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Do you wonder whether you're a kind, empathetic person or codependent? There is a difference between empathy and codependency. Some codependents are not so caring, and some people who are are not codependent. So what's the difference?
First, the definition of codependency has nothing to do with kindness, although many codependents are kind and may be selfless and self-sacrificing to an unhealthy degree. But it stems from dependence and insecurity, because they need other people's validation and appreciation to feel worthy. On the other hand, genuine kindness has no strings attached. It comes from love, not fear.
Many codependents easily empathize with others, but not enough with themselves. They may have learned to take care of others if they had to take care of younger siblings or an ill or emotionally immature parent. If they grew up in a troubled environment, they may have been emotionally abandoned and confused pain and love. Although relationships have disappointments and conflicts, love isn’t supposed to be painful and hurt so much.
Codependents have a habit of ignoring their needs and constantly putting those of others first. By not having boundaries, they harm themselves and the relationship. They can confuse love with being needed and become a caretaker to someone who is needy, like an addict or narcissist. In the extreme, they can become enablers.
Another big difference is compulsivity. Codependent caretaking is compulsive. They can't say no to someone who needs them. They feel compelled to help or give advice. They become people-pleasers. Their empathy is combined with a need to be needed, which can lead to control. They may get resentful when their advice is ignored or their help is refused.
They also feel responsible for other people's needs and feelings. Thus, they feel guilty if they don't provide help. Meanwhile, they often ignore their own needs and don't take responsibility for them. In fact, meeting their own needs can feel selfish, so they don't ask for them and don't set boundaries.
Caretaking vs. Caregiving
Parental love is expected to be unconditional and one-sided toward their young children. As they grow, good parenting includes mutual respect for each other’s boundaries. Caregiving is a normal outgrowth of love and is also part of healthy adult relationships. When someone we love is in need, we naturally want to help.
To help you differentiate between caretaking and healthy caregiving, here is a list of the differences:
Sacrifices self to others
Can't say no to requests
Is dependent on the relationship for self-esteem
Self-righteous about own opinions
Helping is compulsive
Feels responsible for others
Crosses boundaries with unsolicited advice
Knows what’s best for others
Gives with strings attached or hidden expectations
Feels exhausted, irritated, frustrated, anxious
Feels unappreciated or resentful
Discourages others from thinking for themselves
Uses nonassertive, pushy, judging, “you” statements
Tries to control the recipient
Respects others’ opinions
Helping is volitional
Maintains autonomy in relationships
Feels responsible for self and to others
States their limits and sets boundaries
Respect boundaries. Waits to be asked for advice
Feels love and empathy
Knows what’s best for self
Gives freely without expectations
Doesn’t take others’ actions personally
Encourages others to solve their own problems
Uses assertive “I” statements
A Caretaking Quiz
Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- Do you give unwanted advice?
- Do you judge your partner?
- Do you believe that you know what’s best?
- Do you repeatedly do things for your partner that he or she is capable of doing?
- Does your partner meet your needs?
- Is your giving reciprocated?
- Do you practice self-care?
- Do you feel responsible for your partner’s negative feelings?
- Do you feel guilty saying “no” to your partner?
- Do your partner’s problems preoccupy your thoughts?
- Can you listen without giving advice?
- Do you get upset if your advice isn’t followed?
- Do you give with strings attached?
- Is it uncomfortable to listen to another’s problem and not offer solutions – even when asked?
Detach and Let Go
Watching those you love struggle can be very difficult, and it can take all your strength not to jump in and help, especially when others expect you to behave in the old way. They’ll likely try to reel you in to give advice and other help. Because caretaking can be a compulsion, you may need outside support to maintain your boundaries and not be overwhelmed with guilt. You can learn How to Be Assertive and set limits.
Detachment doesn’t mean being emotionally cold, but taking a hands-off – ego-off approach. This is truly loving someone. Your guilt will lessen in time and with it resentment making for a better relationship. Read more on detachment and enabling. Get “14 Tips for Letting Go” on my website.
© Darlene Lancer 2023
Lancer. D. (2012) Codependency for Dummies, 2nd ed. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.