Dear Older Self,
Codependency is a term that was originally coined to describe the dynamics that can play out in the lives of people who are in relationship with an addict or an alcoholic. Spouses, children, siblings and parents often think that they are responsible to control or change their addicted loved-one. This belief can, unfortunately, lead to increased suffering and destruction in relationships.
The belief that you can control or change another person can lead to many unproductive behaviors. It can, for example, lead you to try to control other peoples’ moods. You may want to please other people in the hope that you can make them happy. The truth is that you do not have this power. Pretending that you do leads to resentment and discouragement. In addition to trying to control people’s moods, you may also try to control their behavior. You may become angry and anxious when you cannot get them to do what you want them to do. Or you may try to control or change someone’s beliefs. You might find yourself approaching them with an agenda or lectures—unable to listen well or to enter into true intimacy.
In all of these ways you may be living (often without your full awareness) with unrealistic expectations of other people and of yourself. When you are caught up in codependent thinking your expectations of other people is that they will comply with your wishes. And your expectation of yourself is that you have the power to control other people—usually, of course, with the sincere conviction that it is “for their own good.”
It isn’t difficult to see how these expectations can lead to terrible outcomes.
The belief that you can, or should, control other people is based on the assumption that your way of seeing things and doing things is in some way better than other people’s way of doing things and seeing things. As a result, you are in danger of judging others and shaming them in an attempt to get them to change to your “superior way”. The belief that you can change other people is often connected with the belief that you have powers that you do not have—powers that only belong to God. When you judge other people and “play God” in their lives you relate to them from a place of self-righteous pride rather than from a place of respect, humility and love.
There are, of course, times when people behave in ways that are not in their own best interests or in the best interests of other people. There are times when people drive while intoxicated. There are times when people refuse to follow their doctor’s recommendations. There are times when people become hurtful in their anger.
All of these are behaviors that need to change. But that does not mean that you have the power to make the changes. You do have the power to set appropriate boundaries with people whose behavior is hurtful or potentially harmful. You can refuse to ride in a car being driven by someone under the influence. You can refuse to stay in a room with someone who is being destructive in their anger. You can change your behavior but you cannot change the other person’s behavior. And believing that you can leads to a kind of insanity on your part that will only make things worse.
So, dear older self, pay particularly close attention to any expectation that you can control or change other people. You have seen how attempts to control other people can make things worse.
Remember the elderly woman who raged at her spouse for his out-of-control eating that posed a threat to his already compromised health? He ate more, not less. And she became sick with anxiety and filled with resentment.
Remember the grandparents who could not resist giving their addicted grandchildren money in the hopes that things would ‘be different this time?’ They continued this insane effort to change their loved-ones even after they noticed that pain medications were missing from the bathroom cabinet!
These examples have to do with addiction but our attempts to control people are certainly not limited to such situations. We may try to control other people in order to get our own needs met. We may expect others to do certain things for us and find ourselves lecturing, pouting or shaming them to get them to comply.
One of the most problematic expectations as you grow older might be the expectation that other people will keep you from feeling lonely. I know you remember what it was like to be on the receiving end of some of these expectations. You remember the subtle and not-so-subtle comments that communicated that no matter what you did to help, no matter how demanding the rest of your life was, you not doing enough. You tried to hear these as efforts to communicate real needs but the manipulative and shaming way in which the needs were communicated made it difficult to respond in helpful ways.
You can be direct and honest about your needs but do so without being demanding, manipulative or controlling. Your best option, dear older self, is a path summarized in the first three steps of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.
The first step is to acknowledge that you are not in charge of other people. You do not have this kind of power. The first step is: “We came to admit we were powerless over _____.” In this case, fill in the blank with “other people.”
The second step is: “We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” Continuing to attempt to control other people’s behavior in spite of repeated failures in the past is a kind of insanity. It is “doing the same thing but expecting different results”. What we need is restoration to sanity. And that, thankfully, is something God can do. The restoration of our sanity comes as we remember that there is a God and it is not us.
The third step is: “We make the decision to entrust our lives and our wills to God’s care.” The best thing you can do for yourself and for the people you love is to “let go and let God.”
Let go of being in charge of other people. Entrust them to God’s loving care. This is the path to sanity and serenity in your relationships. It is the path of respect, peace and grace.
This meditation is taken from Notes to Our Older Selves: Suggestions for Aging With Grace by Juanita Ryan and Mary Rae. You can get a copy at Amazon.com