Q: What is the ultimate in codependence? A: You’re drowning, and somebody else’s life is flashing in front of you. So runs a joke that captures something fundamental about so many people’s difficulties in putting their own life, needs, and well-being at the center of their attention.
At some point in my life in the early nineties, someone suggested to me that I might want to consider the possibility that I was codependent myself. Because some people very close to me were getting tremendous benefit from other 12-step programs, I decided to check it out. Knowing that I was likely to be skeptical and not see benefit, I decided, before even attending the first meeting, that, regardless of how I felt about it, I would attend one weekly meeting for two months straight before evaluating. At the end of the two months, I left the group.
The choice to dedicate these weeks to that group was nonetheless hugely beneficial to my learning. What I learned on the very personal level was that I didn’t see myself sharing many behavioral patterns with the members of the group. I could see their shared experiences, and they were different enough from mine that I didn’t see that I would benefit from staying. “Codependence” was simply not my issue. I appreciated the freedom I got through that.
I also came to understand, through being in that group, something about the power of 12-step programs to bring about miraculous change in people’s lives. From my own small experience then, as well as what I’ve heard from others over the years, I now see at least three factors that combine in that: a community that people can truly feel at home in; a degree of acceptance of human fallibility that makes room for everyone, regardless of where they are on their path; and a commitment to honesty and deep sharing that supports truth and learning. I was and am in awe of what these groups can offer people who are isolated and in deep need of transformation.
With all this rich learning, I still continue to have discomfort with the approach of 12-step programs, as I understand it. One part of the discomfort has to do with the general principle of being powerless. I completely understand and embrace the humility that I hear in that invitation to “admit” powerlessness to create change, the breaking of the habit of believing that we can, on our own, create change, without community and support from others, even in the grip of addiction. I still worry about the permanence of the notion that one is an addict, or a codependent. I continue to have faith in people’s ability to heal sufficiently to have full choice, again, in their lives, and truly long for everyone to see that possibility for themselves and others.
I also feel unease about a persistent message I have heard over the years, both in those groups and since, urging “codependent” people to discontinue relationships with people who are deemed “unhealthy” for them, be it people who are addicted to substances or who exhibit other forms of challenging behavior. I want to express clearly that I do not see this message as coming from the official literature of the 12-step program; I am only concerned about its existence within 12-step circles. My concern about this message is that if everyone consistently applied this advice, a whole lot of people who are suffering and unable to transform their lives would be left alone when they already have habits of isolation. This is not the picture of the human society and human relationships I want to see. I want everyone to be cared about.
Rather than attempting a solution that is about finding ways to care less, I am envisioning a solution based on caring more. This is why I talk about expanding the circle of care.
Including Myself in the Circle of Care
This path is where my hope lies for creating transformation for people who are caught in relationships in which one of them is focused on and preoccupied with the other person to the exclusion of self. I see learning to care for the self as both a powerful antidote to the habits of the so-called “codependent” person and as a learning opportunity for the other person. From very early in life, I see the assertion of needs as the most natural and powerful path to learning about interdependence, for both parties. I see the needs of parents and caregivers, for example, as a very reliable and natural way to set limits that a child can experience. When limits are set in this way (“I want to have some time to rest” rather than “It’s your bedtime”, for example), the possibility of true dialogue and care for both people’s needs can occur. When we do this, we transcend either/or thinking about human needs, and we show the child both care for their needs and for our own. They learn to see that other people have needs, too.
Similarly, when a person who has been preoccupied with someone else’s needs and behaviors begins to connect with, assert, and make requests about their own needs, the entire dynamic of the relationship shifts. The other person learns about the effect of their actions and can make a choice about their behavior. This opens up the possibility of learning and healing of that person’s habits and patterns. As two people mature in this way together, they can forge an entirely new way of relating in which their needs are not seen as at odds with each other.
Like every act of transformation, the outcome of such a path is uncertain. It’s entirely possible that as one person begins to assert their needs the other person may choose to leave because they may still prefer someone who won’t. That said, this risk of losing another person is qualitatively different for me from the actual choice to sever relations with another person. I see fear of loss of connection as part of what fuels so-called “codependent” patterns. Clearly, the “codependent” person will need to find freedom. The difference for me lies in recognizing that leaving a situation does not create freedom. Rather, freedom arises from the willingness to lose the person, which creates the possibility of asserting our needs. Leaving a relationship, severing ties with someone, without learning how to assert our needs is more likely to land us in new relationships that recreate the same patterns. At some point transformation requires change in our responses to a situation, the actual way in which we relate to what happens and how we find the path to include our own needs in the equation. When we are able to include our own needs in the equation fully, alongside, not instead of, others’ needs, we are more likely to experience the possibility of stepping beyond the either/or paradigm, and finding care for everyone.
