- Would you describe caretaking as a way of life? Your calling?
- Are you a people pleaser? Loved by everyone?
- Are you always loyal, lending a hand to friends and family whenever they’re in need?
- Are you great at anticipating the needs of others? But often have trouble being decisive in your own life and taking care of yourself?
- Do you struggle to accept change?
- Do you feel guilty a lot?
- Have you ever been unfairly called judgmental or manipulative, just for helping?
- Do you feel at your best and most useful when you are helping others?
A few affirmative answers are not enough to draw any conclusions. A majority of “Yeses” might warrant the questions, is it possible I’m missing the mark when I’m honestly trying to be a loving, caring, compassionate Christian? Am I codependent?
A mentor wisely suggested I write my first seminary paper on codependency, and what the Bible has to say about it. Let’s just say he didn’t suggest it because he thought I knew all I needed to on the subject —
I’ve done a few other studies (including Escape from Codependent Christianity by Dr. James Richards which inspired much of this blog). It’s fascinating how commonly we — especially women — are taught from childhood that codependent behaviors are synonymous with love, motherhood, femininity, compassion, generosity and a good Christian life.
I still struggle not to fall into old patterns — avoiding conflict, people pleasing, and needing to be liked by everyone to name a few. However, He has transformed me, and codependence is not my usual way of life. Years of trying to accomplish what wasn’t mine to do (things I thought were loving and giving) wore me out.
Several friends are new to the ideas of codependence and the importance of motivations in our lives. Their questions and the recognition of my own recent slip ups have prompted me to write this conversation starter.
I’m a sojourner, not an expert. The purpose of this blog is simply to provoke thought – not to academically, psychologically, or theologically “cover” the topic of codependence. To help us recognize caretaking flesh vs. Christ-centered compassion. To suggest we take responsibility for ourselves, and give responsibility back to others. To fully accept our God-given identity and the TRUTH that He sufficiently provides all we need.
Codependent is the term used for relationships in which people (often without realizing it) use one another to get their own emotional needs met in a selfish and destructive manner. We depend on someone for something that we have no right to expect from him/ her. It often looks and feels like we are loving, caring, being helpful, giving, teaching… but underneath, it is not good.
Proverbs 29:25 warns, “The fear of human opinion disables; trusting in God protects you from that.” When you get your emotional well-being and identity from the actions and opinions of another, God takes second place to that person — in the Bible it’s called idolatry.
Maybe a fictitious story will help explain. A woman is married to an alcoholic. She supports him on his road to recovery and rejoices in his eventual sobriety. Shortly thereafter, she plunges into depression (She is lost without a project, purpose, and someone to control and care for — her identity is threatened). She needs to be needed. Possibly, her emotional crash sparked her husband to drink again (he feels comfortable in his role as dependent and controlled — irresponsible). Almost immediately after he hits the bottle her depression lifts, and she springs to action as caregiver and supporter, feeling responsible for keeping him in line. The couple thinks they have troubles like anyone, but their life normal.
Codependent people are often attracted to each another and keep each other trapped in dysfunction — each saying, being, and giving what the other needs to hear and receive in order to feel okay despite the chaos and destruction their choices create. When one person becomes more healthy — it usually disrupts the relationship.
Compare the following sketches of two types of people when they’re deeply involved in the lives of others —
Codependent, Dysfunctional people:
I feel tired, anxious, fearful and liable – and try to fix, protect, rescue, control, carry their feelings, and don’t listen well — My focus is the solution, answers, circumstances, being right, details and performance. I expect the person to live up to my expectations.
Emotionally healthy people:
I feel relaxed, free, aware, and a high sense of self-worth – and therefore I show empathy, encourage, share, confront, am sensitive, listen – as I am concerned with relating person-to-person, feelings, and the individual. I expect the person to be responsible for himself. I can trust and let go.
Which scenario rings more true for your relationships? I think many of us relate to some elements of the first picture, when caring and loving others. We feel tension and frustration in a relationship, but aren’t sure why or what to do about it.
