Preventing Struggle: Enabling Dependency
Maria has been through two bad marriages and is struggling to raise her two sons all by herself. She came in for counseling because she was angry at life, for what it had done to her, and at herself for letting it happen.
Both of her ex-spouses had been charming and irresponsible, much like her brother, Sam. They were also violent and unfaithful, like her father. And like her father, these men needed her, but did not care what she needed.
Maria was like her mother: faithful, responsible and selfless. As she described these people from her childhood, she could see how she had been recreating old scenarios and fulfilling old roles.
Her presenting problem was her relationship with her friend, Jen who was consuming her time, energy and money. Jen was in an unhappy marriage, she had no money and no marketable skills. She would call to have coffee and Maria would run over. Then Jen would ask Maria to do some chores while the coffee was brewing. Maria would help her out while Jen would end up sitting in front of her computer. Maria started to realize that her friend never reciprocated her kindness. Jen was taking without giving, like so many other relationships in Maria’s life.
Maria was tired of this one-way street, but she could not bring herself to let go of the relationship. In counseling, Maria learned how she had enabled Jen’s dependency because she needed to be needed.
Therapist: “What threatens you the most about letting Jen face her own struggles?”
Maria:” I would feel guilty!”
Therapist: “Of what crime?”
Maria: ”I’d be letting her down in her hour of need.”
Therapist: “For Jen, every hour is an hour of need! What does she tell you?”
Maria: ”You’re the only one I can talk to.”
Therapist: “And you believe it. That is her way of controlling you into giving her what she wants. You will feel guilty of the crime of abandonment if you don’t listen to her every time she asks. She is antagonizing your need to be needed. She is using your vulnerabilities against you. This is a need you don’t need.”
Maria: “Come to think of it, I was over there once, and she made me leave the back way because someone was coming up the front stairs to give her some money. I left in a hurry because I didn’t want to spoil it for her.”
Therapist: “Does she worry about spoiling things for you?”
Maria: “Evidently not!”
Therapist: “What else would you be guilty of?”
Maria: ”Of letting her down.”
Therapist: “What does ‘letting her down’ mean?”
Maria: “It means I’m not being responsible.”
Therapist: “How responsible is responsible enough?”
Maria: “I don’t know.”
Therapist: “Then how will you know when to stop? Jen is taking advantage of your super- responsibility and your fear of displeasing. She is victimizing you and you are her willing accomplice. In addition, you are keeping her from becoming responsible for meeting her own needs.”
Maria: “What can I do? I don’t want to feel guilty. It hurts too much.”
Therapist: ”So your motivation is to prevent the pain of your own guilt. What would be the most painful thing about not helping Jen?”
Maria: ”I don’t want her to go through what I went through.”
Therapist: “You are trying to prevent disaster in advance. When did you learn that it was your job to solve others problems ?”
Maria: ”My mother went through so much. She loved all us kids. She told me and my sister, many times, ‘I don’t want you to go through what I went through.’”
Therapist: “Did your mother know how to prevent disasters from happening?”
Therapist: “Do you know how to keep Jen from self-destructing?”
Therapist: “You are only going through the motions. You and your three sisters have all had disastrous marriages to men like your father and brothers. I have a hunch that you are all playing your mother’s role. You are acting like a mother to your because you assume that it is your responsibility to prevent your friend from going through what you went through.”
Maria: “I can’t even keep myself from going through it.”
Therapist: “That’s a good insight. You have been so busy with Jen’s problems that you cannot think about your own life. You are obeying your mother’s teachings. You have been the prisoner of these lessons for thirty years and it keeps you from making choices on your own behalf.”
Maria: “What can I do?”
Therapist: “You can push your comfort zone. The next time Jen calls with her disaster of the day, you can choose to say, ‘I’m sorry to hear it, Jen, but I’m sure you will think of something.’ And she will. She will call someone else who is also ‘the only one she can talk to.’”
Maria: ”Is that your advice?”
Therapist: “That’s not advice. That is a choice you have now, that you didn’t know you had. It is your right and your responsibility to make a choice in your own behalf for a change. You can use your adult judgment to determine what is appropriate for you under these circumstances.”
Maria: “What if I do the wrong thing?”
Therapist: “It’s not a matter of ‘wrong.’ That is your self-doubt kicking in. If you don’t get it right the first time, believe me, she will give you another chance.”
The next day Maria pushed her comfort zone. She didn’t just say, “No” to Jen’s demand for her undivided attention and responsibility. She was able to come up with an excuse and got off the phone as soon as she could. She saved twenty minutes that she needed for her own chores. She had the courage to put her own needs first for a change.
Maria didn’t feel guilty or selfish. She felt liberated. She was no longer required to prevent people from struggling at her own expense. She felt relief from Jen’s grip on her and from her own fear that she would feel guilty of the crime of irresponsibility if she let Jen down.
Maria also felt liberated from her mother’s influence. She was not disobeying or rebelling. She had a new third choice. She was choosing to be independent. She wasn’t playing the role of her mother’s super-responsible, super-pleasing daughter. She had an identity of her own. She had done what it pleased her to do. It felt good. She could hardly wait to do it again.
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