March 5, 2021

Idiot Compassion & Codependency: Why we can’t Save those who don’t want to be Rescued.

As I have bumped along in life, I have lived by the saying, “See a need; meet a need.”

It sounds kind, sweet, generous, selfless. And maybe it is all of those things, and maybe, it something else also. The equivalent of a “Kick Me sign” bullseye target on the backs of all codependents.

Now, somehow, it elicits an uncomfortable squirm or two, doesn’t it?

Pema Chödrön is an American Buddhist nun who has famously taught on the principle, “idiot compassion.” I happened upon her a few years ago as I was embarking on the full leg of my intense narcissistic abuse recovery tour (without the snazzy T-shirts). Had it not been for the onslaught of my abuse, I wouldn’t have discovered her. After all, what did this recovering Lutheran from rural Minnesota have in common with not only a Buddhist nun but a New Yorker, to boot?

(I can hear my Scandinavian ancestors, crying, “Uff-da”).

Anyway, idiot compassion can be regarded as enabling, as giving in to an unhealthy person or dynamic, simply because it’s easier to do that than it is to say no, and we cannot bear to see the struggling and the suffering of the situation or the person “going without.”

It is all about short-term payoff instead of delayed gratification or outright refusal of dysfunction.

And, in that light, I started thinking about my phrase, “See a need; meet a need.” Was that just idiotic compassion all along? Was that all there was to it? Not decency? Not love for my fellow man? Not helping? Just me being an idiot who thinks she’s being helpful when, really, all that is happening is just a chaotic Kumbaya effort on steroids?

Oh, Pema, help a Lutheran codependent out here!

Alas, I’m left to wander and sift through my own pasture of perceived needs and discern as to whether or not I should meet them with help…with my help, most specifically.

So, wander I did. I started picking apart what have been some common themes, sparking some necessary questions about their existence in my life.

What is it?

Or, as Shakespeare once said, “Hark, who goes there?”

First things first. What is the thing begging for our help? What is the so-called “need?”

Many of us abuse survivors, especially, can get caught up in hypervigilance, seeing danger, threat, and pressing need at every turn. Therefore, we may “hop to” meeting something out there that, according to you, appears to be a need, but maybe is just a want, a request, a question, or a circumstance, needing none of your interaction whatsoever.

My personal case in point?

Recently, I was over at a friend’s home. We were sitting on his couch, and his elderly cat was parked on his lap. Out of some Pavlovian habit, I asked if I could get my friend anything, because, you know, he was trapped under his eight-pound cat. Sounds like urgent danger to me.

My friend was not in distress. He was not in danger. There was nothing he needed or wanted. Yet I saw his cat on the lap reality as something that needed tending to Johnny on the spot.

Never mind the absurdity that I was a guest in his home. He, in the name of hospitality and good manners, would normally be the one inclined to ask me if I needed or wanted anything.

So, for you, what is it? What is the thing set before you?

Did you put it there? Is the need a need?

What does it look like?

The old saying goes, “There is no reality; only perception.” So, what are we perceiving about a person or a situation? Are they a doomed, helpless victim? Can they be “shown the light” by us?

We can project and catastrophize a worst-case scenario onto someone else. Life or death. Dire need.

“See a need; meet a need.”

We see someone in distress, maybe even in peril. Maybe they send us a call for help.

Or maybe we simply volunteer ourselves for their personal rescue. We see a need and try to meet that need. Forget about if someone else is more qualified or better trained. Forget about asking ourselves if we should be doing this in the first place. We swoop in there and determine our intentions and efforts will, indeed, save the day.

Or maybe we do this.

We completely underestimate a situation, failing to heed the red flags. The addiction, the womanizing, the abuse, the theft, aren’t that bad.

We sense something is toxic and unhealthy. Maybe we have taken someone to detox, bailed them out of jail, or been hit by them. But seeing the need, the actual need, for what it is, without flinching, is not something we want to do. It’s too difficult, too painful, too inconvenient to do so.

So, we turn our version of a blind eye, and we rationalize that we are helping their need. Maybe we even arrogantly assert that we are the only ones who can help them. We are the superheroes, the undying, unconditional love support person. We can love them into health and healing because, well, we are there on the scene.

Do we see danger?

Or do we simply downplay something that is harmful to us?

The definition of insanity is repeatedly doing the same thing but expecting a different result. How many times have you encountered this need before?

“A man of great anger must pay the penalty; if you rescue him, you will have to do so again.” ~ Proverbs 19:19

Scripture’s take on anger issues can also be interchangeable with anything else deemed dangerous and unhealthy. And those are usually the attention-getting things clawing for our intervention.

I have been in friendships in which rent was always, somehow, past due, there was no food in the house, and their marriages were always on the brink of collapse and/or a felony being committed. High stakes, high drama.

And even though tears were the dominant staple in the sob stories I was confronted by, make no mistake, anger was rife throughout each circumstance. As I came to each dysfunctional rescue, Proverbs 19:19’s “man of great anger” soon showed up. It showed up in the underlying fueled causes for various dysfunctions, like unresolved trauma and unmet need. It showed up in white-hot rage that absolutely refused to learn the lesson, get help, make amends.

Indeed, a one-time rescue with such a person, inevitably, resulted in another trek around the mountain (but with no Sherpa to help bear the baggage).

Centuries’ old scripture and Pema’s well-taught idiot compassion seemed to utter (with a heavy sigh) the same perspective:

“Here we go again. Proceed at your own risk.”

Through these dysfunctional relationships, I learned that my best intentions and heart’s desires were no match for a human being’s free will. People choose. People can choose destruction. People can choose destruction and will not be deterred from that choice, even if it means we get harmed in the process.

Yep, swallow that. It’s a pretty spiky pill.

“See a need; meet a need.”

Oh, really, now? How’s that working out? Are you and I broke, with ruined credit, wrecked health, damaged reputations, and tattered marriages?

Are we the ones now in need, all because we tried to meet an idiot compassion situation, presenting itself to us as a need?

As we, perhaps, dare to answer those questions, desperately dreaming that Pema Chödrön will kiss our foreheads and feed us Rocky Road ice cream, we should probably take a pit stop at a few other questions as well:

>> What has changed?

>> What has not?

>> Why is this situation (this same old situation) before us (again)?

>> Will tending to this need hurt us?

>> And, if so, why is that acceptable?

Answering these questions can shed light on the deeper truths to who and why we are in the world. What drives us?

Is being a compassionate idiot soothing to us somehow? What is the payoff we’re getting from being this rescuing idiot?

What need do we think we are meeting and/or healing, by trying to rescue someone who does not want to be rescued?

Are we avoiding our own issues and pain? What are those issues? What is that pain?

Does acting with idiot compassion give us an inflated sense of purpose, meaning, and identity?

Indeed, “See a need; meet a need” is not quite as innocent as it appears. The powerful prospect or even the lure of a “need” may mean way more than it should to us. The “need” can assure us with distraction, obliteration, and a sense of self. It can be a respite to dealing with our own problems. It can feed our savior complex. It can turn the “bad boy or girl” into a “good boy or girl.” It can be the appropriate punishment we think we deserve.

Yeah. Maybe it’s more like, “See their need; meet our need.”

Eww. Not a flattering portrait, is it? But it is probably the exact portrait we need to gaze upon.

It comes down to motivation. What is it for us? Why do we insist on helping? Who is that for, exactly?

Why do we insist on being the idiot? Aren’t we all smarter than that?


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