Many years ago, I had a friend, Brian, who went through therapy and was able to accept that he had codependent tendencies. With his therapist, he began to set boundaries, and by talking about it with his friends, he kept cementing the new value-set in his brain.
Problem was, Brian turned into a bit of a cold-hearted prick in the process. Having to keep reinforcing those boundaries made them stronger and stronger until he went in the complete opposite direction and stopped caring for anybody, ever.
By then, I had been made aware of my own codependent tendencies through my own therapy sessions. What I hadn’t done yet was accept them as a problem. I thought it was still possible to be healthily codependent, and didn’t want to change. I certainly didn’t want to turn into what Brian was turning into.
It’s not easy, you know? For me, rules are comfortable. Black and white. Yes and No. Stop and Go. But reality? It was easy for me to say, for example, “I will never again date someone who suffers from depression.”
I have. More than once, since Tony.
It’s a boundary I tried to set because I knew where my personal boundaries are weakest. I want to help people. I’m a problem solver. And depression isn’t a problem that can be “solved,” it’s more like a condition that gets “managed.” I’ve learned a lot over the past few years on where and when to set that boundary and now have allowed myself to get close to people with depression again without falling back into my default responses anymore.
I care for them, and when I start to feel responsible for their feelings, I know it’s time to take a step back and remember that it’s not my job to “fix” anything. My job is to be a good person who cares. That is all.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that it’s easy to stay on either side of that line – codependent or cold and distant, but to locate the healthy boundary and camp out there is sometimes more challenging.
Based on the definition I’ve seen on “empaths,” I’d say I’m probably somewhere on that spectrum, though I’m not woo-woo enough to say so with much certainty. I feel people’s feelings like they’re my own. It’s great when they’re happy, and it’s distressing when they’re sad.
There are going to be times when I have to step away and turn up the emotional A/C. I might go silent for a little while, or not ask things like “how are you?” It’s not that I don’t want to know, it’s that I’m feeling a little bit vulnerable myself and think if the answer is “I’m not well,” it’s going to turn into one of those things where I’m going to absorb those feelings and try to “solve” them.
I got to the point for a while where I got into the habit of never asking “how are you?” It put some of my friends off. They thought I didn’t care. I do care, but….
My old pattern was something like this:
Phi: How are you?
Friend: Eh. Not so great.
Phi: What’s wrong?
Friend: (explains the problem)
Phi: (tries to solve it)
Friend: (pivots and turns the problem into a different problem)
Phi: (tries to solve it)
Friend: (pivots again and turns the problem into a different problem)
Phi: (starts to get frustrated because it feels like this person just wants to be upset)
Friend: (feels even worse because phi is now frustrated with them and they feel worthless)
In order to break that pattern, I stopped asking “how are you?” for a while. A long while. And I fell out of practice of reminding people that I really do care about how they are. I drew the imaginary line from “I’m not doing great” to “please give me advice on how to solve it.” Today, I try to only offer advice when it’s explicitly asked for, but sometimes that old behavior comes out. I frequently have to remind myself that someone admitting that they’re not feeling great is not an automatic request for advice.
You’d think that would be a really basic concept to comprehend, but for me it wasn’t. And it’s still something I struggle with from time to time.
But, just like it’s not my responsibility to solve other people’s problems, it is not other people’s responsibility to mitigate their feelings around me. I have to learn to shield myself and focus on healthy reactions to everyday situations.
I want people to trust that I care for them and understand why I can’t let myself feel responsible for their happiness, and I want those same people not to feel responsible for mine. I’ve worked hard to overcome some of those patterns, and I’m strong enough (and honest enough) to recognize when I need to take a step back.
It’s usually when my reaction to someone else’s distress falls along the lines of “how did I fail? or “what did I do wrong?” or “How can I fix it?” that I know it’s time to reset the tent back a little further from the line.
There are many people in my life, past and present, that struggle with varying levels of anxiety and depression. This isn’t about any one of them in particular. It’s about me. It’s about recognizing that I can care, and I can be present without losing myself in the process.
I don’t have to go all Brian on them.