Codependency and Self-Care

by Don Smith

I have a dear friend who has been quite helpful to me in my recovery journey. Every time I go off to do some teaching he will call me before I leave, and ask, “So what are you going to teach about?” When I told him before this trip that I was going to teach about self-care, he laughed and said, “You know the old saying ‘You teach what you most need to learn.'”

He was right. This topic has been a difficult one for me personally. Learning to do appropriate self-care has been a large part of my own journey in recovery. I have come to believe that self-care is an absolutely essential part of the recovery process. And yet we hear often in Christian circles that self-care is bad. Some Christians think of it as a kind of selfishness. Others think it is sinful. So I think it’s important to look at what the Bible says about self-care.

The Bible and Self-Care

Some people are surprised that the Bible talks about self-care at all. It may be difficult for us to see if we have been taught that self-care is selfish and bad. But it is there.

Let’s start by looking at Phillipians 2:4: “Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” Notice that this text assumes that you are going to look out for your own interests. And knowing that is true, the text emphasizes that we should also be careful to attend to the needs of others. The text assumes that both are important. My interests are important; other people’s interests are important. The text does not say, “Stop looking to your own interests, and pay attention only to the needs of others.” It acknowledges that we will look to our own interests, and it encourages us to also look to the interests of others.

Another interesting text, which I often use when talking about boundaries, is Galatians 6:2–5:

Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. Each one should test his own actions. Then he can take pride in himself, without comparing himself to somebody else, for each one should carry his own load.

When I was a young and very codependent Christian all I could hear in this text was, You should take care of other people. It felt like I should carry everyone else’s burdens and my own burdens as well. Sometimes that didn’t seem fair. Shouldn’t there be someone to carry my burdens? Couldn’t we all just trade burdens? Or take turns?

If you look more closely at this text, however, you find something very interesting. This same text says, “Each one should carry his own load.” Now, how can we carry each other’s burdens if each of us is carrying our own load? The answer is that there is a difference between the Greek words used here for “burden” and for “load.” Every person has a load that he or she is supposed to carry. And sometimes there are burdens that are so large that we can’t carry them on our own. That is when we are to help each other. There is some stuff that God expects us to take care of because it is our stuff. It is our load.

I think it’s like backpacking. Each person carries their own pack with their own clothes, their own sleeping bag, their own cook kit. If I try to carry everyone else’s stuff in my pack there is no way it is going to work. My thoughts belong in my backpack. Your thoughts belong in yours. As a codependent person it is really easy for me to get into carrying your thoughts around in my backpack. All I have to do is ask myself, What are people going to think? If I start down that path, I will have a pack full of other people’s thoughts. I will start owning them as if they were my thoughts or my responsibility, and I may even start changing my behavior so that I can change what I think other people might be thinking. It’s insane when you think about it. We start to make up what we think other people are thinking. And then we start changing our behavior based on what we’ve made up. That’s what codependent people do all the time. As soon as we do that, we are carrying loads we were never intended to carry.

It’s okay for me to have my own thoughts. They are part of my load, and I need to carry them myself. It’s okay for me to have my own attitudes. Even if I choose to have a bad attitude sometimes, it can still be my bad attitude. It’s okay for me to have my own opinions. My own beliefs. My choices. My feelings. My values. My behavior. My body. My money. You could add a lot of things to this list that legitimately belong in my backpack. When Paul says each one is supposed to “carry his own load” he is talking about the stuff that we are responsible for just because we are human beings. Sometimes we expect other people to carry our stuff; for example, we might expect someone else to be responsible for how we’re going to feel today. And sometimes we expect ourselves to carry stuff that is not part of our load; for example, we might expect ourselves to be responsible for how someone else is feeling. Both are inappropriate. The biblical principle is really quite simple: Each of us must carry our own load, and when we run into those huge burdens in life that none of us can carry by ourselves, we are to help each other out.

What Would Jesus Do?

Another set of biblical texts that have been important for me are those that talk about Jesus’ strategies for self-care. One of the things that Jesus is consistent in doing is in taking care of himself. If you are not used to looking for this kind of thing in the Scriptures, it is easy to miss. But now that I’ve been in recovery from codependency for a while, I look at lots of texts and am amazed to discover how well Jesus takes care of his own needs. As a codependent I was not able to do the kinds of things you see Jesus doing all the time. Remember the story about Jesus in the temple on Passover when he was twelve years old? His parents leave. He hangs out in the temple. You might think this was being irresponsible. He should have told his parents what he was doing. But when his parents return he says to them, “Didn’t you know I needed to be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49). He didn’t apologize. And he didn’t start to carry any of their anxiety or issues about the situation. I think that is a remarkable example of maintaining healthy boundaries and appropriate self-care.

