Is Making Other People Happy Making You Miserable?
Codependence sneaks up on you. Here are some ways to break away.
Posted Sep 30, 2014
The other day I was talking to a coaching client about her work situation. People at her workplace were leaving in droves because of terrible conditions, excessive workloads, and a general lack of concern for employee well-being. She was beginning to find herself unable to cope with the stress, so she hired me to help her leave and find a better situation.
And yet when we started to talk about other options, she became consumed with guilt about leaving her dysfunctional workplace. "I don't want to drop the ball," she said. "I don't want to make their situation worse by leaving." Though her top goal in our work together was "Improve My Work Situation" (and by this she meant finding a new job ASAP), when we actually starting talking about the practicalities of moving on she got paralyzed.
I asked her if she had ever heard of codependence, a word originally used to describe the behaviors of the spouses of alcoholics and addicts. She said she had, so I asked her to define it.
"It's supporting others in their dysfunction at your own peril, at a cost to yourself," she said.
Well said, no? And does it sound at all familiar?
Codependency can become a part of any romantic, social, familial, or workplace relationship. I have a strong tendency toward this behavior myself, and have been aware of it for many years. There's such a fine line between being a loving, helpful, compassionate person and slipping into unhealthy preoccupation with others. You can find yourself in deep without having noticed how you got there—again. It happens so insidiously.
Recently I came across a small pamphlet I'd used to research codependence. It was published by the 12-step group Co-Dependents Anonymous. As I flipped through it, a few lines jumped out at me that I'd like to share here with you:
1. "Determining to control, to advise, to guide others, we put off our own good—indefinitely."
What are you neglecting in your own life because of relationship drama or preoccupations? Is there a part of your life—health, finances, talents and dreams, rest and relaxation—that has taken a back seat or been ignored while you've been so distracted by what's going on in the lives of others?
2. "We were people pleasers. We conformed. We rebelled. We blamed."
Do you recognize this pattern? In any of your current relationships, are you continually going around this messy, tiring emotional merry-go-round?
3. "Focusing on others to feel good about ourselves had become a compulsion over which we are powerless."
What I love about 12-step programs, and why they work for many people, is that you come to a place where you recognize that alone you can't change this deeply entrenched way of being, that you need help. Insight, awareness, and knowledge are very helpful in helping you change an unhealthy pattern. I'm a big fan of cognitive behavioral therapy, for example, which helps to change the way you think about situations and behave within them. But admitting powerlessness in front of a group of people who have wisdom and can help you, and praying for help in changing what you've never been able to change, can move the needle in ways greater than you'd ever hoped.
4. "Had our own instability and the lack of balance in our relationships affected our family lives, our careers, and our spiritual growth? Had we relegated our own joy and fulfillment to the bottom of our list of needs and wants?"
Has your life become a shriveled, anxious, tired version of what it could be? What does a healthy, thriving version of you look like? How might that version of you behave differently in your current relationships? And: What's the first step you could take to take care of you, and your life, right now? When you identify it, go out and do it—and then do something else to take care of yourself and your life later today.
And then do it again tomorrow.
If you feel that you struggle with codependence, I strongly recommend that you find a qualified licensed counselor or psychologist in your area to discuss your concerns. If they are of the opinion that codependence is a significant issue for you, consider joining a support group such as your local CoDA group.
Dr. Susan Biali, M.D. is a medical doctor, health and wellness expert, life and health coach, professional speaker, flamenco dancer and author. She is dedicated to helping people get healthy, reduce stress and enjoy more meaningful lives. Dr. Biali has been featured as an expert on the Today Show as well as other major media outlets, and is available for keynote presentations, workshops/retreats, media commentary, and private life and health coaching.
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Copyright Dr. Susan Biali, M.D. 2014