Who doesn’t love movie therapy?

It’s the Christmas season. It’s a Wonderful Life is one of my favorite movies. It gets me all teary eyed every time I watch it. AND it’s a great illustration of what codependency looks like. Want to learn? Come on!

If you’re not familiar with the story, our hero is George Bailey, a stand-up, down to earth guy who wants to be an explorer. He does all the right things in life, but ends up in a situation where he’s contemplating suicide. In order for his guardian angel to get his wings, he has to do a good deed. So he goes to earth to persuade George to change his mind by showing him that he actually has had a great life.

Got it? Okay, now let’s look at all the ways that George led a codependent life.

George’s codependency really kicked into gear when George’s father died and dad’s loan business was faced with going under. George planned to see the world and then go to college, but the board persuaded him to stay to keep his father’s legacy going.

This was the first major time that George could have said, “Not my circus, not my monkeys.” The savings and loan wasn’t his business. It wasn’t his responsibility to keep it open, but he gave up his trip and chose to stay.

George gave his college money to his brother. They agreed that when his brother finished school, he would take George’s place in the savings and loan and free George up to go to college.

Unfortunately, life didn’t work out according to plan. George’s brother ended up falling in love. His fiancee’s father offered him a great job. George didn’t want his brother to miss that opportunity, so he gave his brother a pass.

George could have said, “Not my circus, not my monkeys. We have a deal” and let his brother figure that out. George could have walked away from the savings and loan and gone to college then. He could have gone on safari then, but he set aside his dreams. He stayed to support his brother and keep the savings and loan afloat.

George is watching his friends go off to college, make money, have adventures, and engage with life. Meanwhile he’s propping up everyone else and giving them the means to reach their goals. He’s living in a drafty house, driving an old car, and can’t get out of his hometown.

The kicker comes when George’s forgetful Uncle Billy misplaces $8000. George knows this will mean scandal and jail. He doesn’t want old, fragile Uncle Billy to take the rap, so he says it’s his fault.

Collapsing under the weight of the threat of jail and all his broken dreams, George contemplates jumping off a bridge into the icy river.

In case you haven’t see this classic movie, I won’t spoil the end for you. That’s not what this article is about anyway. It’s about codependency.

George’s life wasn’t troubled because all those things happened to him. Kindness and supporting others are fine things. It was unhappy because of the choices he made. His life was unfortunate because he made his life about other people’s problems. Yes, lots of people were able to afford homes because of his loan business. Yes, lots of people had options that didn’t include the town miser, Mr. Potter.

But it wasn’t George’s job to save any of them.

And George got to the end of his rope because he didn’t accept anything. He over gave until he was tapped out. He didn’t even give to himself. So in a way, George Bailey and Scrooge are the same character. Neither one of them received. And we can’t feel full and satisfied unless the energy of giving and receiving is flowing.

I know many people think that the message of It’s a Wonderful Life is to count your blessing. That’s certainly one of them. We all have many blessings. Yet, if we don’t see them, it’s as if they don’t exist because they are not a part of our awareness. So be grateful.

I would say another take away is to choose mindfully. George did a lot of good for a lot of people, and it came at the cost of himself, his family, and his dreams. He gave his personal money (which he did not have) to Violet. He gave his honeymoon away to the community. He lived in a house he hated for his wife. If you look at his life, the only thing that reflected him was his kindness. No wonder he felt like his life wasn’t worth living. It’s not his life.

If George were my client, I would tell him that it’s okay to say no to what doesn’t serve you. It’s okay to say yes to what does. When kindness hurts, it may be more than you can afford to give.

I’d also suggest that he pay attention to the things he said when he was mad. We can dismiss those things and say we didn’t mean it later, but the things we say when we are mad are true to the part of us that said them at the time. That is the part that we don’t listen to because it gets us into trouble. That part is valid too. If George’s truth is that he wants more say in his life, it would probably make him happier to pay attention to that.

Still not getting it? Here are some signs of what codependency looks like. See how many you see in George:

  • You have a hard time saying how you feel. This is often a reflection of a belief that “I don’t matter” or “Other people matter more than I do.”
  • You put others ahead of you. George was last in his own life. This creates a sense that George didn’t need anything. So, nobody offered him anything until they realized the situation was dire. When you’re too independent and put others first, this is what happens. Me and we work better when they are balanced.
  • You need to be liked. Everybody liked George. He did so much for everyone, how could they not? Do you get the feeling that that was his motivation for his kindness? If so, it’s not really kindness. It’s manipulation. He doesn’t give from the kindness of his heart. He gives to get.
  • You don’t talk about problems. Uncle Billy was a huge problem that everyone ignored. George’s unhappiness was also ignored. Problems don’t go away just because we pretend they don’t exist.
  • You have low self esteem. We know that George couldn’t have felt worthy or else his life would look different. He played small in every possible way. Humility and living within your means are honorable. I don’t mean that. He never took a risk, followed a dream, or did anything that he wasn’t “supposed to” do.
  • You have undying loyalty. You will go down with the ship and stay in unhealthy situations way too long. George’s brother prospered because he got out. His friend, Sam Wainwright, blossomed when he got out. George wanted to get out. He stayed out of loyalty and obligation.
  • You don’t have clear, strong boundaries. This can mean your too soft (like when Violet came to George) or too hard (when George confronted the teacher) or most likely both.
  • You have poor communication skills. George didn’t hint, blame, threaten, bribe, stomp around, or sigh to get people to do what he wanted them to do (which are common tactics for people with low self esteem). He didn’t ask for what he wanted either. As a result, he lived in a house and town where he didn’t want to live, ran a business that he didn’t want, and never got to see the world.
  • You have a strong desire to fix things or people. Let’s be honest. This is a control maneuver that people with codependency do to take care of their own needs. If other people are safe and okay, they won’t cause you any problems so you can relax.
  • They don’t ask for help. Sometimes it’s because they aren’t aware that they need help because they blame others for the situation. Sometimes it’s because of shame. They may also keep to themselves because they feel they don’t deserve help. George didn’t appear to think that there was a problem. So sometimes that can also be the case.

Learning from movies can be a great way to grow. They draw us in so we can relate to the people and situations. Movies keep things at a distance so we have the perspective we need to see things clearly.

If you’re seeing yourself in George Bailey and think that you might be leading a codependent life, maybe it’s time to make a change.