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Boundaries can be confusing to self-identified codependents. They take too much responsibility for the feelings and needs of others.
In codependency recovery, one of the questions is, “How can I provide enough support to the people I love, yet not so much that I disappear into someone else’s emotional world?”
Here’s a unique approach that holds your boundaries intact, so you can give high-quality support without losing your Self.
This is the technique in a nutshell: Picture yourself as an imaginary friend.
I know what you’re thinking.
Viewing yourself as a figment of someone else’s imagination might seem like a bad idea for someone with codependent leanings.
There’s no psychological boundary between a person and his or her own imagination. So how can that be good for you?
It’s a happy paradox: Pretending to be imaginary can help you protect your boundaries and avoid doing too much for others or disappearing into their worlds.
Think about it: If you were an imaginary friend, there’d be only so much you could do.
You wouldn’t be able to pick up the phone and make a call on your friend’s behalf. Imaginary beings don’t have hands or fingers.
And speaking of not existing on the physical plane, this means you couldn’t go get them something from the store, drive them to an appointment, or do chores for them.
Not having a separate brain of your own, you wouldn’t have ideas for improving their situation. Theirs would be the only thoughts between you.
Your hands would be mostly tied.
So much for over-functioning.
A True Friend
So what can you do as an imaginary friend? Extraordinary things.
When fixing someone’s problems is not an option (because you don’t exist), you’re limited in the ways you can be supportive.
Let’s look at the job description of an imaginary friend:
Help them feel like they’re not alone. You do this just by being with them. Yes, that’s it. If you’re there, you’re doing something for them. Good job.
Listen attentively. If you belong to their imagination, your only focus is on their thoughts and feelings. You can’t change or fix these, but you can pay close attention.
Be a mirror. All you need to do is reflect the person back to themselves. A mirror doesn’t add anything.
E.g., If they say, “I want to do it but I’m scared,” you can nod and say “Yes. It’s not that you don’t want to do it; it’s just that you’re scared.”
Acknowledge their feelings. Don’t be an “imaginary judge,” an “imaginary critic,” or even an “imaginary bystander.” Be a friend.
Express compassion, kindness and acceptance of all their emotions, whatever they are. Use your facial expressions and tone of voice to do this.
If you sit with your friends when they’re hurting…
If you listen closely and reflect them back to themselves…
If you acknowledge their feelings, with compassion…
You won’t overstep anyone’s boundaries – yours or theirs. You will be an exceptional, and very real, friend.
A caveat: “Imaginary friend” is a technique, not a way of life. If you find yourself using this approach in relationships more often than not, please seek help from a mental health professional.