Sometimes, people think that they’re codependent when they’re not – they are simply being compassionate and are care-taking of others. This is being a good family member, friend, or other loved one, for you are offering the best of yourself to others’ in need. Remember, it becomes codependency only when the behavior harms you and/or enables the other person (typically the addict). This is when caring becomes negative for both you (the loved one) and the person with an addiction. Let’s explore a story; this story is based on a true event that happened when this author was a therapist in a women’s long-term residential treatment center (name and details changed to protect identities).

The event took place on a weekend and as I was not on call that weekend, I did not find out about the situation until I returned on Monday. One of the women in treatment (Susan) was given a weekend pass to spend time with her husband on Saturday and Sunday. She was awaiting his arrival when the horrific happened – he called to tell her their son had been killed in a car accident. She was obviously in tremendous grief and was in the progress of taking a cab to go to the hotel to meet her husband. As she was crying and beyond comforting, the weekend staff and the on-call staff person wanted her to stay at the residential center. All Susan could focus on was getting to the hotel to wait for her husband. The staff told her she could not do that and it became a power struggle between a grieving parent and staff. Obviously, the woman needed significant compassion from staff as well as from her peers. During this struggle, the cab came to pick her up. Staff threatened her for leaving treatment AMA (against medical advice) but she was adamant she was going to go be with her husband. At this time, one of her peers stepped in and said she would go with Susan and stay with her until her husband arrived. This now became another threat to this client, Ann, who was also threatened that she too would be kicked out of treatment if she left. Ann then left with Susan and stayed at the motel until Susan’s husband arrived, and then Ann came back to treatment (and sober). She was told that she would be dealt with on Monday when the entire staff was available, but that she would probably be kicked out.

So think about this – was this compassion and caring or was it enabling and codependent? As a client, what would you have done – either as Susan or Ann? If you were a counselor, what would you have done if you were the on-call person? Or if you were a counselor coming into the situation on Monday?

When I returned on Monday, some people were saying that Ann should be discharged for violating rules and for enabling Susan with codependent behavior. I was horrified with this thinking. For Ann made a much more loving, compassionate, and caring decision than did the staff and the on-call therapist who should have come into work and stayed with Susan at either the facility or the motel – wherever Susan felt more comfortable. In this situation, Ann, a client, made a much healthier decision than staff and acted out of compassion, not codependency. It is what any person should have done but unfortunately, the staff was into controlling behavior (their own codependency issues). I confronted staff and honored Ann for doing what she did; this was not done in codependency but done in love.

So please understand the difference between compassion and codependency. Do not pathologize compassion, for compassion is what heals us, everyone around us, and the Earth and the Cosmos. Compassion is higher-level behavior; codependency is lower-level behavior and you can choose which way to empower yourself and to empower others.

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Carol Anderson
Carol Anderson, D.Min., ACSW, LMSW, is a licensed clinical social worker with over 25 years of experience in the fields of mental health, addictions, and co-occurring disorders. Her other specialties include grief and trauma, women’s issues, chronic pain management, holistic healing, GLBTQ concerns, and spirituality and transpersonal psychology. Dr. Anderson has been educated and trained in the fields of education, social work, and spirituality, and she holds a Doctor of Ministry degree (non-denominational/interfaith) specializing in spirituality.

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