“For you, or for me?”

[epistemic status: it is a tool, I’ve seen it working, it makes sense it works. It’s not magic, it doesn’t always work, but it is worth to try]

Recently, I have been thinking about patterns related to codependency a lot, and it has been a topic of conversation with several friends. Codependency sounds very harsh, in this case I refer to the tendency to:

  • overly adapt to the (sometimes imagined) emotional needs of someone else
  • trying to make them “feel good”.

A friend really likes this definition:
codependency is the inability to bear the negative feelings of others“, resulting in optimizing other people so that they do not have negative emotions.
It looks like we’re trying to help, but we are actually doing it for ourselves.

Let’s start by stating the obvious: caring about someone we love is a good thing.
We want the people we care about to be happy, or at least to be good.
One example I tend to use is when we say:
“I prefer to spend the Saturday night caring for you, if you are sick, to going out partying”.
Am I really enjoying this more? In the specific, moment to moment enjoyment? Probably not (if you do, it’s fine, I won’t kink shame you).
And yet, it makes me feel better about myself. It is something I actually love doing [I]Maybe too much..
I want people around me that, when I am in need, will somehow take that in consideration, and will adapt their behavior accordingly.
Please note that I am talking about “taking in consideration” and “adapting“.
Should you cancel your once in a lifetime celebration because I have a cold and want to stay home reading a book? Probably not.
Would I appreciate if you stayed with me when I have a real big emergency, instead of going out like you do every weekend? Yes, I would. [II]And you are allowed not to do that, but then again, I will probably try to invest more in the people that will. Actions are choices
There is no clear answer.

The problem starts when we try to make the other person feel good, for ourselves.

It creates this pressure of “I am not allowed to feel bad” and “I have to be happy so that you are happy“.
It doesn’t work: I don’t know about other people, but I cannot be happy on command. And I will end up feeling bad about feeling bad, because my feeling bad will make you feel bad.
It’s a mess of over-connection, and not really necessary.
I am happy because you are happy” is good. “I need you to be happy so that I can be happy“, not so good.

Additionally, there is the mind-reading problem, a kind of coordination problem:
if I do something for you, without asking you, it is possible you do not want that. And without a way to disentangle the mess, a common pattern I see, and experienced way too many times, is:

I do something for you, that you do not want

you see me doing that, think I want it, and you do it for me.

Stop a moment to think about it: you are making a sacrifice, I am making a sacrifice, no one is getting what they want.
I repeat: I enjoy making an effort that is needed. I enjoy helping the people I love, I enjoy making them happy, or less miserable, depending on the case.
And I REALLY enjoy when someone I love does something I need, or want, and they are happy about it, even if it would not be what they would have done in the first place.

But if I do something they do not like, that they end up doing for me… well, we both lose.
The payoff for me doing something for them is that they are better off, and possibly thankful. The payoff for them doing something for me is the same.
And it is not happening here.

Think about all the unwanted presents you received, or gave. Think about all the conflicts trying to stop someone doing something for you that you do not want, and them not listening, out of love, out of “I know better”, out of “I know you are saying no not to bother me, but you actually want it”.

What I see is that both people grow resentment, disappointment.
We both expect the other do be grateful, to see how much we are doing for them.
And it does not happen.

How do we break this cycle of misery fed by love and care?

One way out is just to do what works for me.
Out of two people, if I only do what I like, at least 50% of the participants gets what they want. Not bad, better than 0%, but there is no real relationship in this scenario.
It means rejecting all the shared pleasure of “I like this because you like it”, or at least “I like this more”, and “I am happy to help”.
Additionally, for me, this ends up in some sort of game theoretical hell: every single agent (the people involved) trying to maximize their enjoyment, no matter the effect on the other ones.
It is better than both ending up worse off, but only barely.

The best case scenario is being allowed to do something for the other person, if I think it is worth it, when the other person wants, or needs, it. [III]The real best case scenario is discovering that what the other person wants or needs is also what I would want or need, independently from the other, and we both get our cake, and eat it too, doing … Continue reading

And I have at least a tool for this.
That works. Most of the times.
It is liberally inspired by the Wheel of Consent, and it really works. It often works like magic: I’ve seen it bringing clarity long discussions of
“I can do this”
“you do not have to”
“I know I don’t have to, but I am happy to if you want”
“do it only if you do it for yourself”
“I will do it for myself if you appreciate it” and so on and so forth.
The tool is a simple question:

“For you, or for me?”

Sometime the answer will be “it’s complicated”, or, as I noted above: “it would be for me, if you wanted or needed it”. Sometime the answer is “for us”.
Good to know. This is a good problem to have. See above: caring is the glue we need to stick together. We just do not want to stick too much, and when it is not necessary to.

So a follow up question can be something along the lines of:
“Would you do it if you knew I didn’t care?”.
Not “if I do not want it”, since that includes my feelings again. If I was neutral about it, would you want to do it?

A previous version I was using was “would you do it without me?”, but it doesn’t work in all cases: of course I would not stay with you when you are sick if you weren’t sick!
But if my staying with you did not matter at all, would I prefer your company, while sick and introverted, to going out and partying?
Maybe yes. Maybe no.
It is good to know.

Give it a try.

For me, it works like magic. Not always, but no magic works all the time.

Variations and bonuses:

As a bonus, we can use the same principle to get to know each other, and to calibrate interactions, using it looking back:
“Is there anything you would have done differently, if I had not cared?”.
It is a good question to ask before going to sleep, or for a weekly/monthly check in.
We can look back, realize we went into the pattern of “doing it for you without considering you“, and calibrate for the future.

Sometime, I’ve used it as a constant update: maybe we START doing something that we both want. If I know you are enjoying something, I could keep going on after I am done.
Maybe you are doing the same, and we end up overstaying our welcome by a lot, until someone bursts into
“I am done with it, I want to go home” and the other one goes
“Oh, I was going on only for you”.

I found that agreeing on telling each other, without constant questioning, when we are done, is good:
“I am good now, I am happy to go on if you want, and if you want/need my company, but I am happy to stop”.
It works great for hiking trips. For any sort of shared pleasure, for massage, for food, for anything we both like at the start.


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