Including more People in the Circle of Care
Although it may seem that I am suggesting that we can only care for others if we learn to care about ourselves, my actual intention is to suggest that full caring for others depends on moving beyond either/or thinking altogether. Learning to care for myself when I have been fixated on others’ needs can get me beyond the either/or. Just as much, if I am only able to give my attention to myself, directly applying myself to care about another person, come what may, could be my entry point to the world of true care.
The Invisible People
Whichever direction we come from, discovering the possibility of caring for more people opens up widening circles for us to learn to extend care to. Each time we expand the circle, we encounter another challenge, another step, or many, on the path to full human freedom. With the invisible people, including them in the circle of care challenges us to see, to notice, to look beyond the obvious. Who are the invisible people we are not used to caring about? Is it the person who sweeps the floor in the supermarket? What would it take to look this person in the eyes and thank them for cleaning? When I do, the gratitude still surprises me, even after years of practice. Suddenly, the person knows they are seen, that their actions matter, that they are making a difference. Or the invisible person could be the blind person waiting ahead of you in line on a BART platform. This, too, happened to me. I noticed that a woman with a cane was standing in a way that would have her not find the door. I spoke to her, touched her, told her what was going on. We ended up engaging in a 20-minute conversation that was deeply enriching, to both of us. We both got to be seen as a result. Who is the invisible person for you?
Expanding the circle also means including all those we classify as “other.” For some of us, “other” may be the obvious “other”, such as lower class people who are often seen as uneducated, even lacking intelligence. I can only remember the conversations I had just days ago with factory workers at a client site, and how I noticed, still after all these years, surprise at how much creative thinking I experienced during these conversations. I felt embarrassed to notice my bias, and then humbled, and then open-hearted and delighted, especially knowing that a small group of those workers will now meet with management to find ways to implement changes to improve their work lives, based in large measure on their own ideas.
For some of us, “other” are the people who disagree with us. I have often been astonished to the point of real anguish to notice the depth of anger, even hatred, within circles of people who are self-defined as working for peace, toward those who are against legalizing abortions, or for the death penalty, or supporting the continuation of war. As for me, I have noticed, and felt the irony of recognizing, that it’s easier for me to find empathy for those I truly disagree with than for those with whom I ostensibly agree and who malign those whose opinions I also disagree with. I recognize that, to some degree, I make people who are at least partially aligned with my visions and methods into “other” when they exhibit hatred toward those with whom I vehemently disagree.
For some of us, “other” are the people with power. Sometimes, when I write about empathy for the rich or about understanding for those in positions of power, I get responses that shock me. When I wrote about the challenge of being rich, my cross-posted version on Tikkun Daily received comments from some people that completely demonized the rich. One person who wrote even went as far as to say that they had no soul, so they couldn’t suffer. Yes, this may be an extreme example of a response, and yet, sadly, it didn’t stand so far apart from many others. From where I stand these days, it appears to me that caring for those with power is not a well-attended path. I still know deeply within me, that without caring for those in power, without the active desire to make the world work for them, too, we are likely to end up with more of the same until we cannot continue living on this planet.
My own personal final frontier is the people with blood on their hands. I am not entirely able to release all the “otherness” I associate with them. It’s so easy to tell myself that in some fundamental way we are so different, that they are capable of doing things I could never do, that they are creating so much harm. Many go from such thoughts directly into how to punish such people. I have left that option far behind. I want to find a way to keep my heart fully open to them, finding enough love to bridge that gap, to see and trust their humanity. I want to have the strength and courage to persist in the fundamental knowledge that they are made of the same fabric that I am, and that, like me, they are expressing their own needs, which are no different from my own. I still cannot fathom certain choices, whether they be personal acts of violence, personal participation in torture, or the choice to order mass murders. I have the abstract deep faith that there is no difference. I can sometimes, especially when I am writing or teaching, feel the love, experience the gap dissolving. I want that to be my immediate and ongoing response to everyone. One of my dreams is to create the modern equivalent of the sanctuary cities that are described in the Hebrew Bible: a place where people with blood on their hands can receive enough love to find their way back into their own heart, so they can grieve all they have done and have some hope of belonging, again, in the community of humans. I can only imagine the healing that would occur, to them, to all of us, if a place like this existed.