If so, then this is probably not something you need to be doing or you need to be clearer on why you’re doing it.
- Am I teaching them to fish? Lastly, I need you to ask yourself, “Will what I’m doing result in the other person learning new skills so they can do it on their own next time?” Whatever you’re doing for someone else should be helping them reach their next level of autonomy. If the other person will be dependent on you for this particular thing every time it comes up, that’s a problem.
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, it’s likely you’ve got a “wee bit” of an issue around codependency. If that’s the case, there’s a way out. Here are my 4 steps to practice to get out of codependent patterns and into healthy, fulfilling relationships:
Step 1: You Can’t (Really) Control Others.
No matter how much you push, manipulate, cajole or threaten you, ultimately, can’t really control other people’s actions or behaviors. Believing this allows you to focus on yourself and not them. You need to find ways to make yourself happy and fulfilled outside of your relationships with other people. Don’t rely on other people to make you happy. First of all, it’s not their job. Second of all, you’ll end up disappointed and frustrated A LOT. Instead, find your own sources of happiness that you can control 100%.
Step 2: Separate Yourself
What your child, boss, partner or parent does or says is not you. Yes, our children are reflections of us to some extent, but their victories and losses need to belong to them, and not you. Yes, your partner might have said something embarrassing at that party last night, but let them deal with the aftermath, not you. Yes, your parents might need to sell their home because they’ve made multiple poor monetary decisions, but that’s their consequence to deal with. Do you see the theme here? People can’t learn from their mistakes if they’re overprotected. It’s your job to support the relationships in your life, not direct or save them.
Step 3: Wait to Respond
Take a breath and think instead of reacting or responding right away to whatever gets put in front of you. Allow some space for others to come to their own conclusions. Allow some space for yourself so you can think things through and keep yourself separate, while remaining kind and loving. Here’s the bottom line: You can feel compassion for someone else without having to act on it. You can be there for another person without taking any action or saying anything. The best help you can be is one of supportive silence. Ask questions to help the other person clarify their situation and create healthy solutions, but don’t fix it for them. Don’t offer advice or make suggestions. Let them find their way. When you do something for someone else that they could do for themselves, you’re not helping them, you’re hindering them. This concept is hard for many of us. As parents, spouses, sons and daughters we can take on roles that have us thinking of other people’s wants and needs before our own. Allowing others to face natural consequences is an important part of being in a healthy relationship.
Step 4: Practice Loving Detachment
This concept is difficult for many people, but practicing loving detachment is key if you want to stop doing too much for others. Loving detachment means that you’re separating yourself emotionally, spiritually and/or mentally from another person and what they’re doing, saying or thinking (I’m eyeballing you people out there who think you can read minds).
Now, detaching yourself from other people’s behaviors and words is great, in theory, but it can be a difficult thing to actually do. It takes a lot of courage and strength to see that you can be happy no matter what other people do. I’m not saying it’s easy; I’m just saying it’s quite possible.
The bottom line is that you need to have a healthy relationship with yourself first, before you can have a healthy relationship with anyone else. Asking yourself these questions will help you understand yourself better and strengthen your own boundaries and values. Work on these four areas and you’ll quickly find yourself more at peace in all your relationships.
Here’s a 3-step exercise which I’ve borrowed from renowned “loving detachment” expert, Martha Beck. I love this one for getting clear about codependence and how happiness is an inside job.
Step 1.: Choose a person you love, but about whom you feel some level of anxiety, anger, or sadness.
Step 2. Identify what this person should do to make you happy, but using this sentence: “If _________ would only __________, then I could feel ____________.”
Step 3. Now delete the first part of the sentence, so it reads: “I could feel _____________.” Realize that this is the only honest truth in the sentence and know that you have the power to feel that way no matter what anyone else says or does.
To free yourself of any codependent thoughts or actions, you’ve got to move your focus away from controlling others and towards creating your own happiness.
Resources and Links:
Codependent No More by Melody Beattie
The Gift of Joyful Detachment by Martha Beck
Blog posts on codependency:
How to know if you’re doing too much for others