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Wellness Matters: Codependents appear to be controlling, but are the ones being controlled

Linda McGinnis
KyForward columnist

In her book, Codependent No More, Melody Beattie defines a codependent as someone “who has let another person’s behavior affect him or her, and who is obsessed with controlling that person’s behavior.” We often believe that we’d be happy if the other person would just change.

Many of us think that we need to be in charge of the behaviors and choices of another adult (or perhaps several adults). A few of us even believe that we are supposed to be in charge of others. Otherwise, how will the person know what to do, or how to do it? Hasn’t this person made several wrong decisions, sometimes the same wrong decision, over and over? It is clear that they need us, we tell ourselves. I am only doing this because I care about [the person, or their spouse, or their children, or someone else these bad decisions are affecting].

Telling others what they should or shouldn’t do occurs so often in our culture that many of us define the lack of attempting to manage someone else as synonymous with not caring about that person. We believe we can see the choices of others and the consequences of their choices clearly. Thus, we are not being a good friend, a loving family member, a dependable spouse or partner, or a caring co-worker, if we keep our clairvoyance to ourselves. But let’s be honest for a moment. Just who is all this managing really about?

Ask yourself these eight questions:

1. Do I become irritated or angry when someone I care about makes choices contrary to what I have advised?

2. Do I feel guilty, like I haven’t done enough, when the person I care about makes a poor choice?

3. Do I struggle with understanding the difference between choices that affect me as opposed to choices being about me?

4. Do I assign personal, rigid meanings to the person’s choices and behaviors (e.g., If he doesn’t do what I have told him to do, this can only mean doesn’t care about me/about our kids/about our relationship)?

5. Do I assume the other person sees and experiences the world the same way I do?

6. Do I find maintaining boundaries difficult, sometimes impossible, when someone I care about doesn’t react well to them?

7. Do I believe I have the power to manage the thoughts and feelings of other people?

8. Do I believe I know what anyone/everyone else is thinking?

Unless you have lived completely devoid of human contact throughout your adult life there’s a good chance you answered yes to at least two of these questions. After a couple of decades of therapy, I am finally down to one (No. 6 is still an issue). However, if you answered yes to more than two, then you are experiencing another person’s choices in ways that are as much about you as they are about him or her. You may be crossing the line into codependency.

According to Beattie, “Codependents appear to be depended upon, but they are dependent. They look strong but feel helpless. They appear controlling but in reality are controlled themselves… .” They are controlled by the behaviors of others.

Beattie has written extensively and brilliantly about codependency. I am not in her league as a writer and remain simply a student of her work. My goal as a therapist is to make as many people as possible aware of what codependency is, and I encourage most of my clients to read Beattie’s works on this unhealthy and potentially devastating issue. However, my goal with this writing is to examine the other end of the codependent spectrum.

Many people think in absolutes. Things are either “good or bad,” “right or wrong,” “black or white.” They learn a little about codependency, label it a bad thing and then swing their psychological pendulums in the opposite direction. They become so focused on setting and maintaining strict boundaries that they end up hurting many who care about them and damaging important relationships.  

While codependency is, without question, one of the most talked about and written about issues in the therapy world (I use the word “issue” as opposed to disorder because codependency is not a diagnosis, according to the DSM-IV), it is important to remember that the opposite of codependency is just as unhealthy.

Several years ago a colleague and I were discussing our plans for the upcoming Christmas holiday. My colleague told me that he had recently phoned his mother and told her that he would not be coming home for Christmas. He explained to me that Christmas with his family was a “hassle” that he experienced as chaotic and anxiety provoking.

I wanted to ask, “Who doesn’t experience Christmas this way?” but I kept silent. He said he had decided to spend Christmas at a beach resort, alone, and to just relax because this was what he needed. I know his family so I asked him, “What was your mom’s reaction?” He said, “Oh, she cried. Christmas is the only time she gets to see all of her kids and grandkids.” He continued happily, “But it’s not MY job to manage her emotions. I’m not gonna get pulled in to that.”

Had he ask my thoughts I would have told him that his choice sounded pretty darned inconsiderate to me. He had clearly hurt his mother’s feelings and was taking no ownership of it. Had he asked my thoughts, I would have told him that attending a family event that your mother is eagerly anticipating – even if it means you are inconvenienced for a few hours – is not an act of codependence. Causing your mother to cry, however, and then attempting to spin it as if you’ve just demonstrated the soundness of your mental health is the act of an egotistical jerk. But he didn’t ask what I thought.

To make sure we are not codependent, must we be hurtful toward those who care about us? Does a balanced psyche require a callous indifference toward the feelings of others? No … and no. Unfortunately, there are those who are self-serving and insensitive and who cite these off-putting behaviors as examples of how to avoid becoming codependent.

While it is true that people who are thoughtless and inconsiderate are less likely to be codependent, they are still thoughtless and inconsiderate people. They certainly should not be considered as role models for the rest of us. In fact, the relationship histories of adults with such narcissist traits are less goal-worthy than those who have codependent traits.

While a codependent’s boundaries are often weak and inconsistent the narcissist sets rigid, inflexible boundaries. They are described as “mean” people. In a 2009 interview with Christine Stapleton of the Palm Beach Post, Beattie warns, “One of the biggest problems I have with the codependent recovery movement is people consider themselves recovered when they don’t give to anyone, they’re not loving and kind. [This is] not what I’m talking about. It’s the other side of the coin and it’s just as bad … a sense of over-entitlement, over-protection and self-esteem that crosses the line into narcissism.”

Avoiding codependency does not require you to damage relationships. Offering unsolicited advice to a loved one when he or she is clearly headed toward making a damaging decision is very often an act of kindness. When a friend is floundering through a territory in life that you have navigated before, withholding your counsel is not a loving act.

So with these two extremes made evident, how can anyone keep their boat in the middle?

First, be kind and be respectful, especially to those who care about you. Respecting the feelings of others is not the same thing as being responsible for their feelings. And setting boundaries does not mean building walls. Many boundaries need to be firm, of course, but some actually work better and are more effective when they are made of elastic.

Second, with regard to steering away from codependent behavior, it is important that you be at peace with the fact that you are not the single, driving force behind the decision-making of other people – nor should you be. You may be one of a thousand factors weighing in on another’s decisions, but the biological and psychological processes of why any of us do what we do are, by design, exceedingly complex. Take some pressure off yourself and enjoy being liberated from this burden. Breathe deeply, smile and find comfort in the knowledge that while you do matter to others, in the arena of their decision-making processes, you simply are not that important.

Third, if you tend to think in absolutes and adopt definitive positions easily, and if the last sentence of the preceding paragraph troubles you, please talk with a therapist. It may be critical to your relationships as well as to your overall well-being.

Linda McGinnis, MA, MSW, LCSW, practices at Access Wellness Group in Lexington. Linda’s therapeutic approach is psychodynamic-based and is effective and adaptable to both short-term and long-term therapy. She is qualified in helping clients manage stressors and conflicts within the workplace as well as helping them address more personal issues related to family and loved ones.

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