Kindness, Codependency, & Knowing the Difference

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What is kindness? 

This may sound like a strange question to ask considering the fact that most of us probably first learned about kindness in preschool or kindergarten. But this seemingly rudimentary topic is misconstrued more often than we realize, especially when it comes to our relationships with others.

Kindness, according to the Collins English Dictionary, is “the quality of being gentle, caring, and helpful.”

While I’m sure many of us can get behind the idea that this is a virtue to which to aspire and aim, it is important to remain wary of another type of behavior that can easily be mistaken for kindness: codependency.

Codependency is typically discussed in terms of relationships – with spouses, dating partners, family members, or close friends. Historically, a codependent relationship has referred to an unhealthy helping relationship in which one person supports the addictive, abusive, or destructive lifestyle of another.

This interpretation of codependency certainly applies; however, when discussing this issue in relation to kindness at large, I have found a more general definition to be helpful.

In broad terms…

an individual can engage in codependent behavior whenever her day-to-day actions become oriented around taking care of other people in an attempt to gratify her own emotional needs.

(i.e. when you’re ok, I’m ok, and when you’re not ok, I’m not ok.)

And this is where the line between kindness and codependency can become blurred.

Consider the following scenario: You have just moved into your dorm room your freshman year of college. During the first week of school, you notice your new roommate is struggling to adjust. You decide to do her laundry for her so she has one less thing on her plate. (This is kind.)

 She responds very positively to your act of kindness, and you become aware of a warm, fuzzy feeling in your heart. The next week, you notice an ever-growing pile of laundry in your roommate’s basket as you are heading out the door to do your own laundry. You decide to leave it alone.

When you get back with your freshly washed clothes and linens, your roommate glances at you with what looks like an annoyed expression on her face before returning to her biology homework. Feeling extremely uncomfortable, you grab her laundry basket and exclaim, “I’ll be back when I’m done with yours!”

She smiles at you as you leave the room, and you immediately notice the warm, fuzzy feeling return, though this time you can also detect a strange twinge of bitterness and emptiness. Oh well, you say to yourself. At least she isn’t mad at me. (This is codependent.)

What are two key distinguishing factors here? Motivation and emotional response.

Kindness is gentleness, care, and helpfulness with no strings attached, while codependency keeps you tied to and dependent on the other person for your mood, your happiness, and possibly even your identity.  

Learning to display genuine kindness while avoiding unhealthy codependent behavior is generally not something that develops at the drop of a hat; however, becoming aware of one’s motivation and emotional response in a given situation can help set you up for success moving forward.

Next time you are faced with an opportunity to serve another person, I encourage you to remember that motivation matters, and that your emotional response (e.g. shame, relief, discomfort) may indicate something about why you do what you do.

~Stephanie Thorsen, LPC