By Stars Insider of StarsInsider |
Codependent is a term that gets thrown around a lot these days but the true meaning of which is understood by few. Codependency is complicated because there are degrees of codependency in any relationship. Just like with mental illness, most of us could read the list of symptoms and think “oh my god, that sounds like me!” However, the real issue is the severity of the symptoms and how much they impact our quality of life. Codependency is similar.
We’re all a little bit codependent, but how do you know if it’s going too far? Click through this gallery to find out.
The Sassy Psychologist: Codependency: When you “care” too much and the importance of badass boundaries
Is “no” a word you have difficulty using with most people in your life? Do you often stay at work late? Do you rarely take your allotted breaks? Do you continuously pay your adult child’s rent? Are you doing most of the chores at home? If this sounds familiar, you are not alone. This behavior depicts a particular side of the codependent relationship: the side of the over-functioning enabler/excessive caretaker. As far as I’m concerned, this phenomenon is one of the major reasons why I have a job. Let’s explore, shall we?
When I ask my clients to look up codependency, I like to offer a preface. Codependency gained popularity with the role it has in perpetuating addiction. Essentially, an addicted individual may seek out (knowingly or unknowingly) a relationship with someone who acts as their caregiver, over-functioner, and/or enabler. This individual will “help” them. …help pay bills, help get groceries, and help communicate with family.
But you don’t need addiction to be present to witness pretty fierce and chronic codependent relationships. Let me explain.
A codependent relationship requires a ‘giver’ and a ‘taker’, both of whom are dependent on the other’s dysfunctional behavior. Psychologically, the ‘giver’ needs the ‘taker’ to take, and the ‘taker’ needs the ‘giver’ to give. Consider the case of an adult child living with his parents. The adult child might be avoiding change or might be dealing with low self-worth. This child is therefore needing their parents to “help.” On the other end of this relationship, if the parents are not setting conditions and boundaries, they are enabling their child to avoid necessary growth and change. The part that often goes unnoticed is the fact that both parties are actually benefitting from this arrangement, including the parents. If the parents are simply letting this arrangement exist for multiple years, they are over-functioning – self-sacrificing in a way that is not healthy for their child or themselves. But what is their pay-off? In most cases of codependency, it’s guilt and/or the need to be needed that perpetuates a codependent relationships for months, if not years.
Both parties in a codependent relationship need healing and I’d like to focus my attention on the “giver” as their dysfunction is often misconstrued as caring, admirable, or selfless. The “giver” is often assumed to be altruistic, generous, and even saintly, but alas this assumption is one of the most significant misunderstandings I see in my office.
The excessive caregiver, in a codependent relationship is just as unhealthy as the one engaging in poor behavior. Think about it for a sec. The caregiver is known to endlessly offer help, even at their own expense. They will incessantly self-sacrifice in order to meet the needs of the other person. Even with very little money, they would give it all away. Even with very little time, they’d offer up hours of it. Essentially, they continuously run around town with their gas gauges on empty in order to “help.”
But are they helping? Are they really as selfless as they appear to be? The answer is no. Here are the reasons why excessive caregiving is dysfunctional:
Enabling. Relentlessly helping someone engage in dysfunctional behavior (whether this behavior is diagnosable or not) is not helping – it is enabling. Paying the rent of your child who cannot hold a job is not helping, it is enabling. Constantly finishing your colleague’s reports is not helping, it’s enabling. Allowing your partner to avoid conflict is not helping the situation, it’s perpetuating the problem. Catch my drift here?
The Undermining of Resilience. In being an endless stream of “help,” you are essentially undermining the resilience of those you are trying to help. If you always “come to the rescue,” how will the other person access his/her own power? We all must be allowed to make our mistakes and hit rock bottom to learn, grow, and develop into healthy human beings. Being everyone’s safety net all the time and for the rest of life is quite unhelpful when you consider that people need to learn and experience new situations, thoughts, and emotions in order to gain important characteristics like grit and emotional regulation.
Mistreatment. On the coattails of what I just said, in excessively giving “care” you will cause dependency in other people and they will not develop the skills necessary to excel. But not only that, you will be training them perfectly on how to mistreat, use, and abuse you. You will cause other people to depend on you in such a way that they will come to expect you to “break your neck” for them each and every time. Over time, they’ll be known to take advantage of you and you’ll be known to give in. Foreseeably, they become the under-functioner and you become the over-functioner. You will do more while they will do less. It’s guaranteed.
