Learning where my responsibilities end and another person’s begin has been a life-long curriculum for me. The learning began in my late-twenties when I hired a carpenter to build some cabinets in my sewing room. The first few days he was diligent and made quick headway. Then several days went by when I didn’t hear from him. I called. He said, “I have another job and will get back to you in a few days.” I just said, “O.K.” (Learning the difference between kindness and supporting irresponsibility was beginning.)
Patience Becomes Resentment
Each time he said he’d come, I’d stay home all day, waiting. No call. Not a word of apology. Not even an explanation. The pattern of his promises and no-shows and my patient responses lasted for nine long months!
At first I felt self-righteous because I was being so kind. I thought I was demonstrating patience. But then I began to feel angry! A crisis was brewing between what I saw as my value of being a kind person and my desire to have finished sewing room! Was I demonstrating the character quality of kindness or was I supporting irresponsibility?
It is Not Kind to Support Irresponsibility
Eventually the crisis resolved when I realized that I was supporting his irresponsible behavior by meekly agreeing to it. This was not a loving or even a kind thing to do. Making it easy for him to be irresponsible was, in fact, very unkind!
After a few days of thinking through this revolutionary new thought, I was ready to call him. I asked, “When is the first possible day you can be finished with my job?” He answered, “Next Wednesday.” I replied, “In that case, for every day after Wednesday that my job is not finished, I will subtract $20 from the balance I owe you.” (Notice the boundary and the consequence here.)
He arrived the following Monday morning. He was surly and rude. I was polite and calm. The cabinets were finished that day. But even more important, I had gained an expanded understanding of what it means to be loving and kind. My first lesson in codependency! Supporting irresponsibility is not showing kindness or love!
It’s Time to Balance Responsibilities
The best definition of co-dependency I’ve ever heard is “an imbalance of responsibility.” In the sewing room lesson I was supporting his irresponsibility by neglecting to be responsible for my job being completed. The consequence to me was resentment, frustration, and months without my cabinets. The consequence to him was nine months of positive reinforcement for his lying and irresponsibility.
I’ve since learned that many times when I feel resentment, it’s because I want a person to be more responsible in their behavior toward me. Often the truth is that I am unwilling to take full responsibility for myself…my feelings, my needs. I’m virtually saying, “You change! I don’t want to!” Resentment is like waving a warning flag: “It’s time to grow! Time to change how you’re looking at this or handling this! Time to become more self-responsible!”
Graduate Level Relationship Work!
It’s hard. Setting limits and enforcing healthy boundaries takes incredible strength! It’s graduate level relationship coursework! It doesn’t feel warm and fuzzy and loving. But getting clear about what responsibilities are mine and which ones belong to the other is foundational for healthy self-love and other-love. In fact, it is impossible to be genuinely, truly loving to another if I am not taking appropriate care of myself. And, the wonderful truth is that when I make a decision that is truly healthy and self-responsible, it will automatically be healthy for the other person, even if they don’t like it! It would have been unreasonable to expect, for instance, this carpenter to like being held accountable to keep his word when he had a life pattern of getting away with lying.
Are you being tolerant with another’s disrespect toward you because you believe patience is a loving character quality? Do you believe you can’t handle another’s upset with you when you set and enforce a reasonable boundary? Looking at it from this point of view, is supporting another’s irresponsibility or disrespectful behavior in their best interests? Or, yours? You may be helped by my book, Pungent Boundaries. I share my journey out of codepedency.
You have my love and support,