The line between codependency and compassion can be fuzzy because the intentions of both appear the same. However, while compassion promotes effective communication and mutual respect, codependency destroys the foundation of healthy relationships.
If you are confused, as am I much of the time, as to which activities belong in which category, here are a few questions to ask yourself to determine if you are acting with compassion or codependency.
1. What are your intentions?
The word “compassion” is derived from Latin roots meaning “co-suffering.” Compassion goes beyond the emotion of empathy (ability to feel another’s pain) to actively want to alleviate another’s suffering. The intentions are motivated by love and selflessness. The underlying motive of codependency, on the other hand, is that of self-protection. The codependent person needs to be needed and is pursuing acceptance and safety. She often takes on the role of a martyr or a victim, and makes it about herself. In that way, codependent activity — although seemingly charitable — is closer to selfish than selfless.
2. How do you feel, emotionally and physically?
Because codependency is a form of addiction – relationship addiction – it generates the hangover feeling that most addictions leave you with and deteriorates emotional and physical health. Compassion, on the other hand, promotes general health and well-being. In fact, recent studies show that compassion makes us feel good in a variety of ways. It activates pleasure brain circuits, secretes the “bonding” hormone oxytocin, slows down our heart rate, makes us more resilient to stress, and boosts our immune system.
3. Do you value the other person more than yourself?
Both compassion and codependency may involve attending to others’ needs. At times this requires personal sacrifice. However, a compassionate person continues to care for himself in the process; he or she never abandons himself in order to take care of another. A codependent person, on the other hand, discards his or her own needs, replacing them with the needs of the other person. Then he becomes bitter, resentful, and frustrated when there is nothing left for him at the end of the day.
4. Do you feel like you have a choice?
Codependent persons don’t have a choice — or at least they feel as though they don’t — in taking care of another person. There is an exaggerated sense of responsibility, a fear of abandonment by the other person if they don’t pull through. They are not performing free acts of charity as a compassionate person does. They are imprisoned by a sense that something terrible will happen if they don’t attend to another’s needs and do whatever they need to do to enable behavior, even if they acknowledge that it is destructive.
5. Is the relationship healthy?
Compassion strengthens the fibers of a relationship. Acts of selflessness contribute to mutual appreciation, effective communication, trust, and other key ingredients of successful relationships. Codependency, on the other hand, deteriorates the foundation of relationships, causing dependency, jealousy, bitterness, destructive behavior, poor communication, and a host of other problems. Codependency is usually found in relationships that were dysfunctional from the start, where one or both people are involved in destructive and addictive behavior.
6. Do you feel guilty?
Unlike compassion, codependency is associated with an overwhelming feeling of guilt. Guilt is often the motivating factor for decisions and behaviors within the relationship, even though they don’t make any logical sense.
Of course the distinction between compassion and codependency isn’t always so clear-cut. I think there are many moments in my day that I am acting with both: my intention to help morphs into my meeting a need of my own, or a charitable act becomes less about “co-suffering” than about enabling dysfunctional behaviors. As always, awareness of your actions is key to moving toward compassion.
** If you or someone you know is struggling with codependency, contact Aspen Counseling Services to schedule an Initial Assessment.