Or look at Jesus’ example in Luke 5:15–16: “Yet the news about him spread all the more, so that crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses. But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” What would you do if God gave you the ability to heal every person on whom you laid your hands? If you go into a town, the news spreads rapidly. You clean out the hospitals and the nursing homes. Everybody gets healed. It’s on the national news. Thousands of people are seeking you out. What’s your first response?

I know what mine would be. My first response would be to see this as a big-time opportunity. This is a time when I can reach millions with the Good News. I can preach to my heart’s content. Because people are suffering and I have the ability to stop that suffering, I should do more. I would undoubtedly kick into my work addiction mode. There were years when I could work for three months without taking a day off. I could stay on that high for a long, long time. If I could heal people, I would kick into that mode and heal more people, and do God’s work. It would be too important an opportunity to let it slip by. No one could say that I hadn’t given it my all. Withdrawing to lonely places where I could pray was never an option for me. I could never have said, “I have a lot of stuff to do, but maybe I should take some time off and just be by myself.”

But that is exactly what Jesus did. “Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” In all my years of being in the Christian community I have never heard a sermon about this kind of self-care. But it is obvious that Jesus knew how to take care of himself.

There were times when the disciples returned from a mission and Jesus said, “We need to go off by ourselves and rest.” One time when Jesus and his disciples were walking through a field the disciples were hungry, so they ate some of the grain in the field. The Pharisees got upset about this because it violated some of their religious rules. Jesus reminded them of a time when King David was hungry and he went into a holy place where only the priests were allowed to go, and he ate some of the sacred bread that was on the altar. He took care of himself and his men, even when it meant breaking some religious rules. Jesus insisted that it was a good thing to take care of our own needs, even when it might feel like we are breaking religious rules.

Jesus went off by himself one day, and the disciples were searching for him. When they found him they asked him where he had been. Jesus responded by saying, “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also” (Mark 1:38). If somebody with needs had been searching for me and I had been off by myself resting, I would have experienced overwhelming guilt. I would have said, “Oh, I am so sorry. I should have been here for you. I shouldn’t have been away that long.” Not Jesus. He knew that self-care was too important to neglect, and he didn’t apologize for it. He felt no need to explain why he was taking care of his own needs. The need for and appropriateness of self-care was so obvious that it required no explanation.

Over-the-Rainbow Spirituality

Another set of biblical texts that have been helpful to me are texts about life. Over and over again Jesus talks about giving us life. “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). Texts like this may lead us to conclude that God wants us to have a life that is not full of busyness, schedules and burdens, but a life that is full of joy, hope and peace.

Paul describes it well in Romans 15:13: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” One of the things I love about Paul is that he doesn’t say, “I hope that you have some hope.” He says, “I hope you abound.” That is, “I hope you overflow with hope,” and “I hope you are so full of hope that you can’t even begin to contain the hope that is in you.” In Ephesians Paul talks about God’s ability to do “exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think” (Eph. 3:20, King James Version).

For many years of my life that abundance was only a carrot on the end of a stick. It was the promised but never quite achievable payoff. I could get to the carrot only if I worked hard at being really good. Eventually I would have the joy and peace. Someday. Over the rainbow. Somewhere. It was what I would get if I prayed enough and went to church enough and read my Bible enough and had a good enough attitude. If I did all that stuff enough, then I’d get the good stuff.

But I was doing everything I was supposed to do. I got up at 5:30 in the morning and had my prayer time. I sacrificed. I tithed. I did everything right. I was a Pharisee of the Pharisees, actually. Yet I still couldn’t seem to do it well enough to have any chance of reaching the carrot. There was no joy and no peace. As a result, I went through a major depression.

Well, the bottom line is pretty obvious. There is no way to do enough to earn joy, peace and serenity. The only way I could have the good stuff was to abandon my performance-oriented lifestyle and learn to receive from God. It wasn’t until I decided to take care of myself that I began to experience some of the hope and joy and peace that God wants us to experience in abundance.

