Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Hiding Behind the Socially Acceptable

One of the more interesting things I find about codependence is its ability to mask itself as a socially accepted way of being. Included among its many facades are workaholism, over-exercising, and ├╝ber-independence. All three activities or ways of being are fine in moderation but when used as a defence against feeling, self reflection, or intimacy, they can be aspects of our codependent parts. Another way that codependence can mimic socially appropriate mores is to hide behind values or beliefs such as self-responsibility and the pursuit of excellence.

Self-responsibility is an important and, perhaps, sacred credo for many individuals and even groups, for example, when instituted as a company value. It states that I will look in the mirror first and adjust my behavior before seeking external solutions. It is a belief that most problems are not created in isolation and, rather than resorting to blame, prioritizes self-reflection, clear communication, honesty, and collaboration for resolution. For some, it is the philosophy that lies behind the famous Kennedy quote: Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.

However, the statement can also be used as a defence or a block against further discussion transforming self-responsibility into a message of it is your fault, not mine. An example of this is when a company employee feels management is not listening to or responding to staff issues. If a company upholds the maxim of self responsibility but is using it as a defence, it will put the problem back on the employee and say it is each staff member’s responsibility to make themselves heard. A Catch-22 if there ever was one, especially when the problem lies with management not giving space and credence to work force issues. This can also happen between couples or friends. Even when the person declaring the wrong is not accepting their part of the problem (i.e. not taking self-responsibility), it is incumbent for the one receiving the accusation to take some time and reflect on their behavior before putting the mantra of “you’re not taking responsibility for your actions” back on the person who feels wronged. Solutions lie in safe and effective communication, not aphorisms. Moreover, on the other end of the spectrum, one must know when they are taking too much responsibility. Self responsibility is knowing where the boundary lie: what belongs to you and what belongs to the other.

The other motto that I find potentially problematic is an individual’s or company’s stated goal of excellence. Once again, an admirable pursuit but instead of encouraging high caliber performance it can sometimes become a nagging inner voice (or company voice) that says you are not good enough, that you must always try harder. I had a friend who, after putting in several years of passionate service for a company, found that he had lost his sense of balance: all work and no play. When he started to take care of himself better his work performance went from over-achiever to high achiever. As a result, the company let him go, basically saying his best was not good enough. We all, of course, have the potential to do excellent work but is it sustainable on a continuous level and, if it is, is it healthy? And what is excellence? Who measures it? Is it our personal best or some unobtainable goal?

Taking self responsibility and pursuing excellence are healthy only when partnered with self compassion, reflection and self care. Without these the former, when used as a defence, can shut down one’s humanity or, adversely, become a platform of guilt and self-denigration and the latter can transform into unhealthy and unattainable goals that put unrealistic expectations on self and others. In either case, codependence at its best.


  1. I completely agree with you. It's especially insidious when companies use those "ideals" to avoid actually making any needed changes or behaving ethically. Unfortunately, I also see this used a lot in "spiritual" circles; that we can be very willing to blame others for their circumstances by comforting ourselves with the thought they "attracted" bad things into their lives through their own emotional imbalance, instead of looking at the cultural, societal, and other external forces that affected that circumstance, and working to right injustice. I know this sounds heretical in this society, but personal responsibility is not, and can not be, the panacea for every social and economic injustice that affects us. We are individuals, but we're also part of many larger systems, ecologies, and circumstances that work in tandem, and we simply don't have total control over everything that happens to us. It's healthy to look at our own role in things, but not okay to have the concept of "personal responsibility" used to avoid collective responsibility for social justice.

  2. I feel like standing on a table and shouting “hear, hear”; “bravo.” You are right on, Kristen. And I am glad you brought up the “spiritual” circles. The philosophy of attracting “bad things” is on par with praying to the wrong god or not offering the right sacrifice. Zeus would have loved it. Thanks, as always, K, your comments are great.