When you care too much - The case of the codependent

Do you often stay at work late to help a colleague?  Do you never take your allotted breaks?  Would you continuously pay your kid’s rent when it’s not your responsibility to do so?  Do you often stay on the phone with friends in need a lot longer than your schedule allows?  Would you gift others with manicures and pedicures but claim to never have the time or money to do those things for yourself?  If this sounds familiar, you are not alone.  It’s called codependency and it’s rampant in the population of high functioning adults I see in my office.  As far as I’m concerned, it is one of the biggest reasons 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 alcoholism.  Essentially, an alcoholic finds him/herself in a codependent relationship with someone who acts as their caregiver, over-functioner, and/or enabler.  As we all know, alcoholics might knowingly or unknowingly seek out an individual who will “help” them.  …help them pay bills, help them get groceries, help them essentially continue their bad habit.  But you don’t need alcoholism to be present to witness strong codependency.  Unfortunately, these “helpers,” not only exist, but are in abundant supply.  How do I know?  I see them e-v-e-r-y s-i-n-g-l-e d-a-y!!! 

Even when alcohol is not in the picture, codependency is very much alive and well.  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.  In continuing to provide shelter for their adult child, the parents are enabling his dysfunction.  The worst part is that the nature of this codependent relationship might go undetected for years if nobody becomes self-aware.

However, the first person to get help is, unsurprisingly, the individual in the role of the “taker” or “receiver.”  This individual is, after all, the drug addict, or the alcoholic, or the under-achiever…you know the one with the “real problem.”  Well, I’m here to tell you that both individuals need healing and I’d like to focus my attention on the “giver” as their dysfunction is often misconstrued as caring 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 caregiver, in a codependent relationship is just as unhealthy as the one who receives care.  Think about it for a second.  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 who is engaging 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 at times 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 do more while they 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 realization that is hard 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 to that is, “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?   

Well, the first step is to admit that you might be in one or (likely) many codependent relationships and you must acknowledge your role as the over-functioning excessive 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, I know that 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.

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