How to identify when you’re caring too much — and what you can do to break codependent behaviors and cultivate healthier, more satisfying relationships.
Dave is his son Jack’s biggest soccer fan — you can tell by his boisterous presence on the sidelines. A former player, Dave knows what it takes to perform well, and he makes sure Jack never misses a practice. He runs drills with him on nonpractice days and monitors his diet to make sure he’s avoiding junk. After a bad game, Dave points out missed opportunities and revisits problem plays. Jack is a decent player, but his dad worries he won’t win a college scholarship if he doesn’t knuckle down.
If you ask Dave why he’s so involved with Jack’s soccer career, he’ll tell you it’s because he loves his son and is willing to do anything to help him succeed. What Dave doesn’t realize is that his sense of self-worth, his very identity, has become linked to Jack’s success on the soccer field. Worse, Jack’s own sense of self-worth is slipping, becoming tied less to his own performance than to how his dad sees himself in him.
Dave and Jack are fictional, but their stress-inducing dynamic is all too real. Experts call this type of relationship “enmeshed,” “fused,” “poorly differentiated,” or “codependent.” No matter what role a person plays, it’s as confusing as it is common.
The oft-loaded term “codependence” originated in recovery circles, where it’s used to describe enabling and other maladaptive behaviors people use to cope with emotional pain, such as a loved one’s alcoholism. But it isn’t just an issue for people involved with addicts.
“Emotional fusion fits everyone to greater or lesser degrees,” says Ruth Morehouse, PhD, codirector of the Marriage & Family Health Center in Evergreen, Colo. And these dynamics pervade all kinds of interactions, from casual encounters to long-term professional and family connections. Sooner or later, however, they can lead to relationships that are unfulfilling and dishonest — even, and sometimes especially, with the people who are most important to us.
“People treat you the way you teach them to treat you,” says Julie Sullivan, LCMFT, founder of Looking Glass Therapy and Mediation Center in Leawood, Kan. “You’ve put yourself in a certain role in a relationship, and then when you’ve had enough, you’re stuck in this role.”
Codependent behavior is tricky to identify, however, because it’s often disguised as a willingness to adapt to others’ needs or a selfless desire to help. We all see ourselves through the eyes of others occasionally, but trouble starts when we overidentify with how we’re seen (“I’m the reliable one!”) or become overly invested in how we see others (“What you should do is . . .”). We get confused about where we stop and other people begin.
And when we haven’t developed a strong sense of self — our place in the world, our boundaries, our values — and haven’t learned the skills to communicate wants and needs directly, we’re more likely to bend and fold ourselves to accommodate what we think others want. Or to manipulate situations and people to get what we want from them.
People consciously or unconsciously assign everyone else in their lives a role, explains Lauren Zander, cofounder and chairman of the Handel Group, a corporate consulting and private coaching company. They then devise strategies for dealing with people based on their presumptions about what these people want from them.
“You are conducting a puppet show in your life with the people around you,” Zander says. “You don’t realize that you are the director, manipulating people and situations based on your opinion of them in your head.”
The specific roles we play in this “puppet show” are typically passed down from generation to generation, says Jamie Huysman, PsyD, LCSW, a certified addictions professional based in Orlando, Fla. The roles we take on as children are replayed when we’re adults, and rare is the family that is immune to less-than-healthy dynamics.
“On one end of the continuum, you see the families of enmeshment where everybody has their spoon in your soup,” says Huysman. “On the other are the families of total detachment.”
Meanwhile, plenty of us land somewhere in the middle, neither smothered nor ignored, but having nonetheless acquired a set of self-limiting beliefs about our place in the world and our expectations of others. We all fall somewhere, as Huysman puts it, “along the bell curve of codependence.”
The point is, most of us could learn a thing or two about setting healthy boundaries. To that end, here are some of the most common codependent roles (don’t be surprised if you see yourself in more than one) — and some suggestions for how to change the script.
The Problem: When sacrifice is a way of being, you neglect your own need to receive love and care. Yet, paradoxically, that’s precisely what you are trying to get by jockeying for others’ appreciation or indebtedness. The approach usually backfires: Not only do you begin to resent those you’ve helped (who never seem to return the favor), but your so-called beneficiaries either take your suffering for granted (you’ve trained them well!) or begin to resent you right back.
A Healthier Choice: Self-Care
Understand the difference between selfishness and self-care. It’s not selfish to leave work on time, or to meet your friend after your workout. It’s not rude to split the check if you can’t afford to foot the bill. In almost every case, no one will go without if you tend to your own needs.
“It’s the same concept of the oxygen mask in the airplane,” says Sullivan. “If you don’t put your emotional oxygen mask on first, you can’t help anyone. You’ll be passed out in the aisle.”
