Altruism versus Co-dependency
Here is the second in our ‘INQUIRY’ series of challenging questions which come up at Buddhist conferences:
“How do we maintain a selfless attitude without falling into the co-dependent, helper/enabler syndrome – especially when complicated by low self-esteem issues?”
This is how Tubten Pende responded:
First of all, I would like to clarify what co-dependency is. It is not a Buddhist term and has been coined fairly recently. Co-dependency, as I understand it, is a term used to describe a kind of relationship addiction. A person is said to be suffering from co-dependency when he or she exhibits a caring attitude toward a loved one who is suffering from a real addiction to drugs or alcohol. The behavior of the caring individual is said to hinder recovery of the real addict by enabling the addict to continue the addiction. The co-dependent person is in a dilemma: On the one hand he or she is concerned for the welfare of their loved one and wishes to avoid the harm they experience due to their loved one’s addiction, but on the other hand they fear that they will lose their loved one, or the support they obtain from their loved one if they prevent the addict from obtaining the object of their addiction.
Compare co-dependency with altruism. Altruism is the attitude that regards the happiness and well-being of another as even more important than one’s own well-being. It’s an attitude of a very brave person, someone who is willing to give up their own happiness for the happiness of another. A co-dependent is not like that. Co-dependents are not willing to give up their own happiness for the happiness of the other. Co-dependents are selfish. They are willing to allow the addict to continue in their self-destructive behavior, because they are afraid of being cut off by that person if they say no. This is obvious in cases of strong addiction like alcoholism, but you may also find it when a parent does not tell a child to turn off the TV to do homework, because they are afraid the child will say “I don’t love you any more.” The co-dependent parent emotionally depends on the positive reinforcement of love from the child, but the parent’s permissiveness does not help the child’s long-term happiness.
Altruism is totally different from this. It says, “Even if you say you hate me, I don’t care. This is going to be more beneficial for you and that is most important to me.” The main cause of co-dependency is said to be low self-esteem, such as the result of being abused as a child. That is, the co-dependent has such a low opinion of him or herself that they depend on their loved one to get a sense of who they are in the world. If the loved one says “What do you mean you’re not going to give me $10 to go to the pub? Who do you think you are?” the co-dependent might respond, “You’re right. I’m nobody.” Altruism requires strong self-esteem, as it is courageous.Tags: altruism, relationships, self-esteem