One of the watershed moments in my life was when I finally got fed up with relationship after relationship going down in flames. Every time one would end, I would resolve to try harder and do better the next time, invariably with the same result. Eventually, I got brave (and desperate) enough to venture into a counselors office to find out why the rest of the world was crazy.
Turns out of course the world wasn’t crazy.
My counselor explained that I struggled with codependency. Since I was a little kid, I had been taught through interactions that the feelings of others were my responsibility. Someone was feeling sad? It was my job to cheer them up. Someone didn’t like me? It was my job to make them. Someone’s upset? It was my responsibility to placate them and keep the peace.
I was always the one making jokes, trying to get others to laugh. I was always the one over analyzing every relationship I got in, trying to find problems before they happened… which, of course, caused problems in every relationship I got in. I was drawn to other codependent people like a magnet, and every time things fell apart, it was more evidence that I just wasn’t trying hard enough.
I can still remember my own personal “Dr. Phil” moment… that moment when you honestly ask yourself “How’s that workin for ya?” and the answer clicks. I was writing in a workbook on codependency, and it asked me to write down the names of the last 3 people I had been in a relationship with. No problem. The next question asked me in what ways I had tried to fix the relationship, fix the person, or help the person fix themselves. I filled up the entire space on that one. Easy. Then I got to the third question.
Person #1: ___________
Person #2: ___________
Person #3: ___________
With each of these people, did your efforts work?
I remember staring at that question for a really long time.
The answer of course, was “Nope… nope… and…… nope”. Didn’t work. What I was doing wasn’t working. Even worse than that, it was making me miserable.
At that moment, I realized that if I wanted things to change, then I had to change first… because I was the only common denominator in every relationship I had ever been in. I was also the only variable I had any control over.
Today, I am happily married to a wonderful woman and we have a beautiful baby girl. I still have my issues I need to work through (we both do), but at least we know how to ask that all-important question. “How’s that workin for ya?”
Lately, I see codependency everywhere. Every time I see my ultra conservative dad screaming at the latest political cable news report, I want to ask “How’s that workin for ya?” The vein on his forehead is going to burst one of these days, and I guarantee not one politician will care about all the advice he has shouted at the TV.
It’s not just on an individual level either. As a society, we have become codependent in the extreme. Are people shooting other people overseas? It’s our job to go fix it. Are people poor here at home? It’s our job to go fix it. Political ideology doesn’t seem to matter… on both sides of the isle, everyone has an opinion on how we can “fix” whatever problem of the day we are facing. No one stops to ask the deeper question… “Is this our problem to fix?”
When we give SNAP benefits to people who wont work or automatic weapons to rebels in other countries, we are trying to fix problems, like poverty or social injustice. But are these our problems to fix? Are these problems that we even CAN fix?
To answer to that is a lot more complicated than just understanding a simple principle that will help us answer it. People change when the pain of changing is less than the pain of staying the same. At some point, we need to ask ourselves if we are giving a drunk a drink before we throw more money at problems as a country. Or even as individuals. At what point is letting your kid stay in your basement helping (say, like if the kid is 22 and working two full time jobs to pay for a full load of college classes) or hurting (say, if the kid is 25 and hasn’t had a job for 6 years other than killing “noobs” on Call of Duty?).
Obviously, its situation specific. Just like you could have people screaming “WHY DO YOU WANT TO BAN KIDS STAYING IN PARENTS BASEMENTS?! THERE ARE SOME KIDS THAT GENUINELY NEED HELP!” while pointing at kid #1, you could also have people screaming “WHY DO YOU WANT TO SLASH WELFARE PAYMENTS FOR THE POOR? THERE ARE PEOPLE WHO GENUINELY NEED HELP!” while pointing at the single widow mom with 2 jobs trying to make ends meet.
Our problem, as I see it, is in not being able to distinguish between the widow two kid mom and the welfare queen who buys her Venti Caramel Macchiato on her SNAP card while her three year old doesn’t have shoes.
For society overall, I don’t have much control. All I can do is focus on what I can control, which is me. My beliefs. My actions. My choices. Psychologists call it “Internal Locus of Control” vs “External Locus of Control”. Stephen Covey calls it your “Circle of Control” vs your “Circle of Concern”.
Either way, you are much happier when you live in the middle than on the outsides. Much more effective too. And if enough of us do it, maybe we can become the majority, rather then the codependents who are running things now.