I may be one of the few people who isn’t bugged by Cell Yell, that loud-voiced way of holding private conversations in public for everyone to hear.
It is an occupational hazard for therapists to be curious about everyone, even when outside the office, so while in line to return an item at Target last week (before realizing it was the longest line of the year anywhere on earth), I couldn’t help but listen to the woman in front of me talk on her iPhone.
“I have to cancel for dinner tomorrow,” said the woman. “Tom needs me to drive him to work. He forgot to pay a ticket and the DMV won’t renew his license….Oh, I KNOW, it’s the third time I’ve cancelled our girls’ night out. You’re right—it’s been ages, but you know Tom. He’s so disorganized, and then he needs me to step in and help him out. It’s OK, I don’t really mind, we can get together some other time.”
Back in the 1980s, the term co-dependent became popular. It came directly out of Alcoholics Anonymous, part of a dawning realization that the problem in families of alcoholics or drug addicts was not solely due to the alcoholic or addict, but also to certain characteristics of their family and friends. The term has grown to include anyone – not only people in relationships with alcoholics–who places a lower priority on their own needs, while excessively preoccupied with the needs of others – family, co-workers, friends, romantic partners, or sometimes the community.
The term co-dependency describes a set of behaviors, rather than a recognized condition. It’s not in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual), which dictates the criteria that therapists use in order to diagnose patients with specific mental disorders. But though it’s not a diagnosis, there are generally agreed-upon traits that apply to someone we call co-dependent.
Some take on the role of martyr – they put themselves into positions of being needed, even indispensable, and derive a lot of self esteem from that role. Trouble inevitably comes when resentment boils up in the martyr, who is never appreciated enough. Then, there is the problem of a certain paralysis which comes over the individual who’s being taken care of. That guy who knew he’d be rescued from forgetting to renew his car registration had lost some motivational muscle from lack of use.
Co-dependent people are likely to stay in stressful jobs or bad relationships for too long, citing loyalty and not wanting to hurt someone’s feelings as excuses for inaction. Denial of reality is a behavior common to co-dependent folks. As a group, they’re likely to earn less money and even to put off seeking medical care when they need it.
It is hard to determine when doing for others is coming from a full heart and a wish to do good, or when it comes from having such a poor opinion of self that the urge to over-do for people in order to be loved begins to take over. Much of the co-dependent’s behavior is just so…NICE. Look for whether or not the person doing all the giving LOSES something: time for themselves, their money, goals they’ve set and not achieved.
One of life’s great pleasures is to do nice things for others, for those we love—it’s part of what contributes to our overall sense of who we are. It’s one of the reasons I was in the Target return line to begin with. But when the level of concern and care for someone else takes some “skin off your nose,” it’s time to take a look at whether you’re acting in kindness, or if you’ve fallen into a relationship in which you have assumed the role of caretaker to a fully capable adult.
Ruth Wimsatt is a clinical psychologist in Newport Beach and can be reached at [email protected]