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Compassion versus Co-dependency: Caring without Enabling

The term “co-dependent” has been around for a while and means different things to different people, so let’s start by defining our terms.  An operational definition of co-dependency is as follows:

Co-dependency is a tendency to behave in overly passive or excessively caretaking ways that negatively impact one’s relationships and quality of life. It also often involves putting one’s needs at a lower priority than others while being excessively preoccupied with the needs of others.  Codependency can occur in any type of relationship, including in families, at work, in friendships, and also in romantic, peer or community relationships.  Codependency may also be characterized by denial, low self-esteem, excessive compliance, and/or control patterns.

Co-dependency exists on a continuum.  Everyone battles some co-dependency from time to time, but some struggle more significantly with it.  The question I hope to answer is – how do we show compassion and care toward others without slipping into co-dependent behaviors?  When we are able to come alongside someone who is hurting or is in need and help them through supportive conversation, active listening, and suggestions (when they are wanted) we are acting compassionately.  When we find ourselves trying to  fix the other person’s problem or if we find ourselves needing to help the other person for our own sense of identity – then we are dealing with co-dependency.

One quick way to determine if you are acting from a place of compassion versus a place of co-dependency is to do a motives check.  Ask yourself “am I hoping to help this person so I can rescue them?  Am I helping this person because it seems like my identity rests upon my ability to help others?  Am I helping this person because I don’t feel strong enough to help myself – so their problem  becomes  a distraction from my own challenges?”  If you answer yes to any of these motive-discerning questions, then chances are co-dependency is rearing its head in this situation.

There are some relationships that will elicit more co-dependent behaviors from us than others.  Be on the watch for how you feel (physically and emotionally) when you are around different people.  If you come away from some relationships feeling drained, feeling taken advantage of, or feeling criticized – chances are high that these relationships fall into the co-dependent category.   If you come away from interactions in healthy relationships that leave you feeling upbeat, energized, and positive, chances are these are relationships that fall into the category of interdependent – making true compassion possible. 

When you are showing compassion and care toward someone, both people will leave the transaction feeling energized, empowered, and encouraged.  If you can offer a listening ear without being tempted to dive in and fix their problem for them, then you are acting with compassion.  If you are invited to offer suggestions, help, or advice and you are able to offer that without expecting them to take it, then you have acted with compassion.

One of the best ways to steer clear of co-dependent behaviors is to approach every relationship you are a part of with a healthy sense of boundaries.  If you balance kindness with being able to say “no” when you or the other person is stepping over the boundaries – you will be able to stay in compassion without enabling the other to continue to depend upon you.  Each person should take full responsibility for his or her own self-care (emotional, physical and spiritual) with the knowledge that no other human being can do this for you.  When you cannot help yourself, it is healthy to ask for help, but to do so without feeling entitled to it.  When you reach out to help someone else, seek to support them in their own journey while refraining from creating an unhealthy dependence upon you. 

Remember the old saying, “Give a man a fish and feed him for a day, but teach him how to fish and feed him for life.”?  This actually gives us a nice word picture of how to have compassion without enabling.  When we come alongside someone to offer support, we should try to do so with “teaching a man to fish” in the forefront of our minds.  We may choose to spend more time with some than with others as we “teach them to fish”, but our goal should be to help them become capable to search out their own resources and solutions for their challenge.

As a therapist, I am constantly striving to interact from a place of compassion versus enabling.  If a client comes to therapy with high emotional needs, it is my job to teach them how to meet these needs in a variety of healthy and useful ways.  We may work on healing old wounds that keep them from being able to feel emotionally fulfilled, but the therapist cannot heal them.  Ideally, the therapist teaches the client how to heal and how to behave interdependently (teaching them to fish).  If I find myself feeling tempted to really dive in and fix my client’s problems – I need to take a step back and steer myself away from co-dependency and realign myself to an interdependent compassionate stance.

Co-dependency can be difficult to recognize at times.  Just keep in mind the rule of thumb that each person is ultimately responsible for their own emotional needs.  If you can support them along their journey without getting entangled in “fixing” or “solving” their problems for them, then you will have acted with true compassion without enabling.


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