Co-dependency. Enabling. I had no idea what those words meant. But I lived them out with all my passion for decades.
After my life came to a screeching debacle, and I learned what those words meant, I wanted to die. Literally and metaphorically. That’s when I discovered that the best of times and the worst of times can inhabit the same moment – the moment when you see who you really are and have a vision for who you want to be but have no clue how you will get from one life to the other. It was in that moment that I discovered a God who not only “hangs in with you “during that life and death struggle but also collaborates in the re-birth.
Co-dependency is the label for an unhealthy relationship between people who rely on each other for their emotional survival. Co-dependence is based on “fixing” and controlling another person. It has a very different look and feel than interdependence, a relationship between emotionally healthy people that is mutually beneficial.
Enabling means helping someone so much that the person can comfortably remain mired in the problems that required him or her to need help in the first place. Enabling shelters others from experiencing the consequences of their actions and thereby from learning why and how they need to change. For example, a kind friend or relative who provides a home for substance abuser and/or gives her money to buy her drug because they don’t want to see her suffer is an enabler. An enabling parent bails her child out of all of his problems and never provides consistent discipline because she “loves him so much” and wants him to be happy.
Christians are prime candidates for enabling behavior and co-dependent personalities because we are focused on service and mercy and helping others. We are expected to be helpers! Our motivation defines if the helping is appropriate or not. Healthy Christians help and serve because they feel called to meet the needs of others in Christ’s name. Co-dependents help because we have a hole in our hearts and a desperate need for others to love and value us. Co-dependents help and serve others to meet their own needs.
Unfortunately, the helpful actions of committed Christians and needy co-dependents often look the same; sometimes it is only the person who is being helped who can tell the difference. Healthy people who are being “helped” by an enabler feel smothered and controlled. They are eager to break away and breathe on their own. But unhealthy people are happy to be drawn in to another person’s life, taken care of, and “saved.” They want to be clung to as much as the enabler wants to cling. Neither person can gain the love and respect which define a healthy relationship and actually make them fulfilled and cared for.
My helping was an addiction. I needed it to feel worthy and valued. I felt the pangs of withdrawal when the relationship ended. Some of those I helped experienced some good results because of my need to help; they improved their reading skills or passed their GED. But along the way many were prevented from getting real help because it was subconsciously in my best interest emotionally to keep us both in denial about their real problems.
My addiction was demonstrated most vividly by my willingness to support and/or even bring into my home young people in deep trouble, many of whom I met while volunteering at the county jail. Most of them had been shown some appropriate tough love by family members. I, however, was horrified by their situations and convinced that I was now the only person left to give them the help they need. I even was convinced that God has brought us together and was directing me to step deeply into their lives. I loved to tell the stories of my efforts to the ooh’s and ah’s of my friends. However, the more I helped, the sicker I became. The more I helped, the less able these teens became to face themselves. Eventually I lost not only the battle for their transformation, but also a marriage – and my way.
As I struggled to understand myself, God sneaked two very different but equally wonderful counselors into my life. I attended Al-Anon. I read books like Co-dependent No More. I tossed and turned and sobbed and protected my fragile self and defended my poor choices and sobbed some more. I left church, but came back to God – and then came back to church.
Eventually I admitted that I was powerless and that my life was unmanageable. I surrendered my brokenness at the altar and started the healing process. Along the way I discovered that only God could fill the hole in my heart, but also that I could become the person I wanted to be by putting on the character of Jesus, that I could help without hurting, and that I could have rich and loving relationships without controlling or fixing.
Surrendering control and the “will to power” to God is not only for people who are suffering or addicted or breaking rules or pushy or arrogant or power grabbing. It is also for the people who are trying to help them.
Sheila and Ruth and others, I read this quote from Richard Rohr on another blog seconds after I read these comments and knew it was the best response:
“Don’t get rid of the pain until you’ve learned its lessons. When you hold the pain consciously and trust fully, you are in a very special liminal space. This is a great teaching moment where you have the possibility of breaking through to a deeper level of faith and consciousness.
Hold the pain of being human until God transforms you through it. And then you will be an instrument of transformation for others. “
Karen, this post is absolutely the best descriptions of codependency and enabling that I have ever read! I agree with Sheila’s post…listening more to my heart than God’s heart led to “heart break” – for me, the enabler, as well as the enabled. For a long time, my addiction was practicing a form of compassion that was, in actuality, “hurtful helping”.
Great post with a much-needed lesson. I think that’s why the Lord says our heart is deceitful–by listening more to our heart than the Lord, it can convince us that we’re doing find. All is OK.
But this is a beautiful story of the Holy Spirit can break through our self-deception and show us what he wants. Very encouraging, thanks!