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How Can I Tell If I’m Codependent?

How Can I Tell If I'm Codependent

Donald Miller over at Storyline Blog put out a video the other day, in which he talks about the moment he realized he was codependent in his romantic relationships. Here’s how it happened: A counselor leading a small group session laid out three pillows on the floor. She had Don stand on one of these pillows, while a second participant stood on another. The pillow in the middle was left open.

Once these two – probably slightly confused – individuals were standing on their respective cushions, she explained: This is how healthy relationships work. This is Don’s pillow, this is her pillow, and the pillow in the middle is the relationship. The only two things that you have influence on are your pillow, and the relationship pillow.

Not the other person’s pillow.

Watching Don explain this, I had a knee-jerk negative reaction. This is dumb, I thought. Are you really going to explain to me how human relationships work with a set of pillows on the floor?

Then I realized, it’s not the metaphor that’s silly; it’s me. How often do I try to mess with other people’s pillows? How common is it for me to try to change other people, rather than focusing on those things that I do have some legitimate influence over – my own self, and my part in the relationship?

It’s humbling to get schooled by somebody using floor pillows as a metaphor, but that’s where I’m at. This is a message that I needed.

Don talks about codependency in terms of romantic relationships, but my own experience of codependency is far broader than that. It can extend to friendships and the workplace, to community and family. For me, it has often extended into my ministry. Rather than staying focused on those things that I can control, I’ve often worried too much about the reactions and choices of others.

When I focus on the other person’s (or community’s) pillow, it doesn’t end well for anybody. I end up judging my failure or success in terms of the choices other people make, rather than focusing on those things I have influence over. It’s easy to get bogged down in lamenting the shortcomings of others rather than taking a hard look at my own attitudes and actions, and the part that I play in my relationships.

Scariest of all, maintaining these healthy boundaries means that sometimes I have to walk away from relationship. There are moments when it becomes clear that there’s nothing more that I can do to improve that middle pillow. Sometimes, the most loving choice is to say no to a dysfunctional situation – whether with another individual, a faith community, or a work environment.

As painful as it is to lose these troubled relationships, it can be even worse to stay. It’s possible to spend years hoping against hope that things might get better someday if only that other person or community would change. But the longer I allow myself to measure my happiness by others’ reactions, the more warped my own will become.

It takes a lot of self-awareness to disengage from a toxic relationship. It requires great strength and love to value the well-being of the relationship more than the absence of interpersonal conflict. And sometimes the healthiest relationship is the one that ends. When I know who I am and what my purpose is, nobody and no situation is going to shake me off my foundation.

That’s the life of humble power that I want to live into this year. Rather than re-making the world in my own image, can I submit myself to the truth of who others are? What would it be like to value the depth of my own integrity over the accolades of those around me? What in my life will change when I know who I am and allow others to be who they are, even if it costs me the illusion of relationship that I have clung to so tightly?

Does any of this ring true for you? Where are the places of codependency in your own life? What is the next step you can take towards more fully embracing your own role in your relationships, and leaving the rest to God?

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  • Scott King

    wow…i needed that right now…I’ve been focusing on the faith group’s pillow….trying to ask that they change …and despite it all, that isn’t happening, and they are reacting in even harsher terms now…so I’m needing to walk away…so sad but so true

    • I’m sorry you’re experiencing that, Scott. It’s been a tough pill for me to swallow that I can only really change myself and my part in a relationship – whether with an individual or a group. But recognizing it is key for me finding greater peace and effectiveness in my life.

      • charlesburchfield

        God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,The courage to change the things I can,And the wisdom to know the difference.
        is it possible you are in recovery from religion addiction? I know I am.

        • If “religion” is the rules I make up for myself (or have imposed on me by the surrounding culture), absolutely!

    • Duncan Pugh

      Yes the pillow in the middle is the problem sometimes …

    • charlesburchfield

      addict always guard their ‘supply’

    • charlesburchfield

      scott, i am discouraged about my in b/t pillow FOR YEARS! it’s been just me, the lord, & maybe my spouce sometimes. your post and the discovery of micah’s blog is making me ponder the possibility again of intimate spiritual friends and fellowship. i have prayed for this a long time. constant contact w/ the holy spirit, willingness to accept what i am shown, contemplation about what to do abt the information, this is the way i go. now what?

  • Dale Graves

    The hardest part is to do the separation with kindness and respect.

  • David Lim

    Thanks a lot for the simple yet profound illustration of 3 pillows!

    • Absolutely! Props to Don Miller over at Storyline Blog!