Last year I saw a therapist for a couple of months. It was the first time I had seen one since I was in high school, outside of marriage counseling. After the first session, in which I droned on about both of my marriages and other personal relationship issues, he concluded that I was codependent. I remember thinking it was quite early to be tossing around labels like that. I mean, we had only talked for an hour. He told me to go buy a book for codependents entitled Codependent No More and to read it.
Great. I have homework after my very first session.
It took awhile to find the book, but I eventually did. When I began reading I realized that my counselor had been right. Even though the book is targeted towards people who deal with alcoholics, I saw a lot of myself in the personal stories shared in that book.
Per Wikipedia (which is accurate in every which way)
“Codependent relationships are a type of dysfunctional helping relationship where one person supports or enables another person’s addiction, poor mental health, immaturity, irresponsibility, or under-achievement. People with a predisposition to be a codependent enabler often find themselves in relationships where their primary role is that of rescuer, supporter, and confidante. These helper types are often dependent on the other person’s poor functioning to satisfy their own emotional needs. Codependency often involves placing a lower priority on one’s own needs, while being excessively preoccupied with the needs of others.Codependency can occur in any type of relationship, including family, work, friendship, and also romantic, peer or community relationships. Codependency may also be characterized by denial, low self-esteem, excessive compliance, or control patterns.”
I have, in the past, been guilty of codependency in my marriages and in certain friendships. I would often wade into the personal lives of others on a mission (from God) to solve their problems without regard to the fact they didn’t want my help. I unwittingly enabled my first wife’s suicidal behavior for years. I enabled my second wife’s borderline narcissism by accepting 100% of the blame for her unhappiness. There are countless friendships where I’ve let friends run over me to make things easier for them. There are also other friendships where I barreled through boundaries to “help” with issues I couldn’t fix. I often put the needs of others before the needs of my own.
I caught myself in the act last year, and made a promise to myself that I would work on fixing this issue. Well, it’s a year later, and I don’t know if I’d ever declare it fixed, but I am confident in saying I’ve made significant progress. I’ve noticed my progress over the last few weeks. When friends confide in me I don’t immediately jump in and try to take control of their problems in a misguided attempt to fix them. I simply apologize for their unfortunate circumstances and ask, “What can I do?”
If they tell me nothing, I drop it. If they tell me they need me just to listen, I open my ears. If they actually ask me to do something for them (which hasn’t happened yet) I’ll do it. Within reason, of course. To be clear, I love helping people. It makes me feel good. But I’m no longer doing so unless I know the help is wanted.
You just can’t. What’s more, trying to help people who don’t want your help will piss them off and push them away. Frankly, if someone is engaged in self-destructive behavior there’s really nothing you can do for them if they don’t see their behavior as being such. It sounds cold, but probably the best thing you can do for someone sucked into a spiraling loop of self-destructive behavior is to walk away. Let them know why, but walk away. Tell them you can’t watch them destroy themselves. If keeping you in their life is important to them they might finally gaze inward and see the same self-destructive tendencies you see.
For instance, over the course of the last year many, many people voiced their concerns about my drinking habits. I ignored those concerns and told people I was fine. It was only a couple of times a week and never when the kids were around, or so I said. It wasn’t until I saw it had become an issue that things began to change.
I’m proud of the progress I’ve made, and I’m not proud of myself very often. I can actually look back at certain times in the past year and see where I’ve grown. Unfortunately, a lot of that growth came at the expense of friendships. Such is life, I guess, but in order for my mental health to be strong I have to avoid unhealthy relationships.
I’m (always) a work in progress, but at least I’m making progress.