This question comes up often in my work with clients, and rightly so. There is much confusion about the distinction between co-dependency and the insecurity it fosters and healthy interdependence and the natural and appropriate concern and consideration of others that it contains.
Many spiritual teachers would say that no one can be truly upset with you. They would say that at best people can be upset by the stories they are telling themselves about you that are triggered by their assumptions and projections of who you are and who you should be and by their story that you are responsible for their needs in some way. Thus, when someone is “upset with you” they are merely upset that you are not living up to the projection and stories they have in their heads about what you should or shouldn’t do/say or be.
I will say that I find incredible peace and enjoyment in my relationships with others when, if I notice I’m starting to get angry, hurt or anxious, in relation to someone, I separate my “story” of what someone should or shouldn’t have done from the truth of what they actually did and seek to understand their motivation (ie. the needs they were seeking to meet); discuss with the situation with them from a place of seeking to understand and to be understood (rather than seeking to be ‘right’ and the other ‘wrong’); and (in most cases) come to a solution that truly meets both parties needs. In other words, the less I take other people’s behaviour personally and simply see it as their best attempt to meet their own needs in that moment, the happier I am in my relationships and resentments just don’t accumulate.
And, if we find that we have too many differences in values or beliefs in our relationship with someone, we can detach from that person from a place of loving and respecting them for who they are while simultaneously recognizing that we are not a match for partnership/friendship/peer relationship, etc. We don’t have to “reject” or “ostracize” the other person simply because we are not a fit. It is not either or; all-or-nothing.
In my experience, that philosophy only works when you have a few key pieces beneath your belt.
- You know what your values and principles are and you know that you are honoring them in your relationships with others (regardless of their perception or judgement of you).
- You are conscious of your intention in your interaction with others and you know that it is/was in alignment with your values and principles. (This provides you with the powerful gift of integrity which provides a sense of solidity, strength and peace that is unparalleled in the human experience).
- You have the courage and the skills to speak respectfully, clearly, and concisely about what you are feeling and about what you are witnessing in the other person, without taking it on (ie. are you mad at me?), and thus you trust yourself to seek to understand them first, and then to be understood by them (if necessary – I find that often when I truly understand someone else’s intent/thought process that is sufficient for me to let the situation rest).
Because you know what your values and principles are and because you know you acted from your best intention in your interactions with whomever you are relating to, you are not going to feel “bad” or “wrong” or immediately shameful when someone is upset or angry with you. Instead, you will feel a healthy concern for them and for the relationship between you two. You will communicate directly and clearly about what you’re witnessing, you’ll ask questions about what’s going on for the other person, and if you should discover that, unbeknownst to you, you did do something that did not honor your values and principles and did not meet needs for the other person, you’ll offer a full apology:
“I am sorry that I….. I understand how that impacted you (here you clearly state your understanding of the impact of your actions so the other person can hear that you really “get it” or so they can clarify if your understanding isn’t full)….I offer you my reassurance that I won’t do that again (if you can make that commitment – if not, be honest about what you can commit to and why)…Is there anything more that you need from me in order to completely step past this?”
We offer this apology only when we truly feel that we have compromised our own values and principles and acted from a place that is not our best self. We don’t offer this apology when we acted with integrity and it didn’t meet needs for the other person. In that case we offer a statement like this:
“I understand that what I did did not meet needs for X (trust, safety, reliability, friendship, etc.) for you and that you would like some reassurance that I will not do that again. I cannot commit to that. I would like to explain the reason that I did/said what I did/said and see if there is some way that we can both get what we need in ways that feel honoring to us both. Would you be willing to hear my perspective?”
What are we going to feel if the other person doesn’t say yes? Well, if we’re solid in our values and principles and the integrity of our actions, we’re going to feel acceptance, “Oh, well, let me know if you’d like to talk about this another time.” We may feel some degree of sadness that the other is choosing to misunderstand us and that that means our relationship, at least for now, is compromised to some extent. This is not codependence. This is interdependence. If I were to panic, get hooked on having the other person’s approval and understanding, lose sight of my own values and principles and my own sense of the intention of my actions, in favor of this person’s judgement of me, that is co-dependence.
To be concerned about the quality of your bond with someone; to want to be understood; to desire to be given the benefit of the doubt; to want others to think fondly of you, is healthy, normal human behaviour. We are pack animals after all. We need each other for our survival, physically and emotionally (less and less intimately, as our society develops, but we need each other nonetheless).
Where it turns from healthy concern and interdependence to obsession and co-dependency is when you are willing to compromise your own values and principles and integrity to get someone to like you or to be “happy with you.” Here we have a problem, a big one. This is the place where we will feel anxious most of the time, where we will use food or alcohol or shopping or isolation or procrastination to cope with our feelings of insecurity/anxiety that are triggered by our unmet needs for acceptance and for self-esteem. You see, as long as I am even willing to consider compromising my values and principles (including my self-care) for someone else, I am diminishing my self-esteem, I am deepening my insecurity, and I am actually doing harm to any relationship in which I choose to do that. I am inviting abusive, dysfunctional people into my world.
We only feel uneasy or downright anxious/panicked within when we feel that we have needs that aren’t being met. So if we’re anxious about what’s happening in a relationship or what we think someone is thinking/feeling towards us, it is simply an indicator that we have needs in that situation that aren’t being met (they might be in our head or they might be real). We have to ask ourselves what we are telling ourselves about the needs we have that we believe must get met through this person. This is us putting our happiness and our power in someone else’s hands. We must remind ourselves immediately and frequently that there is never just one person who can meet certain needs for us. There is always an option for you to get needs met from more than one person.
Our responsibility in relationships with others is to honor our values and principles, and to communicate clearly and respectfully. If it seems someone is upset with us, our responsibility is to check in with ourselves as to whether we can identify something we did/said that compromised our values and principles in this relationship and if we can’t, identify any such action within 10 seconds of introspection, we must trust that our intention was good and that any action on our part that “hurt” someone else was either nothing to do with us at all or an unconscious oversight on our part, ie. an accident, a mistake, and we must forgive ourselves and are entitled to forgiveness from others. We let go any self-judgement and just ask the other person what’s up. (This is easy to do when we are clear in the integrity of our actions, less so when we know we have done something that compromised our values – in this latter situation we go to apology #1).
When you know that you honored, to the best of your ability, your values and principles in your actions; when you know that your intention was good and coming from your highest self, you have integrity, you have peace; you have strength within. From this place, you can hear that you inadvertently offended, hurt, angered, frightened someone and you can take full responsibility for that without feeling like you are a bad person, wrong or diminished in any way. Even if it turns out that, unconsciously, you did compromise your values in a certain action, you can take full responsibility and apologize for that without feeling at all diminished or bad. It was a mistake, you did not mean to do it or do it at all consciously. You acknowledge it, you learn from it, and you grow and move on.
A healthy interdependent person will offer empathy and compassion, trusting themselves to set clear boundaries about what they need and thus be able to communicate clearly and respectfully about what isn’t feeling okay to them without shame, blame, or rejection. When you are clear on your values and principles and the intention behind your actions and you seek to understand the intention of others, you will find that any old co-dependent connections either quickly become interdependent ones or fall away and you are left with connections where people are more interested in taking responsibility for themselves and in having a warm and intimate connection with you than they are in controlling you and in being “right.”
Values, principles and best intention = Integrity = Peace
Have a great week!