This really counts as a follow up to my post, “Emotional Survivalist,” because the two subjects are so related – unhealthy ways of being in relationship that I am really good at! Nobody knows exactly who coined the word, “codependent,” but Melody Beattie brought it into common usage in the seventies. It was originally used to describe an individual who develops an unhealthy way of coping with a life that is being negatively affected by a loved one who is chemically dependent – by becoming overly involved in the addict’s drama, letting that person’s behavior affect him or her, excessive caretaking, repressing their own anger, and saying yes instead of no.
The concept – and the word – exploded into popular use, however it eventually started being used as a way to describe types of people, behaviors, and situations that may have had no connection to addiction at all. Codependency encompasses so much more than just the negative ways that someone reacts to a chemically-dependent person, which can make the word confusing. I prefer Harriet Lerner’s term, “over functioning,” as a more precise description of what is actually happening.
Over functioning sounds like what it is: the original codependent/addict behaviors, added to doing, thinking, feeling, worrying, and deciding – for yourself – and for your loved ones. Over functioners tend to worry too much about other people’s feelings, presuming them incapable of managing them. It’s possible they are incapable, but we never really find out because we’re always there. The behavior also assumes they are incapable in other ways; supporting themselves, thinking for themselves, making decisions, managing problems, and maintaining relationships. But that’s okay because we’re really good at all of that!
Over functioners grow out of dysfunctional families; developing these behaviors as a way to manage anxiety, stress, and unspoken rules, and fill the gaps. We want to manage and contain what nobody is else is managing and containing, take care of and please everyone, and provide stability. A lot of over functioners develop these traits as a reaction to the uncertainty of growing up with mental illness, which, of course, I did.
I was trained by my family to monitor, caretake, fix, help, and essentially sacrifice myself for those I was close to. It was the only way I knew how to give and receive love, so, of course, I continued to do it; monitoring, caretaking, thinking, deciding, and helping way too much, throughout my relationships. Over functioners essentially take responsibility for the other person. It’s exhausting, and locks you into a superior, caregiving role. But how can you have intimacy with someone if you’re in charge of both sides of the relationship, or if you’re saying that they are less of a person than you are? This is, however a relationship system and it needs both sides to work.
Over functioners are often attracted to under functioners, and vice versa. Under functioners have been formed by their particular family system just like we were; their coping mechanism was the exact opposite, however. They typically don’t, or don’t want to, manage things, they don’t want to feel their uncomfortable feelings, they want to be cared for, prefer not to be independent, and are happy – at least for a while – to let us take charge.
Unfortunately, crazy is also often attracted to codependency; attracted to our special abilities to manage and care for them – for everything – to the detriment of ourselves. Like Lego bricks, needs, patterns, and pathologies click together – a perfect fit. They don’t want to feel what they feel, or manage their own lives, and we are quite happy to do it for them. V’s father was mentally unstable, we had this kind of relationship, and the day I finally broke up with him, I felt free.
The killer is that most over functioners are actually compassionate, empathetic, caring people. There’s a reason this personality type leans toward codependency. Over functioners do want to help – we were born to function! We have a saying in SPRe that just because its codependency, doesn’t mean it’s not love: we are acting out of love and empathy. Our hearts are in the right places; until we try to stretch them too far. The problem with over functioning in a relationship is that you’re essentially implying that the other person is weak and not capable of managing (or functioning) and that you’re better at whatever is going on, and you’ll take care of everything.
Other than as a way to manage anxiety, do what we know, and avoid experiencing the full impact of our own issues and problems, the reason that we over function so consistently is a secret – even to ourselves. We do it because we all hope that if we do it well enough and for long enough, our partner in crime will finally take care of us the way we’ve always cared for them. As author, Scott Egleston, says, “Codependency is a way of getting needs met that doesn’t get needs met.” But the costs of over functioning are often hidden and usually high: injuries, illnesses (like RA!), exhaustion, drained finances, and even abuse.
We give these patterns and behaviors a lot of power, and its true they can be hard to change, but it’s not impossible. You have to be willing to share your vulnerabilities, be honest about what you’re doing, and try to relate to another person’s competence, instead of failings you might identify. Everyone is a mix of strengths and weaknesses, problems and solutions, positives and negatives; acknowledging this to ourselves and letting our loved ones in on this secret while trusting it is still going to be okay is the goal.
Learning how not to be helpful is an especially difficult challenge for those of us who moved in quickly to fix the problems of other family members or to rescue those in distress, but it is essential for a healthy relationship with all loved ones. The more you practice not over functioning the better you’ll get at it – and the happier you’ll be. Every time I have my own feelings and reactions and let other people have theirs, I’m healthier and living more authentically. Hopefully, the more I can get used to driving my own feelings, my own mind – my own life – the less time I’ll spend stuck on corners and the more time I’ll spend on open road.