Denial of Self

Some of us have a problem with taking care of ourselves because it just doesn’t seem right for us. This is often because we have been taught to “deny” ourselves. On the one hand it is clear that God wants us to have abundant life, the kind of life that can come only when we pay attention to what we need and we take appropriate steps to respond. But on the other hand, what about Jesus’ command to deny ourselves? What about taking up our cross? Dying to self? How do those texts fit into this picture?

Paul says, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). One of the things that strikes me about this text is that it includes two kinds of “I.” There is the “I” that has been crucified and is dead. And there is the “I” that lives. Why are there two Pauls here—one dead, the other one living? This is a clear principle in Scripture. There is an old self, and there is a new self.

I can tell you about my old self. I was raised in a family with a rage-aholic mother and a workaholic father. Dad was gone. Our family owned a dairy farm and a potato farm so that he could work seven days a week. For us kids the question of the day was not if mom would explode, but when. When I got off the bus from school, it didn’t matter what kind of day it had been. It didn’t matter if I had been beaten up on the playground. It didn’t matter if I had done well on a test. The only thing that mattered was where is Mom and how long will it be before she explodes in rage. So I developed huge emotional antenna that would pick up on what was happening emotionally in the house. My old self was very aware of how other people feel. My old self was a people-pleasing person. My old self was all about keeping people happy so they don’t explode in rage. I was very good at doing that. My old self was a good rescuer. When people got into trouble they knew they could call me. My friends could get drunk and wreck their cars, and they knew they could call me to come pick them up. I was always available for everybody. My old self was a good manipulator. Once I knew how other people were feeling I could play with that a bit and maybe get them to do what I wanted them to do. My old self loved to control people. My old self was also a wonderful worker; I got that from my father. But the old me was a miserable and hopeless person. I was very, very aware of what everyone else wanted and needed but completely clueless about what I wanted and needed.

When I got saved I had a powerful experience with God. I knew that God loved me. I knew that Jesus had died for me. I knew I could put my faith in God. But I didn’t really change. In fact, other than starting to keep all the rules—I quit smoking and drinking and I started to listen to Christian radio and I went to church five times a week—nothing really changed. Emotionally I was still the same old self. My “old man” had put on a Christian suit and had found a lot of acceptance in doing so. But it was still my old self. I had not yet experienced the kingdom of God in the way that God intended. It wasn’t until I went through my depression—it wasn’t until my burnout—that I began to realize that when the Scriptures talk about denial of self or putting to death the old self they are not adding another heavy weight to our to-do list. I see now that “dying to self” means that God doesn’t want me to be codependent anymore. It means finding a different way of being in the world than the way I learned in my dysfunctional family. God doesn’t want me to be a workaholic anymore; that’s why he calls me to die to my old self. God doesn’t want me to do all those destructive things that I learned so well in order to survive in my family. God doesn’t even want me to do all those destructive things that I learned to do so well to survive as a successful pastor. My old self is a raging codependent. The more it dies, the better my life becomes. So “dying to self” may not be such bad news after all.

What’s my job?

When I was headed into my burnout phase, but before I really hit bottom, I went to a pastors’ retreat. During a worship time an image came to me of a huge river. The river was the love and grace of God. It was deep and wide, and it was flowing, so there was no way you could ever use it up. And the banks of the river were full of people who were thirsty. In that image I saw myself running down to the river, filling up cups with water, and then running back to shore to give the cups to people who were thirsty. That was my job, but I knew it wasn’t working. I was just getting tired. And the thirsty people were still thirsty no matter how fast I ran back and forth to the river. However, I resisted the idea that something was wrong. I even had a little argument with God, in which I insisted that those people were going to die of thirst if someone didn’t take them some water.

It was then that I had a revelation: If I waded out into the water and started drinking because I was thirsty, then people who wanted to drink would see that and know where to get water themselves. Of course, it is so obvious now that it seems silly to say it, but it was a completely radical concept to me. You mean I was just supposed to drink, myself? To get my own need for spiritual refreshment filled? Was that my job?