At first glance, the Bible can seem confusing. Galatians 6:2 instructs us to “bear one another’s burdens.” Two verses later there’s a seeming contradiction — “each must bear his own burden.” These verses actually give clarity to us in understanding our roles in the lives of others.
The words in verses 2 and 4 are different in the original Greek. Verse 2 commands us to come alongside others to share in the extraordinary and temporary burdens they may encounter. People need our intense support for a short while in the unique storms of life.
But in verses 4-5 the inference is collective, referring to the whole of everyday life — the normal emotional, financial, and behavioral responsibilities that come with adult living. We are not to enable people in these areas by taking responsibility for them and care taking in an unhealthy way. Each person should have space to examine his own character and behavior according to the Word of God — and to respond as God directs through the Holy Spirit.
If we are too involved doing good and feeling responsible for others, our loved ones may never experience the consequences of their own character and mistakes. And they may not have the space to seek and hear the convicting voice of the Holy Spirit.
However, Jesus definitely left us with instructions to love one another: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (John 13:34) Jesus’ entire life modeled compassion for and sensitivity to other’s needs. When our behaviors are self-denying and caring, we honor Jesus – but codependency does not. What’s the difference?
The compassion urged in the Bible is not characterized by manipulation, control, emotional dependency on others, or a need for approval — the motivation for serving is pure. The healthy Christian finds his identity in the love, acceptance, forgiveness and redemption of Jesus – as opposed to finding identity in compulsive caregiving and approval. She is compelled to compassion simply by Jesus’ love.
If we think we may have codependent tendencies, what what can we do? Start by prayerfully giving up ALL your “rights.” If you don’t believe that Jesus is truly all you need, this idea seems wrong. Prayerfully ask God what He wants you to surrender to Him.
What trusting Jesus as my Life means is that moment-by-moment, I am free to choose to…
Give up the right to be: Accepted, avoid conflict, understood, in control, perfect, used by Jesus, successful, competent, strong, unforgiving, loved, smart, treated fairly, rescued, listened to, encouraged, noticed, respected, trusted, married, comfortable, honored, healthy, financially secure, right… (add your own, the idea is we have no entitlements)
Replace them with a willingness to be/ feel: Rejected, confront, misunderstood, out of control, make mistakes, fail, inadequate, weak, forgive, unloved, dumb, mistreated, abandoned, ignored, criticized, invisible, viewed as insignificant, viewed with suspicion, single, in pain, embarrassed, sick, bankrupt, wrong… (expect troubles and persecution as part of following Jesus)
But know Jesus is faithful to be my: life, husband, comforter, adequacy, peace, reputation, strength, support, protector, Savior, defender, wisdom, fullness… (ruthless trust and belief in Jesus as my all-in-all, my sufficiency)
What will this look like practically in relationships? THROUGH CHRIST we can live life live abundantly as Jesus promises; fully alive in
- boldness and confidence,
- sharing with others,
- loving the unlovable,
- taking chances,
- being assertive,
- accepting myself and others,
- being flexible and relaxed…
I like to picture the love of Christ flowing to me, through me, to others; I am simply a conduit to be used by HIm. If I make myself available to Him, the results are all up to Him! What a relief! The pressure is off, and I’m free to focus on HIM!
We can replace the patterns of our flesh and the culture of the world by emulating the love and compassion of Christ . He will change us and show us His way, when we surrender our rights to His will.
“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:2)
If you would like to receive future posts by email, comment below and check the appropriate boxes. You can unsubscribe at any time.
*** This is one of those posts I sheepishly published… but understanding codependence and how naturally and unknowingly I was helping, serving and loving others in a codependent fashion was so freeing! It was a HUGE growth experience for me (and a room full of wonderful women who studied with me). My prayer is if you think you might feel tired and lifeless in some of your relationships due to well-intentioned codependence, that you will do some research yourself. Pray and ask God to transform you. Blessings!