November 3, 2019

Translating the Subtle Messages a Codependent Person will Hear.


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Cancer has gotten my attention on many things.

But one thing I hadn’t quite counted on confronting was codependency.

And, oddly enough, or appropriately enough, I faced mine as I was placed in a position in which I needed to be taken care of in an intense way. There’s nothing like a threat of death, major surgery, and life-altering changes to one’s physical body to really get someone to face their own limitations and unflattering codependent nature.

One can argue we all are codependent to varying degrees. It’s not just about enabling a drug addict or an alcoholic by giving them money, a place to crash, or bailing them out of jail. Codependency is often more subtle than that.

Again, trusty-dusty Wikipedia gives us its definition:

“Codependency is a behavioral condition in a relationship where one person enables another person’s addiction, poor mental health, immaturity, irresponsibility, or under-achievement. Among the core characteristics of codependency is an excessive reliance on other people for approval and a sense of identity. Definitions of codependency vary, but it is generally defined as a subclinical, situational, and/or episodic behavioral condition similar to that of dependent personality disorder. The term is less individually diagnostic and more descriptive of a relationship dynamic…”


Human beings are nothing, if not codependent. After all, we’re social creatures, interdependent on working and living together. Each of us has strengths and weaknesses. The “many hands make light work” principle is often trotted out, encouraging unity and getting things done.

Yes, we need to be helpful, of service…within reason. With balance!

And here is where you and I can get tripped up, as our poor self-images, need for purpose, and extreme approval-seeking demand we overextend ourselves, again and again.

It would be ideal if we would and could recognize this, before we fling ourselves into self-destructive, unrealistic “save the world” patterns.

But often, we are too much in the middle of our self-imposed tornadoes to witness them spinning us out of control. And then, like Dorothy, from “The Wizard of Oz,” we say to our crisis-stricken lives, “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore!”

Cancer has strongly nudged, if not forced me to examine how I was showing up for others in a codependent fashion.

Maybe you’ll see some of yourself here.

Again, as human beings, it’s hard not to fall into at least a little codependency. Largely, I believe, that’s because it has a lot to do with unrealistic expectations, both others’ and our own. Boundaries can be blurry, if they even exist at all, when we traipse into a relationship dynamic with another person.

Codependency can be sneaky and subtle. It is often revealed through what others say to us. Here are just a few of my greatest hits. Enjoy.

“You’re so thoughtful!”

I have heard these words uttered repeatedly throughout my life. It usually follows on the heels of me doing some gift-giving. I love to give gifts; it’s a big way I express love.

However, I’ve needed to adjust my gift-giving, post-cancer. I soon discovered, although it was never voiced, certain people expected the gifts to keep rolling in after my diagnosis, while I was in the hospital, getting my surgery, and as my energy levels were zapped.

Still, that notorious expectation existed—people wanted things “back to normal” from me. Yes, they paid lip service, acknowledging my health crisis, saying things like, “You take care of yourself.”

Yet, actions do speak louder than words, don’t they?

Eventually, their patience wore thin. I was taking too long to recover. I wasn’t “back to normal.” I was different. And soon, there was the pressure for the gift pipeline to resume. Resentment and sarcasm were executed as I tried to “explain” why I just was not getting with the program.

And soon, unrealistic expectation reared its ugly head within me. Guilt. Arguments like, “I should give them money, flowers, and gifts as I did before. It’s not that bad. I can do this. They’re counting on me. I can’t let them down.”

I was saying this stuff as doctors strongly cautioned I “take it easy.” That meant no gift-giving, and no excessive thoughtfulness (obsession) with pleasing someone else.

I had to take care of myself. I had to rest. I had to receive gifts and help instead of worrying about dispersing them like Santa at Christmas.

Why this was codependent behavior:

What should everyone expect in this situation? When does expectation become demand?

Gift-giving and receiving have to do with the spirit in which it’s done (the intention from both giver and receiver), the expectation (from both parties), and the sense of self derived from doing so. (“Am I loved or worthless, based on the transaction?”)

That last one, especially, shines a big Klieg light onto the “all-or-nothing” way of thinking.

Codependency thrives on that premise. We’re either Savior or Villain. There’s no room in between.

“You’re very conscientious!”

This statement has also been directed at me, but not for gift-giving. Rather, it mostly operates in the context of “acts of service.” I do something for someone. Fairly straightforward, right?


Here was usually where I responded to an emergency. The only thing was, it wasn’t a one-time thing. No. I had to repeatedly rescue the individual. This was a pattern.

Yet I was not being conscientious for conscientious’ sake. I was simply envisioning the worst-case scenario…and it was solely up to me to prevent it.

