What To Do When Giving Becomes a Lifestyle
Maybe you’ve heard the term “codependency” but don’t really know what it means. Or maybe you’ve only heard about it in extreme situations, where one person in the relationship is struggling with mental health or substance abuse. But codependency can occur in any relationship, not just romantic ones — between family members, friends, coworkers — and it’s not always easy to spot it.
Put simply, codependency refers to an unhealthy relationship dynamic that is one-sided: one person is the “giver,” and the other is the “taker.” Often, the “giver” has an extreme need for approval and recognition, and feels that their self-worth is inherently tied to their ability to help and support the other person, and the other person’s overall wellness.
The line between a loving, supportive relationship and a codependent one can seem thin. We all feel a desire to help those we love, and most of us feel affected by the well-being of others we care about. It’s normal to sometimes sacrifice your own needs for others, and it’s even normal to want to be “needed” at times. But a healthy relationship, whether it’s romantic, professional, social, or familial, is mutually respectful and mutually fulfilling.
Of course, there are nuances to this idea. When a child is young, a parent may need to give more than they receive. When a loved one is dealing with a health scare, they may need you to sacrifice some of your own needs in order to care for them. Codependency does not describe these kinds of relationships, but those in which one person is consistently sacrificing their own needs and well-being for the sake of the other.
Why Codependency Can Be Hard to Spot
In the following clip from an episode of Cup of Joy, Dr. Elizabeth Joy shares her thoughts on the gray area between being a giving person and being codependent.
I I think this is the case with a lot of things that we deal with in life, it’s kind of hard to really know whether or not something applies to self. So when you think about codependency, when we say, okay, giving people. You and I both are giving people. We like to help other people, that’s all normal. But the “why” behind it, and the “how often” behind it is when you start moving into what I see as true codependency.
And so when I see and encounter folks who are really struggling with codependency, it’s their whole entire identity. It is about getting your own affirmation and validation by helping others. And again, I think what’s hard about if you’re wondering to self: self, is that me? Most of the time, I think people don’t realize if that’s what they’re actually doing, they think they’re just doing things to help others. But no matter if you’re healthy, no matter whether you fall in the true codependency lane or not, the truth of the matter is when we do things for others, there is a benefit to self. At minimum, the good feeling that we all get when we do something for someone else, which in and of itself isn’t codependency but it’s something that is there, it is real.
When you start getting into true codependency, folks’ self-esteem or the lack thereof is whether or not they’ve been able to give to others and those others also affirm them. So if they’re giving to others and the people didn’t say, oh my god, I’m so thankful for all these things you did for me, they were so awesome and you’re so awesome. Then the person starts feeling like they’re not valued and they’re not valuing themselves because they’re looking for someone else to validate them. That’s when you really get into true codependency.
So I think if people are debating whether or not codependency is a thing, no, I can’t see how it isn’t. It’s more of a question of where’s the line between normal, passionate, giving types versus, oh, I do this all the time. And it’s my everything.