This book is ten years old but the excerpt I want to quote from is as fresh and relevant as if the words came hot off the press this past week. This is from The Shelter of Each Other by psychologist Mary Pipher. For those of you who have read this book already, well, consider I am catching up. :-)
"I am advocating that we can reframe much of what has been called codependency...
...Therapy's worst offense (Dan interjects: worst offense she says) is to reframe love as something negative, such as codependency, controlling behavior, emotional incest or even an 'addiction to people.' We have confused people about the healthiness of loving their own families. For example, a woman friend has a husband with a heart disorder. She's asked him to eat properly. Over lunch she she said to me, 'I'm not sure I have the right to ask him to see a doctor. Am I being controlling or codependent?"
Pipher talks about a married couple who came in for counseling. Both were highly educated. In fact, the woman had a master's degree in counseling. She worked as a personnel director in a local care facility. Pipher reports about the anxiety and pressure this woman felt over love and the codependency label. She "read every self-help book written for families, couples and women...Her reading on codependency had totally confused her. She was apologetic because she had expectations of others and cared about what happened to them." She was emotionally confused over choices she had to make in loving her husband and her children. "She was so paralyzed at the thought of being dysfunctional that sometimes she stopped functioning."
She writes the codependency story "pathologizes caring and leaves people hopelessly confused about the right thing to do. People become paralyzed between their impulse to help and their fear that helping is unhealthy. Especially mothers are confused. Women who care too much are labeled codependents and mothers who care too little are labeled cold and distant. It's hard to know the right place to be. But everyone else is confused too. Jesus, Mother Teresa and Abe Lincoln would all be considered codependents."
She continues, "Wherever there is power, there is abuse of power. We therapists have not always critically examined our stories. Some of our stories have weakened families and disempowered families."
Speaking of therapists, she writes, "We are trained to look for pathology within the family, we spot failure quickly. For the last hundred years, many experts have focused on the negative roles that families play in the development of individuals...Our focus has scared people, especially mothers, who tend to bear the brunt of criticism. My women friends joke about how they are traumatizing their kids with no pets or forced violin practice, but that joke is not really so funny. They worry about their children's future therapy. They fear their efforts to parent will be framed by a later therapist as abusive. Especially in the last two decades, the family has been the unit of analysis to explain pathology. Bookstores are loaded with books on individual improvement via analysis of childhood experiences. Their messages have added pressure to already beleaguered families and encouraged self-absorption, not social action."
I have to list her ten mistakes that therapists make. They are worth pondering:
1. Family is the cause of all the problems.
"When our children are troubled we ask, What have these parents done wrong? Our professional language traps us into blaming families. Our words for distance tend to be positive--autonomy and independence. Our words for closeness tend to be negative--enmeshed, overprotective and dependent (Dan interjects: Has anyone noticed how lay-people and pastors throw these terms around the same way?) Parental efforts to teach prudence and restraint can be labeled controlling or codependent. At its worst, therapy undercuts families with the creation of phrases such as "emotional incest"...This involves no touching but implies intrusive or controlling parental love...These phrasemakers have succeeded in framing love as pathological But I would relabel most parental efforts as LOVE. "
2. Therapy has been hard on women.
3. Therapy has pathologized ordinary human experience and taught that suffering needs to be analyzed.
4. We have focused on weakness rather than resilience.
5. Some of our treatments have created new problems.
6. We have encouraged narcissism and checked basic morality at the doors of our offices.
7. We have focused on individual salvation rather than collective well-being.
8. We have confused ethical and mental health issues, empathy and accountability.
9. Some therapists have abused their power.
10. We've suggested that therapy is more important than real life.