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.