The Excessive Caregiver is Getting a Pay Off. All of it is much more selfish than it is selfless, which is a hard realization for the caregiver to admit and swallow. “Selfish? Selfish! Are you frikin’ kidding me?!! I bust my ass for this person everyday and you are calling me selfish?!” My response…, “yes!” The excessive caregiver is often relentlessly giving “care” because they need to feel needed – and feeling needed is how they feel worthy. It is through helping other people that the caregiver feels like he or she is a good mother or employee or partner etc. At the core of it all is often a faulty interpersonal belief that they are not good enough – they have an “I’m not good enough” core belief. Therefore, to feel “good enough,” the caregiver goes above and beyond the average helper in order to feel like a good enough human being. Heartbreaking.
What to do? This is where those badass boundaries come into play!!!
Over-functioners believe that going above-and-beyond their duties and responsibilities will get them respect and an impeccable reputation. Truth is, people will respect you more, when you start respecting your own time and energy levels. That’s why these boundaries are “badass.” The amount of respect and consideration you will get when people know your limits is out-of-this-world. Try it! One step at a time…
The first step is to admit that you might be in one or many codependent relationships and you must acknowledge your role as the excessively over-functioning caregiver. Take a bit of time to really observe your behavioral responses to other people and you will surely see how you unnecessarily go above and beyond for everyone else while leaving yourself in the cold. You must then begin to slowly start doing less, saying no, and establishing your own personal boundaries. To the average person, this might not sound difficult but, don’t be fooled – for the excessive caretaker this is HUGE and will definitely require the help of a therapist. …and part of the reason why it’s so hard is because the caregiver must start seeing their worth and value outside of their self-appointed ‘helping’ role. This is not easy to do for someone who’s spent a lifetime ‘helping’ other people to make themselves feel good. If this is you, I want you to remember that you matter, you are worthy, go get what’s yours.
Anna-Maria Tosco, or our Sassy Psychologist, has two masters degrees in the field of psychology and has studied and worked coast to coast. She has worked in both psychiatric and community settings in some of Montreal’s most respected healthcare organizations and institutions, and has also given a variety of talks and workshops on neuroplasticity, meditation, and uncovering barriers to love.
How Codependency Hampered My Pastoral Ministry
I recently received an email from a church member expressing frustration over a decision we made for our congregation. I responded with an abundance of grace, expressing appreciation for sharing the concern and asking if we could meet to discuss the matter further. Over the coming days, I checked my email over and over for a reply.
I began to wonder, Did he get my email? What if he didn’t get it and I seem callous and uncaring? What if he did get it but he’s so mad that I didn’t just do what he asked me to?
Eventually, I followed up with another email. I told myself I sent the message because I wanted to reflect Christ in my unwavering pursuit of reconciliation. But really, I wanted this person to feel better about me so that I could feel better about myself and my performance as a pastor.
The pandemic has been a revealing time for all of us, forcing us to see our habits in greater clarity than before. In the ample opportunities we pastors have had to learn about pursuing unity and reconciliation, I began to realize how a type of unhealthy people-pleasing—codependency—has affected my ministry and fed the emotional drain of this season.
Codependency has been referred to as “relationship addiction.” In Codependent No More, Melody Beattie writes that a codependent person has let another’s unhealthy behavior affect him or her and is obsessed with controlling that person’s behavior and feelings in return.
In pastoral ministry, this looks like a preoccupation with specific relationships in our churches in the interest of avoiding feelings of rejection or disapproval. These relationships can become one-sided, manipulative, and emotionally destructive so much that leaders cannot distinguish others’ rejection of us from our own rejection of ourselves.
The language of codependence began to emerge in the 1980s, originally to refer to spouses who “depended” on their partners’ substance abuse, either enabling them or relying on their addiction for attention and self-esteem. (I’ve also written about being a pastor who is an Adult Child of an Alcoholic, and not surprisingly, many ACoAs struggle with codependency.) The term has since been applied to a range of dysfunctional relationships.
As pastors, so much of our interpersonal work in ministry, especially with difficult people in our congregations, can be defined as attempting to control—manage—their behavior and feelings. Codependency can be particularly hard to recognize in this context; we can conflate the selflessness of the Christian mandate to lay ourselves down for others with the self-serving sentiment of being liked because we are “nice.”
Here are some questions that can help pastors examine their motivations (developed based on questions from Melody Beattie’s Codependent No More):Can I define my sense of purpose apart from making extreme sacrifices to satisfy my community’s needs?Is it difficult for me to say “no” when my parishioners make demands on my time and energy, especially when I am already overextended?Do I constantly worry about my church’s opinion of me?Do I often keep quiet to avoid disagreements and keep the peace?Do I often feel isolated and afraid of people, especially aggressive or authoritative figures?Have I observed myself to be an approval seeker, especially to the point of losing my own identity in the process?Do I feel overly frightened of angry people or personal criticism?Do I get guilt feelings when I stand up for myself rather than giving in to others?Do I find I judge myself harshly?Do I often feel abandoned in the course of my ministry?Do I feel responsible for others’ reactions and emotions?Do I often cave to others’ reactions in the interest of reconciliation?Do I find myself overly preoccupied with appeasing the disgruntled folks at the cost of advancing the mission of my church?Do I have an overinflated sense of my ability to control other people’s feelings and reactions?
