A few years ago I was sitting across from a dear friend at a loud and busy restaurant. We dove quickly into conversation, eager to catch each other up. As the server came to take our orders I felt a mild panic, worried that I lost track of the time. I had accidentally left my phone in my purse and found myself worried that my absorption in the dialogue left me neglecting any phone calls or texts.
As my friend ordered her meal, I carefully placed my phone next to my water glass with the sound muted, but on vibrate. I had to be available. Sure enough, a few minutes later my phone began to subtly bounce, notifying me that I was needed. I told my friend that there was an emergency and asked her to excuse me, apologizing effusively. I stepped out onto the sidewalk and quickly answered the phone.
“Are you OK?” I asked as I heard her quietly weeping.
“We broke up,” she gasped between sobs.
This was the emergency phone call. This was the crisis that I needed to attend to.
Codependency is a condition we culturally associate family members, romantic partners or very close friends of addicts. A primary concern for the codependent is that their enabling behavior and their constant need to be the rescuer or caregiver. The dilemma with this narrower (yet still accurate) understanding is that many of us are not challenged to consider how we too are codependent. Instead, we are considered loyal friends. Instead, we are sacrificial and loving members of the community. Instead, we are trying to “take up our crosses” and fulfill a call to serve.
I ought to know. Prior to becoming a psychotherapist, I was a social worker to homeless women and children and families adopting children from China. I was a director of a mission organization that engaged the marginalized, oppressed and poor. I lived with a fierce sense that my call was to give myself to others generously, without restraint. My understanding was that this is precisely what Jesus modeled for me.
Here are the signs that I have come to understand of my previous codependency. Do they sound familiar to you?
1. You are available in almost any circumstance, time and place.
It doesn’t matter if you have had a long and taxing day. You will continue to offer yourself and dismiss the bids and pleas of your own mind, body and soul.
2. You are exhausted.
It doesn’t matter if you are burning out in your work, not getting enough sleep, forgoing social engagements or means toward physical health. The leading assumption is that for you to be good, you are to be selfless with your time.
3. You feel thrilled and exhilarated when you attend to a “crisis.”
You feel important, alive, and purposeful. There is something about being the “emergency contact,” the first one called, the only one others chose to confide in that gives you a sense of self and worth.
4. You say “yes” and feel like you are causing serious harm if you were to say “no.”
There is a sense that you need to always prioritize the other’s needs or desires and so when you are asked for something, there is very little sense that you can consider yourself.
5. Boundaries feel cruel.
You need to have an open-door policy. Others ought to have access to you. To be self-protective or to practice “self-care” in any way is really being selfish.
6. You do not expect the same kind of care, attendance or anticipation from others.
Instead, you feel robbed of your role, ashamed or guilty if you are in a position to receive.
What is grievous and heartbreaking is that I lived much of my life understanding my codependency as Christlikeness. My church promoted it. It was held in high esteem and touted as my most admirable attribute. I was praised as one who “loves well” and I experienced the high of being the rescuer and caregiver. But this position also left me exhausted and denying any need I had for space, time or care.
Through much consideration and counseling, I recognized this was not God’s intention, yet it still felt like death to give up. No wonder codependency is so closely tied to addiction. In as much as we might enable the addicts, we, too, are addicted. We are addicted to being needed and we feel much pride in being the one who is always available.
I think we have misread Scripture when we understand Jesus to be selfLESS. We make Him into a divine God with no human needs, desires or limitations. We even insist that He lived in this state as a child and infant when we sing during Advent “no crying He makes.” We forget that He climbed into a boat to get away. We forget that He awoke early to be alone. We forget that He was intimate with only a few and that He asked things of them. In His final hours, when He was scared and questioning, He asked for their presence in Gethsemane. He demonstrated for us boundaries and need. He did not heal all. He slept. He ate. He said no (to His mother no less).
Codependency is ultimately a heartbreaking form of arrogance and self-righteousness that exhausts and is not sustainable. We think we are loving people, but we are really just hiding our own addiction to be needed in the form of selflessness. This is not the type of love we are meant for as children of God. We are invited to a Kingdom where we can both offer our gifts of care and receive care in equal, if not greater, measure.
The first step toward healing and repenting of codependency is recognizing it. Will you acknowledge that you’re bone tired, that you feel like you don’t have rights to yourself, that you crave being needed? You’re meant for so much more.
Abby Wong-Heffter graduated from The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology with a Master of Arts in Counseling Psychology. She serves on the Teaching Staff at The Allender Center in Seattle.