Co-Dependency or Kindness?
by Marlene M. Maheu, Ph.D.
"I just want to show people I love that I care, but I end up
feeling resentful when they don't do the same for me in return. If only
people were as considerate toward me as I am toward them, I'd be a lot
happier, and feel more secure. Something just isn't right."
Being of help to those you love can be very healthy and
rewarding. Many books have addressed the issue of co-dependency,
but it is sometimes difficult to tell the difference between
co-dependency and kindness. While co-dependency is not an official
psychological term, it has come to describe a type of relationship where
an individual gives of themselves, even when they don't want to, or
shouldn't, for their own welfare.
Here are some ways to tell the difference:
Look for balance.
- If you aren't sure about whether you are
being "too kind," take a few minutes to complete this simple exercise.
Take out a piece of paper and draw a line down the middle of the page.
At the top, put the name of someone close to you. In the left column,
write down all the things you did last month for this person, whether
they requested it or not. At the end of the item, put a large "P" for
pleasure, or "R" for resentment to distinguish which emotion you really
felt, in your heart of hearts, about this activity. In the right column,
list all the things they did for you, either actively or passively,
whether you requested or not. Show your list to an impartial friend. If
your list is weighted much more heavily on the "giving" side, then you
might be selling yourself out to gain acceptance from others. Now that
you've read the exercise, take out a piece of paper and try it. It'll be
worth the trouble....) If you cons
tly treat others better than you
treat yourself, and are frequently resentful about how loved ones are
treating you, consider the possibility that you are out of balance, or
Listen to your inner voice about "fairness."
- Given the age
of the person in question, decide if you have been giving freely to this
person, or out of some unspoken obligation that leaves you resentful.
Worst yet, decide if you have been giving because you fear retribution
(anger, pouting, threats, whining, guilt). Remember, children are
entitled to get much more than they give, that's the contract you signed
when you decided to have the child. However, as they grow older, they
need to learn that the world will not indulge their every whim. They
must learn to expect that others have needs and wants, and relationships
require negotiation. It is your job as a parent to teach these lessons.
Stop your usual behavior.
- If you decide you are giving when
you don't want; are feeling resentment when you give, then find a way to
stop. Being resentful is a sure sign that you don't want to give; even
if you think the only reason you are resentful is based on the other
person's reaction. If you are displeased with the other person' s
reaction, then you are giving "with strings attached." This is unfair to
you as well as to the other person. If you can give freely, consider not
giving at all.
If you decide to change, give people warning.
- Change is
difficult for people to accept, as well as to implement. It is only fair
to every one involved that you let them know ahead of time that you are
changing your ways. Be prepared for a negative response. It's just part
of the change process. People who get their way with you will probably
have difficulty hearing you say, "no."
Practice saying "no" to little things at home, or with other
family and friends.
- A good place to start is to say "no" to little
things that you might have previously done because "it's no big deal,"
or "it just isn't worth the trouble." Go slowly, but take a stand on
some things you know you can do. For example, if you feel resentment
about doing your teenager's laundry, teach them to do their own. To
avoid having them cost you more money, set a monthly "allotment" for
clothing, and they get no more, no matter what.
Brace yourself to hear about how "mean you are" and how much you
- This is the price you must pay for setting yourself
free. Within a few months, they'll learn to separate their clothes
correctly, and make sure they don't throw shrinkable clothes into the
dryer. Often, people do things they really don't want to do, because
"it's just not worth the trouble of saying no." If you really don't
want to see a particular movie, if you secretly don't want to eat at a
certain restaurant, stay up later than usual, drive someone somewhere,
run an errand because you're too tired -- don't. (Be careful to practice
this with safe people more than at work until you get better at it.)
Learn to stand up for yourself in the face of anger.
- If people get angry with you, and give you pressure through anger or guilt,
hold your ground. Many people use anger, or the threat of anger, to
control or manipulate their way through the world. See the ploy, and
don't give in, if you are being reasonable. (Most of us know when we are
being unreasonable, or "mean," if we listen to ourselves. Calmly and
firmly hold your ground. The less you say, beyond what you are willing
to do, the better for you and the relationship. For example, "Ok, you're
right, I blew it. I'm sorry. How can I fix the situation now?" or "Let's
agree to disagree. I am not willing to pay for something you decided to
buy without consulting me. Next time, please ask me first."
Use the broken record technique.
- If the other person is
being unreasonable, use the broken record technique, "Next time, please
ask me first...Next time, please ask me first...Next time, please ask
me first." This avoids setting yourself up for "the inquisition,"
because you aren't giving the other person any ammunition against you.
They'll get over it, sooner or later, and you will stop being
manipulated into things you don't really want to do.
Get input from others.
- Talk to your happier friends about
how they balance giving and receiving. Join a therapy or support group
to get suggestions and encouragement from others. Go to CODA groups and
listen to others talk about how they are "finding their own voice" in
relationships. CODA meetings are free and available throughout most
cities in the United States. Pick up some books on the topic.
Trust in yourself.
- Whatever you do, know that things are
changing, and you don't have to live a life of quiet resentment. If you
decide you are giving because it truly is in your heart to give at that
moment, without fear of any kind motivating you, enjoy yourself. Giving
to others can be a gift to yourself, if done for the right reasons!
Dr. maheu is a licensed psychologist in San Diego, Ca. She can be reached
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