“To live life based on the expectations of others, is to live the life of a chameleon; constantly trying to read situations and become whatever they are expected to be. The problem with the life of a chameleon is one never knows who they really are.”
People’s strong, positive reaction to the above paragraph (and the original post, “The Preacher’s Wife,” from which it is taken) has been a pleasant surprise. “The Preacher’s Wife” has become the most read article on my blog.
It seems appropriate to share some additional thoughts on this topic.
The term counselors use to describe this lifestyle is codependent.
Melody Beattie was the first person to write self help books on codependency. I’ve recommended her two books, Codependent No More and Beyond Codependency, to hundreds of people. Since her writings, many others have written helpful books on the topic.
My simple definition of a codependent is someone who derives their sense of self worth based on how much they are needed by others.
And the surest route to making people need you is to never say no to anyone. This was the fatal trap into which I fell.
One reason I can speak with some authority on this topic is that I lived a chameleon life for years. In the early years of working full time in the ministry I was eager to be a servant to everyone – no matter what. Those last three words are the death knell.
“Being a servant,” yes. That is what we are called to do. But “no matter what” means you have no boundaries, especially the ability to say no.
My wakeup call was when my body started rebelling against me, ultimately placing me in the hospital.
Once it was made clear to me what was happening, I made a vow to God that from that day forward I would do my best not to abuse the body He had given me.
I had no idea the difficult steps that vow was going to take me through. The first step for me was telling people “no.” You cannot imagine how hard that was for me. I was used to being the “yes” man to everyone’s request.
During that time of reforming my life, I was reading Christ’s parable that we call The Ten Virgins. The story is about ten people (five wise and five foolish) who went to a wedding feast. They fell asleep waiting for the bridegroom to arrive. At midnight the call came that he’d finally arrived. The ten people arose in the dark and trimmed their oil lamps. It was then that the five foolish ones realized they didn’t have any oil in their lamps. They turned to the five wise ones and asked them to share their oil or they would miss the feast.
Now here comes the lightning bolt of insight that I needed to hear. The five wise ones say, “No. Go buy your own oil.”
When I saw that for the first time, I felt like the world stopped turning for a beat. I reread it, twice.
This was an opportunity for someone to help someone in need. And they said “no.” Even more incredible is that Jesus characterized these as the “wise” ones!
The application I got from that part of the story is that any time we give of ourselves to the point that we harm ourselves physically, emotionally, spiritually or mentally, we’ve gone too far. With that bit of understanding I began trying to learn when and where to say “no.”
As difficult as that step was, the next step in my recovery was even harder. I had to deal with people being disappointed and upset with me for saying “no” to them. This included close friends and family.
When I turned down their request, their expression turned to incredulity. They were used to me always being there – ready, willing, and able (no matter what!).
It was at that point I met my real demon face to face – GUILT. Having people disappointed in me made me feel guilty. A horrible feeling!
I was living a guilt-motivated life. Everything I was doing for others was to avoid feeling guilty. And I would do anything to avoid it, including make myself sick.
What are we to do with guilt? That’s a tough question because guilt is an important feeling, one that is often prompted by our conscience. There are times when we need to feel guilty.
But there is also false guilt. That is guilt over things we shouldn’t feel guilty about. And if you have a overly sensitive guilty meter, false guilt will constantly be sitting on your chest, making you miserable.
It’s important to simply sit with our guilt, spending time trying to understand it, before we react to it. Discover what it is saying and where it comes from.
I’ve been on this road of recovery from the chameleon life for nearly thirty years. I have to constantly be on guard to slipping back into old, unhealthy habits. It surprises me how vigilant I have to be.
But I’m so glad God got my attention and set me on this path. I’ve no doubt I would have many serious consequences plaguing me today, if I hadn’t changed how I approached life.
I’ve found much more contentment in being true to God and pleasing Him than in trying to please people.
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