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SOURCE: Dr. Henry Cloud
Challenge Codependency occurs when we don’t have an accurate awareness of our boundaries and behaviors, and we allow someone else’s needs to control and take over our lives.
Solution You may be inclined to jump in and “save the world.” But there are better things you can do for that individual that will improve their quality of life and spare you from the toxicity of a codependent relationship.
“I’ve been in an accident,” Bethany whimpered. Her voice was filled with pain-staking fear. “I’m ok, but can you come get me?”
I assumed she meant the hospital. She was sitting in jail.
My blurry, tired eyes adjusted to the harsh glow of my cell phone as I looked at the time. If I left within the next few minutes, I’d have a head start on morning rush hour.
As I pulled up outside the Metro Detention Center, I saw Bethany waiting on the sidewalk for me. She stood there looking down at the ground with a defeated look on her face, perhaps still hungover. Her arms were crossed over her torso, clinched tight around her frame.
My door locks clicked. She got in my car, never lifting her head. Her disheveled hair draped over her eyes as if to hide her embarrassment. I didn’t even make it to the first traffic light before her face fell into her hands. Bethany let out deep sobs with diaphragmatic breaths. I offered a napkin from my center console.
“I hit a pole,” she quivered. “No one else was involved, but I think I have a drinking problem, and I honestly have no idea what to do right now.”
When you watch a friend or loved one struggle with pain in their life, your first response may be to do whatever it takes to ensure they don’t have to endure any more than they have to.
Although you care for that person, what you’re witnessing is uncomfortable for you, so you may be inclined to jump in and be the hero. But there are better things you can do for that individual that will improve their quality of life and spare you from the toxicity of a codependent relationship.
1. Show empathy
Though I had never been in Bethany’s situation, I knew what it was like to experience sadness. I was all too familiar with hurt, and I understood what it meant to feel shame. Bethany didn’t need me to tell her what she had done wrong. She knew, and if I spent time telling her what I think she should have done, it would have closed the door to trust.
2. Set and maintain boundaries
Bethany was in need of emotional support, and the circle of people she trusted was small. She was having trouble processing her feelings and was having anxiety over the legal consequences she’d have to endure. She called frequently, all hours of the night, and while I was at work.
After a few days, I had to let her know I couldn’t always answer the phone, so I sent her a text. “Hey, Bethany. I’m sorry you’re experiencing this right now. I can’t talk at the moment but let’s set aside a time later this week, and I’d be glad to listen to you.” It may have hurt her feelings, but it saved my sanity.
3. Remember it’s not your battle to fight
Bethany had lost her car, her job and her dignity. She was facing more jail time, and it was becoming increasingly difficult to watch her struggle. Part of me wanted to help her make everything go away, but I couldn’t step in and offer to pay her attorney or her court costs.
I knew that what was happening in her life was part of her journey, and if I disrupted the course, I would be denying her the lesson she was meant to learn. If Bethany was going to change, she would have to endure the consequences of her actions.
4. Realize you can’t change someone
I helped Bethany find several local AA meetings to attend and put her in touch with an outpatient recovery program, but I couldn’t make her go. It had to be her decision. Sometimes she went; sometimes she didn’t, and I couldn’t force her into making the choice I wanted for her.
5. Your feelings matter, too
Helping someone in need can leave you feeling exhausted, resentful, angry, hurt, sad or frustrated. Not only is it ok to have these feelings, but you need to be able to express them to the person you’re helping. Sometimes I had to tell Bethany, “You know, what you’re going through is really tough, but I’m feeling overwhelmed with helping you right now.”
When you feel compelled to help someone with a serious problem, whether it’s out of love or as a favor to a friend, it could breed a codependent relationship if you continuously sacrifice your needs for the benefit of someone else. There are myriad reasons why you may find yourself in such situations, but by having an awareness of your own habits and behaviors, you can avoid a potentially dysfunctional relationship.