How’s that for ego? How’s that for completely unrealistic, unhealthy, and unsafe expectation?

Why this was codependent behavior:

In these circumstances, whether they be rife with abuse, manipulation, or dysfunction, I was choosing. I think that’s what gets lost in the shuffle for so many of us, even within these circumstances. We are constantly choosing, making thousands of decisions each day about how we will respond to, well, life.

Iyanla Vanzant, a well-known life coach, has a great quote: “You can always make another choice.”

Not surprisingly, we codependents are not thrilled about that statement. We’d rather believe “there is no other choice” and “I have to do this.”

No, we don’t.

It’s not about shaming anyone who has been through abuse and treacherous situations. When you’re in it, you are in survival. There may not be much luxury to analyze the complexities of the environment.

However, if we can grasp any notion of power and control that we do have access to, we can tap into that power of “making another choice.” It’s not easy; it’s not instant. It’s ongoing and imperfect. It is possible, however. We can make different and better choices.

“You have a servant’s heart.”

This one still makes me cringe. I have heard it spoken to me within a volunteer context, where being pleasing and accommodating were held in high regard. And, usually, that means there is some form of worthy cause, implying self-sacrifice and “the greater good.”

In my personal experience, this has involved church. I want to state, church is just one of the many possibilities out there when it comes to being codependent in group settings. I’m not “picking on the church.”

However, yes, indeed, codependency is often encouraged within a church setting. For me, personally, whether I was doing something for a pastor, “the team,” or “for the Lord,” it still called into question what was appropriate…and what was not.

It is a sticky question to entertain. Just how do you and I deal with things when it appears The Almighty is counting on us?

But notice my words; I say “appears,” meaning, is that really what’s going on here? Or is it something else?

Volunteering is a noble, loving, human endeavor. But, if/when you and I add matters of faith to the equation, there can be added pressure and blurred boundaries to the mix.

I received a lot of great insights, camaraderie, and personal discoveries of myself within my church volunteering experiences. But, undeniably, I also received some toxic messages encouraging harmful codependent behavior for “the greater good.”

For me, that meant staying long hours, being sleep deprived, stressing myself out because of unrealistic expectations (from both myself and from church staff), and neglecting my husband and my writing, because, after all, “this” (whatever the current task or project of the day was) appeared to be that much more important. “This,” after all, included saving lives, saving souls, and feeding the hungry.

And so, I heard the statement, part approval, part warning: “You have a servant’s heart.”

As long as the pastors were pleased with my performance, as long as I made things flow easier, removed burdens, and was compliant and cheerful, while being self-sacrificing, I was, indeed, that stellar person with the servant’s heart.

Deviate from those mentioned examples, however, and I risk being the exact opposite? A selfish, unloving, uncaring person? Can you see the agonizing, double-bind trap to it all?

Why this was codependent behavior:

We all need to do our part. Yes. However, spoiler alert, misuses of power and codependency can thrive.

But, again, this goes beyond the church. Think of any “well-meaning cause” or “the greater good.”

Think of organizations and groups that have set such high bars of curing humanity’s ills. To make any and all of that happen, even the most well-intentioned group can fall prey to encouraging codependency.

There can, without anyone realizing it, emerge the following message: “You need to keep giving and doing at this high level, for the cause, so we can experience the results of it.”

Yet, there is no appreciation for the other results of keeping up this impossible pace: an emotional and mental breakdown, depression, anxiety, addictive behaviors, broken marriages and relationships, and the deterioration of one’s physical health.

And, while I was impacted by much of the above listed, what, again, got my attention the most was that last one, my cancer diagnosis. Now, to employ church terminology, my “temple,” my “vessel,” was at risk.

I wish I could say that my epiphany was one distinct moment. It wasn’t, even with my diagnosis. Rather, it was a subtle awakening, like slowly coming out of anesthesia.

I think that’s what it can be like for most of us codependents. We often don’t know what we’ve experienced until, perhaps, years, even decades, after the fact. Hindsight, 20/20 stuff.

But, sooner or later, we come to recognize the dysfunction, the pattern. And, sooner or later, we recognize it’s not working. Our way of dealing with life must change. People pleasing and being viewed as “nice” can bombard us with guilt and obligation. But we need to look closer at what those connotations are all about. And, within the framework of codependency, it’s about others’ needs being more important than our own.

Each of us needs to recognize that our needs, wants, and desires are just as valid as someone else’s. And sometimes, they take priority over that other person’s situation. It’s the cliché example of the oxygen mask on an airline flight. You need to put your own mask on first before you can help anyone else.

And, even if there is no one else around to help, you are worthy enough to pay attention to.

That is the translating we codependents need to be doing.

All by ourselves, without anyone else’s needs or demands, we are worth it.


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