I spent most of my life thinking that codependent behavior was buying alcohol for alcoholics. I pictured a weak but loving person giving some drunk on the street a bottle of booze because at least the addict would be happy for a little while. Or maybe going to the bar, picking their loved one off the floor and taking them home, putting them to bed, only to do it again the next day. My ideas were mostly informed, I believe, by the movies.
Turns out codependent behavior is a little more complicated. Turns out I didn’t just have codependent tendencies, but full blown behaviors that needed to be addressed. So this is my personal list of codependent behavior that has made my life miserable. Addressing it has made my life much more enjoyable. And to be honest, this has caused me to face and recover from griefs from which I thought I could not recover.
So here is my own list of codependent beliefs and behaviors that stole my joy and prevented healing in my relationships:
- I knew what was better for others than they did. This is a pretty typical codependent approach to the lives of others. When we genuinely believe that if others only took our advice, then they would be fixed, we come from a place of pride and not love. This is a difficult one. After all, wisdom and experience do teach some hard lessons. And we want to share those lessons.
Here is the difference. Love tells the truth without judgment or condemnation. The young wealthy man asked Jesus what he needed to do to enter the kingdom of Heaven. Jesus told him. He didn’t want to follow Jesus at that high of a cost. He wasn’t ready to. Jesus did not argue. He treated the young man’s choice as a real choice, which it was.
Many Christians will disagree with this one. After all, we point the way to Christ. We are to make disciples of all nations. But codependent behavior is all mouth and no ears.
To be codependent is to prescribe simple fixes for broken people rather than to grieve with the grieving and to mourn for the lost.
- I got angry when people didn’t take my advice. Codependent behavior means constant frustration. After all, people don’t take advice most of the time. They do what they are going to do because of a series of complex emotional realities. But codependency says that if I have pointed out to you the solution to all your ills and you fail to heed my advice, there must be something wrong with you.
This approach is again prideful. John 5:22 says, “The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son.” And Jesus is not judging us, but inviting us to be one with Him and interceding for us continually. Jesus was not angry at the wealthy young man; He was grieved. Grief is an expression of love and loss. I am reminded of the story of the disciples telling Jesus to rain fire and brimstone on a village that rejected Him. Jesus’s response was to rebuke the disciples, not the people whose hearts were closed.
If you find yourself eager for people to reap the consequences of their mistaken actions, you do not operate in love, but judgment. This codependent behavior will keep you from enjoying relationships and will cause your heart to grow cold.
- I took on responsibilities that were not mine because I was the ‘only one who cared if things were done right’. To be codependent is to be exhausted and busy all the time. If you come behind people and finish their tasks for them, you judge them and elevate yourself to martyr status at the same time.
Here is one way to tell if you are codependent. Do you finish people’s sentences, interrupt their explanations, or tell their stories for them because they aren’t doing it right? If your first response to people is, “Well, actually…” then you are not only insufferable, you are codependent. You are co-opting their testimony right out of their mouths. If you listen to others, they will listen to you. Relationships will be much more enjoyable for everyone.
- I feared others’ failures as much as I feared my own. To be codependent is to be anxious all the time. After all, failure is the great enemy of all that is right and good in the world. Or is it? If you interfere with the failures of others, you deny them their learning curve. You, in fact, prevent them from acquiring the wisdom gained from painful experience. You are complicit in their repeated failures.
This is the province of helicopter parents. Their children’s failures are their own. Failure must be avoided at all costs. But if a parent takes on the responsibility of their child’s education, what will that child learn?
- I protected others from the truth because ‘they couldn’t handle it’. Walking on eggshells is the uncomfortable fate of the codependent. If you have someone who is unpredictable in their reactions to the point you lie to them, you are enabling an abusive relationship. If you keep painful secrets because others can’t handle the weight, you are again, living in a dangerous zone of pride.
People must carry the weight of their own lives. Protecting others from truth is the same as lying. We mustn’t set ourselves up as keepers of truth or as sacrificial lambs. We put ourselves in God’s place when we do. Additionally, if you do not tell others the truth about how their behavior affects you, then you enable them to continue the behavior. No good comes of this. Ever.
One of the games my kids liked to play in high school around the dinner table was ‘The Mating Call’. It sounds terrible, but was incredibly funny. It stemmed from a romance I read in my youth. The heroine threw herself into the arms of the hero, a brilliant and wealthy businessman, and cried, “Darling! Administrate me!” For instance, the mating call attributed to my husband was “We need a system.” And with six kids between us, it is no wonder he said this phrase often.
My point here is that the mating call of the codependent and the narcissist is the same.
While they come from very different places, the message that both send the world is “I can save you!”
The narcissist wants to be glorified as the hero in their own grandiose narrative. The codependent wants the world to be perfect and safe with everyone following the rules, which just happen to coincide with their own world view.
To give up codependent behavior is a double edged sword.
Establishing healthy boundaries is hard and people who have hitherto enjoyed your hard labor on their behalf resent losing that service.
But living with far less anger and without the constant encroachment of exhaustion is pretty awesome. The catch is that you share in the sorrows of Christ.
Living in reality means that you understand you are not a savior… of anyone. It also means that you learn to grieve as you watch natural consequences overtake loved ones. But wait it out, for lessons get learned and battles get fought. Our participation matters.
Prayer, unconditional love, basic honesty, and good boundaries win far more battles than the impossible battle of living someone else’s life for them.
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