by Teresa McBean
I hate labels.
“I’m just a raging codependent! My therapist swears I’m suffering from the disease of codependency. I personally think my wild kids have just made me crazy!” a woman announces after she sashays into the meeting twenty minutes late. “Who wouldn’t be crazy with all the chaos going on in my life?”
She chuckles as she says it, inviting the group to join her in sympathy. She rustles around and squeezes into a seat between two women who just moments ago were pouring out the pain so closely associated with love gone awry. The room falls silent in the face of such jocularity over such a serious malady.
All the signs and symptoms are present–she is a raging “codependent.” She’s doing what many of us do–labeling our dysfunction and hanging it around our neck like a red warning flag. We make little jokes about it. We warn others of our affliction and dare them to enter into relationship with us at their own risk. That’s why I hate labels.
Years ago experts began observing a cluster of behaviors in sick families and decided to call these symptoms codependency. This thing we call codependency helps us identify one way of living that contributes to bad loving. But labeling doesn’t help us find solutions. If all we’re going to do is give ourselves a label and act like it gives us permission to keep up the cycle of a hurting love . . . I hate that!
On the other hand, if we can identify what’s going wrong after we “go codependent,” perhaps we can find a way to love better.
First, let me ask you a question: Do you know what codependency means? I ask because I realize that we throw that term around like loose change, sometimes without a true understanding of what it means. The definition of codependency has evolved over the years–so it’s no wonder we find it a bit confusing!
Pia Mellody, a nationally recognized authority on codependency, describes it as a disease of immaturity. She has a list of symptoms that she uses to describe how codependents are unable have a healthy relationship with themselves. Does that startle you? It does me.
I hear stories from men and women who describe with great pain and passion their inability to maintain a healthy relationship with others. Parents, children, spouses, significant others, bosses, employees, extended family, friends, even enemies–all their relationships end up hurting. People consistently tell me one particularly misguided belief about their relationships: other people are to blame. Other people hurt us, and then we get angry, frustrated and depressed. We don’t understand why this hurting love keeps happening to us.
Remember Mellody’s theory: the problem lies in our inability to have a healthy relationship not with others, but with ourselves. This is hard to hear when we believe that others cause our pain.
Here are her five symptoms of codependency. (For further explanation, see Pia Mellody, A. Miller and J. Keith Miller, Facing Codependence, San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989, especially chapter two. I’ve paraphrased liberally.)
- Difficulty loving self.
- Difficulty protecting oneself.
- Difficulty identifying who one is and knowing how to share that
appropriately with others.
- Difficulty with self-care.
- Difficulty being appropriate for one’s age and various circumstances.
Mellody, Miller and Miller go on to describe how codependents see their problem relationships through a faulty lens. Codependent lovers attribute failed relationships to other people’s bad behavior. When we back up from that belief and examine it carefully, we can see that it leaves little room for hope. If all failures are the result of another person’s choices, then we are helpless victims to the whims of others. If all our unhealthy, hurtful relationships are someone else’s fault, there is absoultely nothing we can do to keep it from happening over and over again.
That kind of faulty logic leaves one feeling unlucky in love. The truth is–and this is a tough one to swallow–we are not the recipients of random acts of bad loving. We are relating to others in a way that creates an environment where unhealthy love thrives and healthy love dies. We can change how we’re relating. We don’t have to live like this anymore.
When my daughter was four, she decided she wanted her room painted pink. Pink is a tricky color to pick off a paint chart, so I spent a long time deciding on just the “right” shade.
Everyone who paints knows that when you roll on that first swipe, you have to let it dry before deciding if you like the color, so I ignored the garish glare of pink as I swiped, and swiped, and swiped paint across the walls of her room. I had taken a long time picking this color–how could I be wrong? When it dries, it’ll lighten up, I thought to myself. It’s dark in this room. In the daylight, it will be perfect.
It wasn’t perfect. Pepto Bismol pink–that’s what I splashed on those walls. But did I stop? Nooooooo! I kept going like my life depended on having chosen wisely with my first attempt. We kept that color for four long years. Why? Because I simply couldn’t face the fact that this was not the color I had intended to put on my little princess’s walls (although it did match perfectly with the Barbie doll playhouse).
Maybe you read the description Pia Mellody has written about codependency and you thoght, Not me! It’ll be better in the light of day! This isn’t my problem! I hope you don’t waste four years waiting around for something magical to happen. I asked some of my favorite codependent friends in recovery to tell me how it feels when they’re in the midst of codependent loving. Here are their descriptions:
You know you are codependent if you do the following:
- You give constantly to others but don’t know how to receive; you are an expert at taking care of others but would fail the test on how to take care of yourself. (People say you’re great in a crisis.)
- You race mindlessly from one activity to another, unable to say no.
- You obsess with other people over their “issues” and go to great lengths to help them.
- You can (and do) recite long lists of other peoples’ feelings and thoughts, but cannot tell what you are feeling and thinking. You know everyone else’s problems and how to solve them but have no idea how to solve your own. You believe that other people are your problem and that life would be great if everyone would just get with your program.
- You feel responsible for the entire world but realize some of your personal responsibilities are slipping while you take care of everyone else’s needs.
Sound familiar? (If you are thinking, Yeah, that sounds just like . . . me, then you know you are a codependent.) If this list rings true, you may be struggling with a failure to love with limits. You’re probably stressed, depressed and miserable. You may not feel free to share your situation with others.
