I have lately been reflecting on the dynamics of codependency. When is serving others a good thing – a God thing – and when isn’t it?
Broadly speaking, codependency is the tendency to depend on others to supply us with a sense of worth and identity. If I am only truly alive when helping somebody else and if I feel a sense of purpose only in service to another, I may be codependent.
As we see in today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus commands us to serve. Those who are greatest among us are those who wrap the towel around their waists and wash their companions’ feet. They are exalted for their self-giving attention to the needs of their neighbors. Is Jesus encouraging codependency?
All of us are probably a little codependent. It does feel good to help others. Serving at the food bank or homeless shelter is a great thing to do when feeling a bit depressed or unloved. It gets us out of ourselves and gives us an experience of being of help in a very needy, divisive world.
Thinking in terms of Jesus’ commandment to serve, we might say that it’s the culture that looks on self-sacrificing love with suspicion that is the real problem. Maybe labeling someone “codependent” is just a way of shaming them for doing Jesus’ work.
There are real hazards in the codependent relationship, though. Three come instantly to mind. The first is to the receiver of codependent attention. They are often encouraged by the unconscious needs of the person serving them to remain in a state of dependency. Their helper will bend over backwards to get them what they need – often even way more than what they need – but will do little to encourage self-sufficiency. In fact there may be messages indicating that anything the receiver tries isn’t quite the right way to proceed. Resentment builds in the receiver of such care even as they feel themselves becoming more and more passive.
The second hazard is to the care giver. In constantly paying attention to the needs and the dynamics of the one they serve, they lose the flexibility and the time for their own personal and spiritual growth. They become self-righteous and judgmental. They are always on the lookout for strategies for their care reciever to try, and so spend very little attention on the choices that would make their own lives more rich. The more they rely on the person they are helping for their own sense of self-worth, the more they need that person to remain dependent and needy. They, too, become increasingly resentful as their help appears to go nowhere.
The third hazard is to everybody else in both these people’s lives. The codependent relationship has its own peculiar zing. Other people – friends, significant others, family – will seem somewhat uncaring and selfish. The more the fascination with the codependent relationship grows, the more estranged everyone else will become from the two people so engaged.
I don’t think Jesus was talking about this kind of unhealthy mutual dependence when he commanded his disciples to serve one another. His own ministry was always grounded in prayer. Therefore, a good question for us to ask ourselves when we think we or someone we love is getting too tangled up in codependence is how accessible are we or they to healing solitude. How willing are we to be alone? Do we listen for God’s life-giving and nurturing presence? Do we find our identity in relationship with our Creator and Christ?
Out of the healing union with our Beloved, are we free to let go of outcomes for ourselves and other people. Are we free to fail and to let others fail? Are we able to care for our own needs for down time, for growth, and for healing?
We don’t need to give up serving others in the way Jesus commands. We do need to shift where we look for gratification and self-worth. Going out and coming back to rest in the God who loves us passionately is what allows us to be truly effective servants.
Laurie Gudim is an artist, writer and spiritual director living in Fort Collins, Colorado. For more information on her ministries and a look at some of her work, go to everydaymysteries.com