The Problem: Everyone needs help sometimes. But when you feel personally responsible for another person’s comfort and well-being, you strip her of the opportunity to create her own comfort and well-being. You enable self-limiting behavior and effectively tell someone she is helpless without you. In time, she may even come to believe this.
A Healthier Choice: Empowerment
Ask yourself what you really want for your loved ones. Do self-reliance and competence appear anywhere on the list? If so, you have to step back and create the space for them — and occasionally refuse to step in.
Or maybe you realize that what you really want is to feel needed and valued in your relationships. Once you acknowledge this underlying motivation, take steps toward finding a more direct approach to feeling valued. An outside perspective can help, especially when it’s hard to imagine yourself outside the savior role.
“When you’ve found that you’ve forgotten yourself in this whole process, transformation may be about getting yourself a therapist,” suggests Huysman.
The Problem: This is a case where it truly takes two to tango: We may think of the person who constantly seeks advice as the one who lacks self-esteem. But people who feel compelled to perpetually advise and control others are equally insecure.“We call this ‘borrowed functioning,’” Morehouse explains. “The one who’s taking charge or telling someone what to do — that person is just as needy. They need someone who will let them be in charge to artificially bolster their self-esteem. The dependency is equal.”
A Healthier Choice: Better Boundaries
What if you let your partner decide how to handle an argument with his parents? What if a colleague comes to you with a problem, and instead of giving her advice, you just listen?
In Facing Codependence (Harper & Row, 2003), author and recovery expert Pia Mellody, RN, CSAC, describes boundaries as “invisible and symbolic ‘force fields’” that “give each of us a way to embody our sense of ‘who we are.’” If you are overly invested and involved in the decisions another person makes, you have breached his force field (and he has allowed you to do so). By setting and respecting healthy boundaries, perhaps with the help of a therapist, you can reframe your relationships around mutual respect.
The People Pleaser
The Problem: You know you’ve found that dark side when you feel that your gifts aren’t adequately appreciated, or when the thought of hosting another dinner party seems more chore than joy. You really know you’ve found it when you use your people-pleasing skills to control others, believing they will like you for the favors you do rather than for who you are. “People pleasing is a very passive form of manipulation,” says Marc Hertz, a St. Paul, Minn.–based consultant in the addiction and recovery field. “We often do things for others to get what we want or need from them.”
A Healthier Choice: Say No
When you are about to volunteer yet again, ask yourself some questions: Does this choice feed me or deplete me? Will these people really reject me if I don’t do what I think they want me to do? How does my body feel when I imagine committing to this — and when I imagine saying no?
“Every time you say yes to the small things, it prohibits you from saying yes to the big things,” Sullivan says, suggesting that more-conscious choice-making frees you to do the things that truly energize you.
“Learn to say no,” she says. “Practice it. Learn it.”
The Problem: “[Couples] tell me ‘We never fight’ and look at me like they want my approval,” says Sullivan. In her opinion, a total absence of conflict means an erosion of honesty.
Zander takes a similar view of artificial peace. “When I go into a corporation, the reason half the people don’t tell the boss what they’re thinking is because they’re worried about their jobs,” she says. Still, stuffing your honest feelings — rather than finding a gracious way to express them — will cost you over time.
A Healthier Choice: Speak Your Truth
If you don’t speak directly about problems because you believe your directness would cause trouble, Zander suggests rethinking your motives: “You don’t want to do damage, but all you’re doing is damage. The truth gets to the underlying problem. If you don’t express the truth, the issue or situation will never be resolved.”
It takes courage to speak truthfully and risk contradicting someone else’s viewpoint, but being honest doesn’t have to mean being confrontational. Let an aversion to conflict motivate you to find the most gracious, open-minded way to bring up thorny issues. As Sullivan asserts, “Conflict does not equal fighting. There are healthy ways to bring issues up and talk about what you’re feeling.”
If you see yourself in any of these roles, a hearty congratulations. Awareness is a critical first step to growth. “We think these are normal struggles,” says Morehouse. “You have to go through them and recognize them and see if you can develop a better way of relating.”
In her view, it is by the gradual process of differentiation — learning to hold on to yourself while maintaining relationships with others — that all human beings evolve and grow. When you set boundaries and acknowledge your own thoughts and needs, relationships become more honest, exploratory, and, ultimately, far more fulfilling.
Changing enmeshed relationships won’t happen overnight. When one person changes his or her role, others will shift accordingly — but not always willingly. As you start to shed codependent behaviors, expect some pushback. Learning to handle it gracefully is just another step toward more-satisfying relationships.
Or as Hertz succinctly puts it, “Do you want to pay the price for a bad relationship, or the price to maintain a good one?”
Illustrations by Gracia Lam