Are you the problem solver in every crisis? Do you believe you must be strong at all times, especially when you see everyone around you falling apart? If someone asks how you’re feeling, do you reply, “Fine, just fine, thank you very much”?
Pia Mellody says that those of us who live and love poorly do so because we don’t know how to love ourselves. Frankly, I used to think this was hogwash. I was one of those people who thought you dropped everything for another in need. I loved without limits. I loved without pausing to prepare. I thought it was selfish to say no without a pretty extensive list of reasons why no was the only option. I thought Jesus wasn’t going far enough when he said, “Greater love has no one than this–that he lay down his life his friends.” I thought you were supposed to lay down your life all the time for everyone. If there was only one piece of apple pie left after the Thanksgiving feast, you were supposed to give it away.
Living like this left me tired, grumpy, disconnected.
I was in a “state” one day as I boarded a plane for Chicago with my family. They were excited about getting away, seeing relatives, and enjoying the delights of Chicago. Not me. I was exhausted. It was hard work leaving behind all my committees, commitments, and concerted efforts to meet the needs of others. The flight attendant began talking about emergency situations and instructed parents with small children to first place the dropped-down oxygen masks on themselves, and then help place the other masks on their children. I was horrified. Certainly a good mother would first meet the needs of her babies. I spent the rest of the flight pondering those simple instructions. Something was really wrong with the way I’d been living.
Jesus frequently talked about this problem. For example, he said, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). We can’t rescue, heal, exhort, teach, instruct or comfort anyone unless God does it through us. We can’t give away what we don’t possess. Jesus gave an analogy of a vine and branches, but for me, the dangling oxygen mask told the same story. If God is the source of all that is good, then we can’t “do good” unless we’re receiving that good from a higher source and simply passing it along.
God gives us a limit. Running around playing the role of a Rescue Ranger is not conducive to a life lived in intimate, daily, conscious contact with God. It’s pretty hard to hear our marching orders if we’ve run off to battle without listening to the Commander-in-Chief.
Before my moment of clarity I thought Scripture taught us to be self-sacrificing, self-less, need-less, and want-less. I believed that was the way Christians were supposed to live. I had some scriptural support to back up my lousy loving, including Jesus’ command (quoted earlier) about laying down our lives.
This is hard to admit, and harder to explain, but I was wrong. Certainly Scripture does say those things–it is a righteous thing to lay down our life for our friends–but that is not the same thing as living codependently by loving lousily. Scripture says some other important, clarifying truths. Jesus gives us limits to help us effectively dispense his unconditional love.
If all we do is give ourselves away, we probably don’t understand healthy boundaries. If we spend all our time attending to the needs of others, we are lousy lovers. If we think spending time wisely means all work and no play, we’re out of balance. And if we always, always give away the last serving of dessert–I can assure you, we are angry.
No one can deny that Jesus is the ultimate example of laying down one’s life for a friend, but he also did many things that do not fit the codependent mold. At age twelve he ignored his parents’ request to stay close to them and chose to hang out in the Temple instead. He got aggravated when his mother demanded that he turn water into wine at a wedding feast (he was trying to maintain a low profile). He often departed by himself to solitary places to pray even when the crowds demanded his attention. He instructed his disciples to “move on” when a community didn’t welcome them. He ignored his mother and brothers when they wanted to speak with him about his ministry decisions. He refused to perform miracles on demand, and amazingly enough, Jesus remained silent when questioned by religious and political leaders at his trial (a perfect forum if he had wanted to have a codependent moment and blast them for their evil ways). So Jesus himself–our best example ever of a perfect lover of mankind–did not always respond to the perceived needs of others without pausing to prepare. And sometimes he said no.
Perhaps at this point you feel the urge to explain away the flight attendant’s command to put on our own oxygen mask before helping others with theirs. (If so, I’d refer you to Matthew 7:1-4.) Do you want to wrap caveats around all this talk about loving with limits because you fear we all might turn into selfish, self-serving you-know-whats? It is true that some people have difficulty loving others because they are selfish and self-centered. But here’s another thought: sometimes our endless giving is just as selfish and self-centered. I recognize that there are times when I’m giving simply because I don’t want to seem like a selfish, self-centered kind of human. (Not at all the same thing as asking God to remove my selfish, self-centered defects of character, is it?) Being a giving kind of person is good; being a perpetual taker is bad. But there is one kind of giving that springs from fear or need: a fear that we might appear selfish or a need to give so that we might get. (For further study, you might want to read Luke 6:32-36 for another limit Jesus put on loving.) That’s bad love, and it exceeds the limits described in Luke 6.
There’s another kind of giving that grows out of gratitude. This kind of giving is the by-product of coming to believe that God loves us, appreciates us, and provides for us. Secure in the love of God, we are now free to pause and prepare, listening for the gentle whispers of instruction given by the Holy Spirit. Now we can dance with our heavenly Father, giving and taking at his instruction, not out of our need to look good or to prove ourselves or to manipulate someone to do something for us in return, but out of an abiding sense of appreciation for all that God is doing for us.
People who know how to love others well are this way because they know how much God loves and appreciates them. They apply that same appreciation and acceptance to their relationships with others. They live within the limits of love.
Teresa McBean became Minister of NorthStar Community (a ministry of Bon Air Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia) in January, 2003, after serving in the same capacity as a volunteer for four years. She is a graduate of the University of Virginia and a certified biblical counselor. Teresa is passionate about building community–a place where hurting people can find their way back to God. She and her husband Peter have been members of Bon Air for almost 30 years and have three children. She can be reached through