Compulsive helping, also known as codependency, is the most perverse, widespread and destructive of all addictive or compulsive behaviours. Behind any addict of any kind will be a compulsive helper, or a bunch of them, taking responsibility for them. The compulsive helpers try to solve problems and ferret out information on causes and treatments. They give incessant advice and generally get in the way of addicts having any chance of learning or doing things for themselves — which, ultimately, are the only things that are going to help.
Compulsive helping is the need to be needed. Those of us who are afflicted by it go out of our way to give uninvited help. We want to feel useful and constructively helpful. These are admirable characteristics. But they can be very destructive when they are applied without thought to the consequences.
When people have too much done for them, they fail to develop their own skills. They become part of the dependency culture. However, we may then feel that we have not done enough and we make matters even worse.
We care-take rather than care. We patronise people by feeling that they couldn’t do things for themselves. This arrogant behaviour causes a great deal of damage. Addicts avoid taking the consequences of their own destructive behaviour. Children don’t learn the rewards of personal achievement. People who genuinely need help are belittled. The world in general goes to hell in a basket, carried along by our good intentions.
We ourselves, through self-denial, suffer the pain that should have been a learning experience for other people. When we pay off debts or soothe down disappointed lovers, angry employers, irritated landladies, perplexed head teachers, despairing judges and others, we make it more likely that the rake’s progress will continue. The addicts don’t learn from their behaviour and we don’t learn from ours.
As it says in the literature of Helpers Anonymous, ‘To help other people is a lovely thing. To be kind and considerate, supportive and generous, is beautiful. These are the building bricks of a good life. In giving to others, we ourselves receive the gifts of happiness and contentment.’
Helping is what we want to be. Compulsive helping is very destructive.
It goes on to say, ‘Yet this very process, the basis of honest and loving relationships, is corrupted by addictive disease. The more we give, the more the addict takes and demands and then we feel we should give even more. Each of us, the addict and the helper, is hooked into the other’s addictive behaviour in a dreadful dance.’
Perhaps the most pervasive and destructive of all compulsive helpers are politicians. By doing too much for other people they infantilise them. By force, they take from producers and give to their own chosen recipients and pet projects — and then demand the credit for themselves. What could be more arrogant and destructive than that?
At work, when we cover up for the mistakes of others, we risk damaging the entire environment and enterprise. This is not a friendly or constructive act. The individual doesn’t benefit, the employer suffers, and everybody pays a price.
In our families, our best will in the world produces the worst results. We try to help, but in fact we hinder. We try to support, but in fact we undermine. We try to comfort, but in fact we hurt. An unaddressed problem leads to its continuation.
Desperately, we try to prove to ourselves that there is no real addictive or compulsive behaviour in our family. But we are kidding ourselves. Everybody else can see it — and so can we if we are truly honest with ourselves. But we don’t like that sort of honesty. We want our little world to be the way that we want it to be, not the way that it really is.
We become very resentful at the thought that we ourselves might need some help. We don’t need help: we give it. Again, the literature of Helpers Anonymous shows us where we have tragically gone wrong. ‘At first we may be angry at having the spotlight turned on our own behaviour — just as any addict reacts in exactly this way. In time we come to ask ourselves, “Did my hive of activity really help? Conversely, was it really true, as I thought, that I did not try hard enough? However hard I tried, wasn’t there always one more idea and one more expert?” ’
As compulsive helpers we tend not to look at our own behaviour until we are absolutely exhausted and until everything else and everyone else is sorted out. But, of course, they never will be while we go on taking responsibility for other people rather than being responsible to them. Our exhaustion is in vain.
In many ways, the most important feature of the treatment of any addict is first of all to peel off his or her compulsive helpers. This can be done kindly and gently. There is no war. Families, and all relationships, need to be healed rather than hurt even more.