don’t feed the deer. (alternatively titled: thoughts on overhelping and codependency).

17916102_10158401766560304_1876855354_oI was out enjoying a walk by the river yesterday, and as I greeted a gentleman and his dog on the trail – he pointed out a little deer gathering that was happening right off the side of the trail.

“I like to feed them apples. Sometimes carrots. They recognize my dog and associate him with food now, even when my wife walks the trail with Bailey – the deer come follow her hoping for food. I got too close today though, and one nipped at my butt.”

I found myself captivated by the nearby animals, and quite astounded at their close proximity to people. The deer were eagerly eating, and even after the gentleman and his dog carried on, I remained fixed in my spot.

Until another man and his wife came along, also carrying a bag of grains it seemed. This next fellow was a bit more brazen than the last – walking right into the flock of deer. A few scattered, but many remained in position munching on their tasty, hand-delivered food.

I found myself a bit torn on the inside as I walked away. On the one hand, it was neat to see the deer up close. But on the other hand, the liberties that folks were taking in feeding wild animals kind of bothered me. Now I’m not a huge animal enthusiast, not at all, but this idea that wild animals are becoming accustomed to humans, and to having food dropped by as though they called Skip the Dishes left me a bit annoyed.

I know. I’m upset for the deer.

But really, I think what this reminded me of is my work with clients in therapy. So often I see folks who operate as both the deer and the feeder of the deer. And neither is a great spot to be in.

What this non-animal enthusiast sees happening is that the deer are going to become successively accustomed to having outside food brought in. They will come to rely on humans as a food source, and even though the intentions from the trail walkers are good, they are going to inevitably strip the deer of their innate capacity to forage for their own food, resulting in a population of ‘wild’ deer that are no longer able to care for themselves adequately, in a way that they are inherently capable of.

Those deer are going to be dependent on people. And they’re not going to live up to their full potential, as deer that are capable of meeting their own needs in the wild.

This happens with people too. All the time.

I see it when I am counselling parents. And kids. And couples. And adult kids. There are many folks who come with good intentions and a desire to help, who inevitably end up stripping the person they’re helping of their innate capacity to meet their own needs.

Parents help, fix, and rescue – and create kids who feel incapable and anxious when left to their own devices. They lack the resources and confidence to know they have the ability to get themselves out of their own jams, and solve their own problems. Want to learn more about that? Check out the links here, and here.

It happens in relationships too, when one person overhelps – and the other becomes like the dependent deer. Sometimes these are co-dependent relationships, which happen when a person belongs to a “dysfunctional, one-sided relationship where one person relies on the other for meeting nearly all of their emotional and self-esteem needs. It also describes a relationship that enables another person to maintain their irresponsible, addictive, or underachieving behavior.” In other words, it becomes another situation of man + deer.

So often in counselling, I work with people to help increase capacity, and to develop a sense of confidence in their ability to navigate the ups and downs of their own lives. So I’m not surprised that the deer situation left me feeling a bit off.

I’m not sure that I’m ready to picket at the river trail, protesting the feeding of deer – but I do know this situation left me thinking about the helper/helpee dynamics that play out in my own life. Evaluating when helping is really helping, or when it’s just making us feel good about ourselves is not a comfortable task, but perhaps one we could all stand to do from time to time.

So…before you ‘feed the deer’, or rescue your kids, or over-caretake for your partner, work colleague, or friend – maybe a quick moment of reflecting might help ensure that you allow the other to grow into the most capable, able, confident version of themselves.

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