For women, I believe, it’s very difficult for us to know where the line is between acts of service and codependence.
Codependence is a complicated concept for me, because the line blurs so easily and I very often find out that my acts of service are actually unhealthy codependent behaviors after the fact. So far, in the evolution of me, I’ve not developed the skill of identifying my codependence prior to my act of service. I imagine, hope really, that eventually I’ll come to identify my feelings sooner.
Codependence can be defined as basing my own happiness on someone else’s happiness or sense of well-being. Or expecting my act of service or self-sacrifice to cure someone else’s unhappiness. I think when the validity of my act of service is determined by the outcome of another person’s feelings then that is unhealthy codependent behavior. I readily admit that my definition of codependence and unhealthy codependent behavior is a work in progress. Because I find that I, like many, many women, have a very real issue with codependence.
That said, I want to teach my children to make acts of service an integral part of their lives. I think service is a cure for depression and anger and becoming self-absorbed.
I also want to teach them where the line between self and others is. And most importantly for my daughter, I want to teach her to avoid codependent behavior while participating in acts of service. It’s a balancing act, and I believe it’s one that can either result in great happiness from selflessly helping others or great misery in being unable to “fix” others.
I clean for people a great deal. My mother-in-law has fibromyalgia, a condition that causes a lot of pain when she cleans her floors. So, I regularly sweep, mop and vacuum for her. For a while, I was throwing in the cleaning of her bathrooms as well, until she said that chore didn’t particularly cause pain and she didn’t mind doing it herself. Then I stopped that because it’s important for me to not expend all of my energy on needless tasks. I usually take my kids over to do this act of service and require that my daughter help with the chore. I talk to her about why it’s important to help people and how we are doing this because we love Nana and she finds cleaning her floors painful.
I’ve discovered that there are cues that this is becoming unhealthy codependent behavior for me.
* If I am resentfully wondering why her husband isn’t doing this chore.
* If I am worried about getting my own housework done while I’m doing hers.
* If I am in any way angry, upset or resentful that my other sisters-in-laws are not participating in this chore, for example while I was pregnant.
* If I’m expecting some sort of transformation in her pain level or self-esteem or happiness because of this act of service.
I also find in other relationships that I will do less definable acts of service or compassion. For instance, I have a person in my life that is perpetually depressed and tired. I find that when I invest my time and attention on her or her children, by seeking her out or inviting her family to activities or events, I fall into codependent behavior. I can recognize this by tuning into my own feeling that my energy is being wasted.
While deeply involved in this behavior I can’t see it with any clarity. I believe that I am helping to socialize her children, relieving some stress for her by giving her things, supplying her with information that might help her situation, or encouraging her to find a better job because I believe she can. But, then I notice that none of what I’m doing is having the intended result.
So I try to step back and look at the situation with impersonal eyes and can see that what she might be getting out of the situation is attention for her depression and misery. I chase her and engage her, she rejects me and takes my efforts for granted and then I feel bad that she doesn’t appreciate me or my friendship or my many acts of giving. She mouths the words: lets get together, hang out, have more play dates, go do something. But she rejects my advances of friendship and invitations 95% of the time. In fact, when I take a step back I realize that she never asked for my help or my friendship. Never gave any indication that she wanted to make any actual changes in her life, she just wanted an audience for complaining.
Then I think back to what a therapist once said to me, “you can’t go around fixing people that don’t want to be fixed.”
So, I stop the codependent behavior of making her my "project" and she doesn’t even miss me or my presence or all my concern or my help. Turns out that’s okay with me. I feel a bit relieved to have more energy to spend on my family, my career, my self and people who are actually appreciative of my attention or kindness.
There are acts of service that I generally do not participate in. Making dinner for people is one of them. I have learned this about myself – I don’t want to do it. Everything about it annoys me. I don’t like having my limited supply of pots or Tupperware all over town. I don’t like having to know that some family doesn’t like onions in their spaghetti. I don’t like remembering when to take the food. I don’t like remembering to buy enough food, or running back to the grocery store to get more food. I don’t like chit-chatting when I drop the food off. I don’t enjoy chasing around my food belongings. I’ve learned that this is an act of service I don’t enjoy. So, when the sign-up list gets passed I just pass it on without signing up. I try to limit my guilt about that to 2 seconds. Instead, I might show up with my Magic Erasure and scrub their bathroom down, a chore which I do not mind at all.
Another situation where I need to monitor my codependent feelings is in my mentoring. I mentor four 15-year-old girls. They are at-risk of teen pregnancy and drug addiction and come from some pretty sketchy homes with few positive role models in their lives – that’s why they are in the program. These kids need “fixing” if anyone does. But, I have to remind myself that I am not their parent and can not set boundaries for them. My power to affect their lives is limited by their ability and desire to receive what I have to say. I can tell them the truths I’ve learned through experience about boys and love and sex and drugs in the most honest way I can. But, I have no control over their behavior, or the consequences of that behavior, in the end. For me to continue to be an effective mentor I have to accept that fact and be okay with that. I am.
As I learn to be less codependent I am teaching my daughter the lessons. I try to participate in at least one act of service a week. But, I limit it to an act of service that will be emotionally safe for me. And throughout, I try to teach my daughter the skill of giving of one’s self with no expectation of an emotional payoff.