At work or at home, we all find ourselves in the precarious position of trying to control another person’s behavior under the guise of caring.
Parents, children, spouses, siblings, and co-workers — we sometimes try to manipulate or control the behavior of others to bring peace or to see our priorities met in these relationships. These behaviors in relationships are often classified as “codependency.”
”A codependent person is one who has let another person’s behavior affect him or her, and who is obsessed with controlling that person’s behavior” ― Melody Beattie, “Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself”
Whether your life is affected by alcoholism and/or other compulsive behaviors in family members or not – most people have experienced codependent relationships.
When it’s in relationships struggling with addiction, there are even greater consequences and implications. But the “cures” for codependency are still based on these principles – detach with love, let go and let God, and establish healthy boundaries in relationships.
There are parallels between strategies to defeat codependency in dysfunctional relationships and for building healthy relationships for family caregivers and those for whom we care.
Many resources describe codependency as caretaking. I have never liked the word “caretaker” to describe “caregiving.” Caretaking implies taking something — independence or respect — from another person in order to care for their needs. Caretaking focuses on the tasks or functions of caring for another person rather than supporting the person to live as independently as they are able. Caretakers help so as to control or “take” from another and form codependent relationships.
Building healthy relationships is described as caregiving. Caregiving provides support with respect to another as a loving act of service. Most family caregivers waiver between caregiving and caretaking. There are risks of codependency in caregiving relationships too. It all comes down to how we care. Are we caring to help someone else live as independently as they can or to control someone else?
Sometimes in caregiving, the lines can easily become blurred. The slogans like, “let go and let God” certainly apply here- but any caregiver knows that the degree to which we let go also depends on the needs and abilities of the person for whom we care.
For example, in the past 18 months, my daughter, Johanna relies on the use of a walker to ambulate – even in our own home. During one of her recent hospitalizations, a physical therapist was working on Jo walking while holding someone’s hand. While I appreciate the challenge and the need to accurately assess Jo’s ability — I challenged the therapist’s decision.
At this point, Jo can’t walk without some type of assistance. If she doesn’t have the walker, she needs a person or walls or furniture to stabilize her to walk. She falls often, even in our own home.
Some people see using a walker as a lack of independence. But truthfully, when a person has to rely on another person to move from one place to another- they lack independence. Johanna can move pretty independently with the use of a walker. Jo’s service dog Rae also provides input on her left side to keep her from drifting into obstacles and on a straighter path.
I shared this with the physical therapist and demonstrated that if I have to keep holding Jo up to balance and assist with walking, my neck and shoulder become very stiff and painful. After I explained, the PT understood and helped Jo walk more steadily with the support of a walker.
Teaching Jo to use her walker more effectively assists her to be more independent and helps me take care of myself as a caregiver.
Codependency is taking over tasks for another person that they can do for themselves. Over the summer, I shared in another column about one task with which I measure the degree of Jo’s independence: making a cup of coffee with the Keurig.
Returning home after each hospitalization and surgeries, I let Jo try again to make her own cup of coffee. I stood by to intervene at whatever stage she needed help. It takes a lot of time and patience (and spilled milk) to let Jo figure out how much she can do and where she needs help. It would be much easier for me in the short term to just make her a cup of coffee and bringing it to her seat. That would be the controlling and codependent way of caring for my daughter’s needs. It lacks respect for both the person being cared for and the caregiver.
Caregiving is about loving another person and having healthy boundaries so we all feel the love.
A simple way I have found to be sure I am providing healthy caregiving as opposed to codependent caretaking is by asking the question, “How can I help?” This simple question allows my daughter to decide for herself how much assistance she needs and to find her own way of communicating those needs.
The most loving way for me to care for my daughter is to help her find the little and big ways she can take care of herself. Teaching her — even if it means I have to remind her again and again — simple tasks she can do for herself is a way of caring for her needs and mine. It gives us both space to breathe.
In the gospels, Jesus tells his disciples to “love your neighbor as yourself.” This commandment applies to caregiving too. When caring for another, the first person I need to care for is myself. Self-care for the caregiver keeps us away from the controlling and codependent nature of caretaking and respects the boundaries of others and ourselves.
Taking care of myself as a caregiver begins with taking time apart to breathe – to pray and regroup. Some ways I do that is by walking, meditating on scripture, listening to music and watching the birds. Getting outside to observe nature is one of the biggest ways I take care of myself and nurture a heart of gratitude. The natural world reminds me that life is bigger than my circumstances. The same God who paints a stunning sky at sunrise and sunset loves me and inspires my creativity beyond what I could imagine.
Reaching out for support is key for caring for oneself as a caregiver. One of my closest friends is another mom who walks a similar journey with her young adult daughter. This mom reached out to me through this column and we and our daughters became good friends. Support from fellow caregivers is essential for battling codependency and establishing a healthy balance in our caregiving relationships.
The Serenity Prayer is a familiar prayer for most people- especially for those seeking sobriety from all types of compulsions and codependency.
Even those who don’t go to church find solace in the truth of this prayer.
For caregivers, the Serenity Prayer is especially helpful as we seek to find the delicate balance between controlling and caring.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
As a caregiver and the mother of a miracle I add my own stanza to this beloved prayer:
God, grant me the grace to love myself well — so as to love others,
To take care of myself so I can care for another,
And to let go and remember that you are God and I am not.
November is National Family Caregiver Month. PBMC is hosting its annual caregiver retreat on Tuesday, Nov. 12 from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. I hope to meet you there.
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