It’s natural to express love by taking care of others, especially when you see a loved one struggling or hurting. However, sometimes there’s a fine line between caring and codependency.
Certainly, not all caregiving is bad or unhealthy. When trying to determine if our caretaking is based on codependency, it’s useful to take a look at our motivation for helping and expectations for the outcome. True help is given because we want to help not because we feel like we have to or because we’ll feel guilty if we don’t. True help isn’t enabling or an effort to help people avoid consequences. And it doesn’t foster dependence by doing things for others that they can do for themselves.
To better understand the difference between codependent caretaking and true helping, let’s take a closer look at some of the differences.
Codependents need to feel needed
Codependents gravitate towards people they can take care of – this could be someone who struggles with addiction, mental or physical illness, emotional immaturity, and so forth. This puts the codependent in a position to help, fix, or rescue.
As codependents, caretaking feeds our self-esteem, our need to be needed, and gives us a sense of purpose. We may also hold a false belief that as long as we’re needed, we won’t be abandoned or rejected. So, caretaking gives us a sense of security.
Codependent caretaking lacks boundaries
Boundaries help to differentiate one person from another. When you have strong boundaries, you’re clear about what’s your responsibility and what’s not. You’re aware of your feelings and don’t let other people’s feelings become your own. You’re clear about what you like and dislike. And you understand what you need and do things to meet those needs.
But codependent caretaking is based on enmeshed boundaries. Codependents try to solve other people’s problems or do things for them (which can lead to enabling). We offer unsolicited advice. We force our ideas and solutions without taking into account what our loved ones want. In other words, our caretaking doesn’t always respect their preferences, abilities, and right to self-determination. In fact, to others, it can feel more like meddling than caring.
Codependents become obsessed with other people and their problems
Our enmeshed boundaries can also contribute to obsessing about other people and their problems. We act as if their problems are our own and feel compelled to do things for them under the guise of helping or caring. We spend a lot of time and energy worrying, researching, and trying to help, fix, or rescue.
Sometimes, we get so focused on other people and their problems that we have trouble stepping away and letting others do things in their own way and in their own time. We persist in trying to help even when doing so is detrimental to ourselves and our loved ones.
Our poor boundaries and compulsion to “help” also makes it hard for us to take care of ourselves. Our focus is on what other people need so much so that we don’t pay attention to our own needs, which means we become exhausted, sick, and unfulfilled. And when we don’t cultivate our hobbies and other relationships, we become even more fixated on our loved one’s problems and what we can do about them.
Codependent caretaking makes us feel resentful
Taking care of a loved one can make us feel good about ourselves and increase our self-esteem. However, caretaking can also be a big source of resentment for codependents. This resentment comes from our desire to not only help or take care of, but to change other people. We often feel compelled to give unsolicited advice, to impose our solutions and ideas on others, and try to get them to solve their problems according to our directives. This rarely works – and thus, we’re left feeling frustrated, unappreciated, and resentful.
Questions to help you differentiate codependent caretaking from healthy caregiving
The difference between codependency and caring may still be unclear at times. Try asking yourself the following questions to help make the distinction.
- Do I feel compelled to help or fix someone?
- Is it difficult for me to focus on my own needs?
- Do I worry a lot about someone else and their problems?
- Am I helping or enabling?
- Am I helping in a way that encourages independence or dependence?
- Do I feel empty, purposeless, or anxious when I don’t help someone?
- Do I give unsolicited advice or try to help in ways that aren’t wanted or appreciated?
- Do I feel guilty if I don’t exhaust every possible way to help someone?
- Do I give or help in ways that negatively affect me?
- Do I feel more comfortable giving than receiving help? Do I avoid asking for help?
- Do I feel superior or like I have all the answers — if only others would listen?
- Are my relationships unbalanced because I give but don’t receive?
- Am I helping because I want to or do I feel like I have to?
- Have I asked the other person if they want help or what kind of help they want?
If you’ve recognized that codependency rather than plain old caring is at work in your relationships, you can take steps to reduce the unhealthy aspects of your caretaking. Below are a few tips for reducing codependency. Be sure to click each link to learn more.
- Develop a stronger sense of self and clearer boundaries
- Avoid enabling
- Manage your worry and anxiety
- Tune into your own needs and increase your self-care
- Practice detaching with love
- Reduce controlling behaviors
And for further practice and support, get a copy of my e-book Navigating the Codependency Maze.
Learning to make these changes doesn’t mean you don’t care and aren’t willing to help. Reducing codependency will create healthier relationships in the long run. It will allow you to give from an open heart, without resentment, without strings attached, and without expectations.