When Empathy Becomes Codependence

 

There’s a joke I once heard about codependence: How can you tell if a drowning woman, is codependent? Answer: Someone else’s life passes in front of her eyes. Of course, the female gender holds no monopoly on codependence but I report the joke as it was told to me by a “recovering” person in AA. I tell that joke a lot when doing therapy, not out of disrespect but for its illustrative albeit exaggerated truth. Like drowning people who can’t think of themselves first, many people focus on their partner’s feelings and needs to the exclusion of their own.

Recently, it seems I have been seeing more clients who complain about losing their boundaries when another person is in acute pain. Many of these people also have trouble establishing boundaries in the face of anger but the real killer seems to be pain. It’s almost as if, when the other person is hurting, no legitimate choice exists other than to assuage his suffering. This may involve reestablishing an unhealthy relationship, granting undesired sexual favors, or sacrificing independent interests in a far from healthy empathy. It involves identifying emotionally with the experience of pain but not assuming the responsibility for managing it.

Adult children from dysfunctional families have exceptional difficulty in distinguishing between healthy empathy and unhealthy responsibility for pain. In their original families, most were taught inadvertently to cross the empathy and responsibility wires. When a parent who is suffering emotionally depends on the child for support, the child eventually will learn to assume responsibility for mollifying the parent’s pain. Children do not have clear psychological boundaries from a parent, and the sense of responsibility becomes ingrained before the child establishes those boundaries. Later on in adult life, it is quite natural for the grown-up child to repeat the feeling of assumed responsibility when presented with a partner’s suffering. It then feels tremendously disloyal to ignore someone in pain. .

In therapy, I have told many of my clients that feeling disloyal often is an indication of growth during the recovery from codependence. The reason is that loyalty to the original parent often is what keeps the codependent response in place. When one begins to consider one’s own welfare first, it actually may conflict with the implicit parental rule: “You are responsible for tending to my pain first.” To reject that rule, you may be implicitly rejecting the way you originally attached to your parent. You may have originally bonded with him or her through a sense of responsibility for “earning” his presence. To reject responsibility for managing another’s pain, you may subconsciously have to push away your old “internalized parent.” That’s pretty heavy stuff and guilt is understandable.

If this is your struggle, I would suggest that you not try going it alone. In my experience, people do not let go of what has even marginally worked until they have something with which to replace it. Most people cannot subconsciously push away an “internalized parent” until they have established a more healthy internal ally. This is the job of good psychotherapy. I recommended that you consider this option if you repeatedly cannot be disloyal enough to consider your own welfare first.