Kindness Codependency Contrasted

The Difference Between Kindness and Codependency

Written by Marlene M. Maheu, Ph.D.

I just want to show people I love that I care, but I end up feeling resentful when they don’t do the same for me in return. If only people were as considerate toward me as I am toward them, I’d be a lot happier, and feel more secure. Something just isn’t right.”

Being of help to those you love can be very healthy and rewarding. Many books have addressed the issue of co-dependency, but it is sometimes difficult to tell the difference between co-dependency and kindness. While co-dependency is not an official psychological term, it has come to describe a type of relationship where an individual gives of themselves, even when they don’t want to, or shouldn’t, for their own welfare.

Here are some ways to tell the difference:

If you aren’t sure about whether you are being “too kind,” take a few minutes to complete this simple exercise. Take out a piece of paper and draw a line down the middle of the page. At the top, put the name of someone close to you. In the left column, write down all the things you did last month for this person, whether they requested it or not. At the end of the item, put a large “P” for pleasure, or “R” for resentment to distinguish which emotion you really felt, in your heart of hearts, about this activity. In the right column, list all the things they did for you, either actively or passively, whether you requested or not. Show your list to an impartial friend. If your list is weighted much more heavily on the “giving” side, then you might be selling yourself out to gain acceptance from others. Now that you’ve read the exercise, take out a piece of paper and try it. It’ll be worth the trouble….) If you constantly treat others better than you treat yourself, and are frequently resentful about how loved ones are treating you, consider the possibility that you are out of balance, or “co-dependent.”
Given the age of the person in question, decide if you have been giving freely to this person, or out of some unspoken obligation that leaves you resentful. Worst yet, decide if you have been giving because you fear retribution (anger, pouting, threats, whining, guilt). Remember, children are entitled to get much more than they give, that’s the contract you signed when you decided to have the child. However, as they grow older, they need to learn that the world will not indulge their every whim. They must learn to expect that others have needs and wants, and relationships require negotiation. It is your job as a parent to teach these lessons.
If you decide you are giving when you don’t want; are feeling resentment when you give, then find a way to stop. Being resentful is a sure sign that you don’t want to give; even if you think the only reason you are resentful is based on the other person’s reaction. If you are displeased with the other person’ s reaction, then you are giving “with strings attached.” This is unfair to you as well as to the other person. If you can give freely, consider not giving at all.
Change is difficult for people to accept, as well as to implement. It is only fair to every one involved that you let them know ahead of time that you are changing your ways. Be prepared for a negative response. It’s just part of the change process. People who get their way with you will probably have difficulty hearing you say, “no.”
A good place to start is to say “no” to little things that you might have previously done because “it’s no big deal,” or “it just isn’t worth the trouble.” Go slowly, but take a stand on some things you know you can do. For example, if you feel resentment about doing your teenager’s laundry, teach them to do their own. To avoid having them cost you more money, set a monthly “allotment” for clothing, and they get no more, no matter what.
This is the price you must pay for setting yourself free. Within a few months, they’ll learn to separate their clothes correctly, and make sure they don’t throw shrinkable clothes into the dryer. Often, people do things they really don’t want to do, because “it’s just not worth the trouble of saying no.” If you really don’t want to see a particular movie, if you secretly don’t want to eat at a certain restaurant, stay up later than usual, drive someone somewhere, run an errand because you’re too tired — don’t. (Be careful to practice this with safe people more than at work until you get better at it.)
If people get angry with you, and give you pressure through anger or guilt, hold your ground. Many people use anger, or the threat of anger, to control or manipulate their way through the world. See the ploy, and don’t give in, if you are being reasonable. (Most of us know when we are being unreasonable, or “mean,” if we listen to ourselves. Calmly and firmly hold your ground. The less you say, beyond what you are willing to do, the better for you and the relationship. For example, “Ok, you’re right, I blew it. I’m sorry. How can I fix the situation now?” or “Let’s agree to disagree. I am not willing to pay for something you decided to buy without consulting me. Next time, please ask me first.”
If the other person is being unreasonable, use the broken record technique, “Next time, please ask me first…Next time, please ask me first…Next time, please ask me first.” This avoids setting yourself up for “the inquisition,” because you aren’t giving the other person any ammunition against you. They’ll get over it, sooner or later, and you will stop being manipulated into things you don’t really want to do.
Talk to your happier friends about how they balance giving and receiving. Join a therapy or support group to get suggestions and encouragement from others. Go to CODA groups and listen to others talk about how they are “finding their own voice” in relationships. CODA meetings are free and available throughout most cities in the United States. Pick up some books on the topic.
Whatever you do, know that things are changing, and you don’t have to live a life of quiet resentment. If you decide you are giving because it truly is in your heart to give at that moment, without fear of any kind motivating you, enjoy yourself. Giving to others can be a gift to yourself, if done for the right reasons!

About the Author:

Dr. Maheu is an author, speaker, and researcher. She is the lead author of “E-Health, Telehealth & Telemedicine: A Guide to Program Startup and Success” co-written with Pamela Whitten and Ace Allen, published by Jossey-Bass: San Francisco. She has also been the lead author on these two books: “Infidelity on the Internet” and “The Mental Health Professional and the New Technologies.”
Published 5/29/98, Revised 04/27/2009

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2 thoughts on “Kindness Codependency Contrasted”

  1. Hi NatalieI know that you will break the cycle because awareness is half the battle. The fact that you are seeking answers shows that you are determined to live your life differently. Keep following my blog for more articles on the topic and let me know how you're doing in your personal journey. You will learn so much about yourself along the way. An excellent book that was an impetus for my healing is Women Who Love Too Much by Robin Norwood.

  2. Thanks, this is really useful. I have looked all over the web for information about co-dependency, and advice on how to break the cycle, but a lot of sites don't explain it very well if at all and they certainly don't offer advice.I can't wait to try out some of these techniques and see the results!

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