Self-care is not Self-ish
by Deirdre Hally Shaffer, LCSW
“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. Among the core characteristics of codependency, the most common theme is an excessive reliance on other people for approval and identity.” This definition by author R. Skip Johnson may be the most succinct explanation of a term that’s difficult to define.
In 1986, Melody Beattie’s bestseller Codependent No More sold eight million copies. Her book brought the term to light specifically in regard to people who were in a relationship with someone with an alcohol and/or drug addiction. She describes codependency as a natural behavior of loving and caring that can progress to an unhealthy over-focusing on someone else that leads to neglect of self-care. In an effort to be helpful, someone exhibiting codependent behavior will help their loved one, but in a way that prevents that person from experiencing the natural consequences of their dysfunctional behavior. Examples include covering up a loved one’s drinking and its effects to ‘protect’ them or the family, completing someone else’s responsibilities to lessen stress, helping an unemployed person financially when they have the ability to work, and making excuses for someone’s poor behavior.
All relationships need inter-dependency. Being able to trust and rely on someone and create an atmosphere of teamwork requires give and take. On the continuum of codependency, what may begin as helpfulness and partnership can, unknowingly, cross the line into enabling behavior. These relationships begin to feel unbalanced, with one partner over-functioning and the other under-functioning. The over-functioning partner can feel overwhelmed, stressed, tired, anxious and depressed without knowing why. Sometimes the patterns of enabling become so entrenched that they are performed out of habit without self-reflection.
Codependent people are kind, empathic, responsible and altruistic. They make great friends, partners, employees and clients (my favorites), especially when they learn to take the focus off others and to focus on themselves.
The formula for recovery is setting boundaries that permit self-protection, self-love and personal growth. One theory is that codependent people want to help heal others because they are able to intensely feel the pain of others. In fact, they must learn to help themselves by dealing with their discomfort with these feelings.