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Unpacking the Unhealthy Dependence: The Giving Tree and Codependency

Updated: Apr 14

A colleague and I were chatting one day when the book The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein came into the conversation. I did not hesitate to add my review of the book. "That is the most codependent storyline I've ever read", I exclaimed. "I know!", he replied. I had never met a fellow sympathizer and we laughed at how it is read to children as if it has an appropriate message on what giving means.

Recently, I read it was banned from schools in Colorado for being sexist and also for upsetting the forestry industry. So while Mr. Silverstein may not understand codependency, he sure can create controversy-- and from a simple children's story!

Why do I think it conveys unhealthy dependence or codependency? And what is that any way?

Firstly, If you don't the know the story, it is written like a love story between a tree and a boy who spent his childhood playing around the tree, climbing the tree, eating 'her' apples. As he grows, she is ignored and wants him to stay connected but he spends periods of time away. The boy returns older and needs money so she suggests selling her apples. Then she says he can build a house from her branches, then a boat. By now the man is very old and he comes back to visit. She says she has nothing left to offer him and he says he's too old to need more. She, as a stump, suggests he take rest. All along the tree is just happy to greet the boy/man as he shows up stating his material needs.

She is desperate for connection and attention from him and she gives herself away so completely she has nothing left. And she's happy??? Yup! That's the last page of the book--"And the tree was happy." He just takes what she offers and never even says 'thank you' or 'you made me happy' or 'you helped me build my life'. Nope. He just sits on her and she is happy. This story is beyond sexist, well-rooted (ha! get it) in toxic relating.

The dictionary describes codependency as "excessive emotional or psychological reliance on a partner, typically one who requires support on account of an illness or addiction". I mean, there it is! Dare I mention this book was given to me as a gift from an ex with a drug addiction? How ironic and apropo. But codependency is also about our relationship to ourselves or better yet, the need for one.

So how we do help this poor tree before he rents a stump grinder and she is nothing but chips and dust?

1. We need to help this beautiful tree look at her past. Was there someone in the forest when she was a sapling that had an addiction or an anger that made her feel fearful or invalidated? If she was involved with abusers or addicts in her past, then she will be afraid to displease her current partner. When she understands her history better she can learn to detach and not control, people-please, or obsess about others. She can become more self-directed and autonomous and have more courage.

2. We need to help the tree understand she is in denial. Not only is she denying he is a fairly selfish, greedy and unthankful friend, she is denying her own need to thrive. If we could teach her assertiveness and good boundaries she might just allow access to her apples if he agreed to water her every week. And no...he can't hack her to pieces but she can refer him to a good lumber yard.

3. We need to help her find more ways to accept and like herself. All those lonely years were prime for her to focus on herself. She could have taken an art class or gone skydiving or done more yoga. Just imagine the confidence that would have instilled. She doesn't feel good about herself and so it's easy to find acceptance externally. We call that "locus of control" and it's either external or internal. When we rely on external feedback ("Come Boy, climb up my trunk and play in my leaves-that makes me happy") with no internal sense of ourselves, of what makes us awesome, (I'm a strong, beautiful tree with lots to offer and I deserve to be appreciated--and that makes me happy), it is easier to blur our boundaries and get confused about what we think and feel and give too much of ourselves away.

It is hard to know the line between helping and enabling-between loving ourselves and loving others. It is not a formula as much as a journey.

I might tell the tree to read:

Codependent No More by Melody Beattie

Boundaries: Where You End and I Begin by Anne Katherine

Your Perfect Right: Assertiveness and Equality in Your Life and Relationships by Alberti and Emmons

And I would tell the tree that maybe next time don't put all her apples in one boy's basket. There might have been plenty of other explorers in the forest who would happen upon her beautiful leaves and climbable trunk and yes, we can feel lonely at times in life but we also need to be our own best company.

In the end, that is what leaves us whole.

If you need support exploring your unhealthy dependence, please reach out.

tree stump


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