I lead three weekly therapy groups all of whose members are busy coping with crazy relationships.
Crazy is my politically incorrect term for any dysfunction in an individual that impacts another person.
That includes anger, anxiety, addiction, depression, narcissism, codependency, chronic illness, and anything else that keeps someone in a chronic state of distress.
Which is stressful for anyone who cares about that someone.
So the question that comes up over and over in group is How do you live with Crazy?
It’s possible, as it turns out.
But it requires following three difficult rules:
1. Don’t take Crazy personally.
2. Don’t try to fix Crazy.
3. Model unCrazy behavior.
Don’t take Crazy personally is the hardest rule to accept.
Because we’re social animals, wired for relationships, it’s hard for human beings to detach from the feelings of the people closest to them.
It’s even harder for those of us raised in alcoholic or otherwise dysfunctional families, where boundaries got so blurred that the pathology of some members seeped into the emotional lives of the rest.
That’s classic codependent conditioning.
And if you were shaped by that conditioning it’s inevitable that, even as an adult, the Kid inside you will experience another’s unhappiness as being somehow your fault.
You will feel both tormented and responsible for the torment.
And so you’ll set out to fix things.
Don’t try to fix Crazy is the rule that targets this tendency.
It takes a long time to learn.
Partly this is because fixing others gets mistaken for love and compassion.
I love X, we think. How can I just sit and watch them suffer?
But there are questions which can help us identify our true motives and distinguish compassion from caretaking.
One is Am I giving from love or from fear? Fullness or emptiness? Strength or desperation?
Another is Has my helping really helped in the past?
Honest answers to these questions can help us decide if we’re acting out of love or merely trying to defend against the kind of emotional spillover kids in sick families experience.
The third rule, Model unCrazy behavior, may be the closest we can get to bridging the gap between a loved one’s emotional pain and our inability to fix it.
It means managing our own anxiety and helplessness in the most intelligent way possible.
It means shifting our attention from outside to inside, from our struggling loved one to our reaction to that person’s Crazy.
And it means asking ourselves What do I need right now?
This too may be difficult for us — even guilt-inducing — if we were taught by our families that self-care is selfish and that the needs of others should always come before our own.
It takes enormous courage to stand up for yourself in the face of such conditioning.
But learning to do so is a gift not only for us, but for the people around us who need to learn healthy self-care and for someone to show them how it looks.
We also need to remember that we can’t give away strength that we don’t really have.
Without, you know, going Crazy ourselves.
I’ve been Crazy plenty of times myself.
And during those times of pain and confusion what I need most from the people who love me is that they follow these three rules.
I’m always grateful when they are able to.
Because it makes my Crazy easier to bear.
I hope they can do it again next time around.
Because it’s safe to assume there will be a next time.
Since into each life some Crazy must fall.