While all good pastors would want to foster a spirit of unity, satisfaction, and joy in their congregations, we can see how that desire could be taken too far and become unhealthy or self-serving instead.
In codependency, people become dependent on others for purpose, significance, acceptance, and value. No person in our lives is capable of providing these for us. Therefore, when the pursuit of purpose, significance, acceptance, and value from others becomes the driving force of our ministerial endeavors, it leads to emotional exhaustion and burnout.
In this light, we have not followed the model of Christ in self-sacrifice, but rather, we have forsaken the first commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me.” We have displaced God on the throne of our lives and selected numerous others to provide us with the kind of purpose, significance, acceptance, and value we seek from our pastoral performance and our congregations.
The difference between the way of Christ in self-sacrifice and the way of codependency is that Christ lays himself down for the delight of the Father (John 10:17–18), but we do so for the delight of men and women.
Codependence not only is destructive to ourselves, but it can also hinder our ability to pursue the vision God has for our churches. When we are constantly trying to accommodate everyone else’s “vision” for our church, we turn back from God’s vision.
Our inevitable failure to appease everyone’s desires for our church means that when folks get disgruntled enough and leave, we are lost again without a vision, and we are angry because we tried so hard to give them what they wanted. Still, they didn’t appreciate it and didn’t stay.
I am still a work in progress on this. But the first step to addressing codependency is simply acknowledging that codependency is a problem and acknowledging how powerless we are to change it. As a result, our lives have become unmanageable. This language may sound familiar, precisely because it is the first step of all twelve-step programs. This includes Codependents Anonymous (CoDA), a twelve-step program for those dealing with codependency.
The second step, then, is to come to believe that a power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity. The beauty and power of this language is that it speaks to the inner turmoil we feel that so often accompanies our codependent behavior. Of course, in the Christian tradition, this would be the power of God’s own Spirit at work in us.
In turning specifically to ministry, an important step in overcoming the impact of codependency is to clarify what others can expect of us. Codependency can fuel an obsessive need to meet everyone’s expectations. I have begun to state up front what others can expect of me rather than letting them assume what to expect of me or set their own expectations. When I do this well, I am less likely to be caught off-guard by being held to an expectation I did not set. (This includes setting boundaries. In a ministry context, our vision and priorities can offer a kind of boundary marker.)
I have also made the conscious decision to refuse to “read minds.” I used to confuse mind reading with being intuitive and a good reader of people. I would investigate to determine if my fear that people disapproved of me or my leadership was true. In the end, it was really just an invitation to worry and pain.
A better way forward has been to generate a culture of emotional development. Unhealthy organizations typically operate at the level of the least emotionally mature. In such contexts emotional immaturity breeds poor communication habits. A culture of emotional development requires people to develop the skills to communicate frustrations and perspectives in healthy, appropriate ways rather than expecting others to recognize their disappointment and pander to it.
Finally, it’s important to learn to distinguish our own feelings from others’ feelings about us. This is called self-differentiation, and it was one of the problems with my email exchange earlier. In sending the second email, I was actually stepping beyond my obligation in the relationship in an attempt to control the person’s thoughts and feelings about me. I could not differentiate the negative thoughts and feelings he or she felt about me from how I should feel about myself.
We seek the approval of others because it promises purpose, significance, and a sense of value. But like the young man of Proverbs 7 who is lured down the street by the promise of an evening of ecstasy, we are really like an ox going to slaughter, like a deer bounding toward a trap, like a bird darting in a snare—we do not know it will cost us our lives.
As followers of Jesus, we must confront our codependency. We must confront it not only to have better, healthier ministries. We must confront it because it makes us weak in our convictions, shrink from addressing injustice, and fearful of speaking truth. In short, we must confront our codependency because it compromises our courage to follow Jesus.
Ike Miller is the author of Seeing by the Light and holds a PhD in theology from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is lead pastor and church planter of Bright City Church in Durham, North Carolina, where he lives with his wife, Sharon, and their three children.
(3) Kathryn on Twitter: “@ximenabarcelo_ @gaialect The codependent Millenial podcast is great for codependency specific topics. I also strongly recommend the angry Therapist’s podcast. He touches on a lot more than just codependency” / Twitter