Thinking that our job is to carry water for other people is a direct reflection of the JOY mentality. Some of us were raised with this. The idea is that J-O-Y comes from putting Jesus first, Others second and Yourself last. That’s what I was doing. Because I loved Jesus I was committed to carrying water to the thirsty. I didn’t have time to notice whether I was thirsty. My job was to carry water as fast as I could. I now have a completely different belief about where joy comes from. The image I have is of a water fountain made of a stack of bowls. At the top is a bowl that fills with water, which then spills out to fill the bowls under it. The bowl at the top is me. God wants to fill that top bowl until it overflows. And when it’s full, it begins to overflow into other people’s lives. I can give out of abundance, but not out of need. I don’t need to deprive myself in order to give to others. The kingdom of God is not about scarcity. Out of our abundance we can share with others. That’s a whole different approach to life.

Later in the process of recovery, when I was able to connect with the little-boy part of me, I had flashbacks to what it felt like in the home of a rage-aholic mother. My role in life was to take care of Mom so that she wouldn’t explode in rage. In many ways I was a surrogate spouse. I entertained her. I played cards with her. I did things with her. All the things that Dad didn’t do. As long as she was placated, she would not explode. When I was able to connect with that little-boy part of me, I experienced a primitive feeling of I want someone to take care of me. The foundation of all my drivenness, the foundation of my need to take care of other people, was this fantasy: If I take care of other people enough, maybe someday they will take care of me. If I make enough trips into the river and bring back enough cups full of water to the thirsty people, then maybe someone will say, “Why don’t you sit down, and I’ll bring you some water.” I was not aware of it at the time, but the root motivation of much of what I did as a pastor was this very painful fantasy. I thought that if I did enough, maybe “they” would take care of me. If I am good enough, maybe somehow I will have an experience with a good, nurturing mother who will take care of my needs, rather than the other way around.

Now, the painful truth that I needed to learn was that not even God was going to take care of me in that way. God was not going to be the biggest codependent of all—the one who can run back and forth to the river better than any of the rest of us. Instead, God was going to help me learn appropriate self-care. There was room in the river for me. If I take the time to experience my own thirst, if I have the courage to wade out into the water because it is what I need, there will be refreshment for me.

It’s sort of like this: If I’m responsible for a vehicle, I can’t just say, “I’m going to drive this vehicle to the glory of God and trust God to change the oil.” That doesn’t make any sense. But that is exactly what Christian codependents do with their lives. We don’t take care of ourselves. We live our lives and trust God to change the oil. God is a very healthy individual. Just because we are dysfunctional doesn’t mean that God is going to rescue us the way we want to be rescued. Just because I have an unrealistic expectation that God is going to change the oil in my car doesn’t mean that God is going to do that for me. Sometimes the only way that my needs are going to get met is for me to take the responsibility for meeting them. If the need is in my backpack—if it is my load—then part of being the new person that God is helping me become is to carry that load.

Hearing God

The first steps toward taking better care of myself were very difficult. I was so full of anxiety and so driven that I did three or four things at a time. I remember when my therapist suggested that I do one thing at a time—like not trying to get something else done while I’m talking on the phone. It was a new concept to me. He also gave me the assignment of taking one day a week off. Most normal people take two days off each week, but I guess he knew there was no way I could start at that advanced level. As it turned out I was miserable taking one day off. I used to get angry because it felt like such a waste of time. I had no room for Sabbath in my life. It just made me miserable and angry. After all, I was doing God’s work. That’s what I was supposed to do. Not rest. So at first I made excuses. I weaseled my way out of it for a while. I’d take half a day off. I’d make excuses about emergencies. I remember going to the beach and being miserable because I wasn’t getting anything done. I was wasting time. But finally there came a day when I enjoyed it.

It’s been a long time since that first effort. Now I take two days off a week, and I spend them doing things I love. I love to canoe, and I love to hike. Five years ago things like that would have seemed selfish. At the beginning, taking care of ourselves can feel incredibly selfish and can seem like a waste of time. But later on we find that it is okay to have a life. I can enjoy life now. I can respect the desires and needs that God has put into me.

Recently I climbed to the top of a mountain. By myself. The view from the top was spectacular. I was moved by the wonder of God’s creation. And I just stood there for a while. Eventually I heard a quiet voice saying, “When I created it, I had you in mind.” I am able to receive that now. But only because I went through a lot of difficult days when it seemed like a waste of time. I had to struggle with those inner voices that insisted, “You should be working hard.” Slowly, with a lot of help, I was able to quiet those voices enough to begin again to hear the gentle, loving voice of God. And that has made all the hard work more than worth the effort.