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Warning: salty language ahead!
That was my attitude the first time it came up in therapy. What little I knew about it seemed far too dysfunctional for me. At that time, I was still clinging to the fantasy that every bad relationship I’d had was the fault of everyone but me.
While I rejected the idea of codependency, I accepted a book from my therapist, The Language of Letting Go by Melodie Beattie, containing daily meditations addressing the issues of codependency.
Now, after years of hard work, that book still sits on my nightstand, and I still read from it every morning. I’ve accepted my codependency and embraced my issues. It’s painful and difficult at times, but understanding codependency gave me an honest sense of who I am and how I got here.
The what and why of codependency:
Codependency is a collection of self-defeating behaviors that make up how we respond and react to people in our relationships—and how we turn to controlling behavior to make ourselves feel safe.
We’ve learned these behaviors growing up in environments that discouraged the open expression of feelings and direct, honest communication. We internalized everything without learning vulnerability and empathy. We didn’t learn to attach securely in our relationships, or how to set healthy boundaries.
Many of us grew up feeling isolated and empty. Carrying that into adulthood, we tend to choose dysfunctional, needy people to make ourselves feel healthy and worthwhile. We turn to rescuing and people-pleasing because it gives us a sense of purpose and meaning. It’s a tough environment for healthy relationships, and a great many fail. While we’re left to lament “missing the red flags,” the truth is we are attracted to them.
What codependency looks like:
While we’re all different people with different experiences, there are common threads that weave through our stories. Some of those threads look like this:
Codependency often revolves around addiction in the family. I had an alcoholic parent and married an alcoholic—but it’s also not a requirement. Any family system that results in a lack of expression and communication can lead to codependency.
We have unhealed emotional traumas, usually from childhood. We never learned how to process or sit with our pain. Feeling damaged and not good enough, we look outside of ourselves for self-worth and validation.
In an attempt to numb our feelings of pain and shame, many of us develop addictions to alcohol, drugs, food, sex, and love.
We are givers and caretakers, feeling safest and most healthy when we’re people-pleasing and fixing. We put the needs of others ahead of our own as we try to rescue our way into a secure relationship.
We struggle with setting boundaries, unable to ask for what we need. Instead, we fear that setting boundaries will upset our partners. We end up feeling resentful, and at the same time, fearful that our partners will abandon us if we try to stand up for ourselves.
We feel responsible for other people’s feelings, taking their unhappiness personally. We feel the need to control and fix those feelings to alleviate our own discomfort.
We avoid conflict—we equate it with emotional damage and it scares the shit out of us. Unable to communicate about our feelings, we never learned a healthy way to deal with conflict. We react rather than respond in a healthy way—we get defensive, lash out, and shut down.
We struggle with perfection. We put tremendous pressure on ourselves to be flawless. We feel it’s necessary to be worthy of love and belonging. We’ll overachieve and overcommit in an effort to prove our worth. If we fail, we’ll be brutally hard on ourselves for making mistakes or not doing enough.
We also don’t ask for help when we need it—we equate it with imperfection and weakness. Needing help makes us feel shame and insecurity, as our not good enough narrative gets triggered.
We’re terrified of abandonment. We try to control our environment and our partners to feel safer in our relationships. When we feel insecure, we become hyper-vigilant, always looking for signs of trouble to confirm our deepest fear: that we aren’t lovable.
While we feel responsible for other people’s feelings, we also feel that others are responsible for ours. When we get hurt, we feel victimized and abandoned, blaming our issues on others rather than recognizing the need to heal ourselves.
Recovering from codependency:
Awareness and acceptance:
If you see yourself in these traits, you’re not alone. Some of us have struggled enormously without knowing why. Recovery from codependency begins with this awareness.
We can also be kind and forgive ourselves for our relationship failures and struggles. Being codependent doesn’t make us bad, defective, or unworthy people. We suffered emotional trauma, and our coping behaviors didn’t work—there’s no shame in that.
Although we didn’t cause our codependency, it is our responsibility to fix. And there are a few things we can do to kick-start our recovery.
We can get support:
Recovery is hard work, and tough to do on our own. Fortunately, there are many ways to get the help and support we need.
Therapy is a great option and one that continues to help me on my healing journey. There are support groups such as Codependents Anonymous (CoDA) and Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACA) that have helped a great many people. While helpful on their own, they can be great alternatives if therapy isn’t an option.
Learn to set healthy boundaries:
One of the most important things we can do to heal is to learn to set healthy boundaries. Learning to identify my needs and ask for them was a life changer for me. It can be scary—many of the uncomfortable feelings that prevented us from setting boundaries are still going to be there—but we’re going to set them anyway.
Setting boundaries to meet our needs is our responsibility—how someone reacts to them is not. We’ll remind ourselves of this as we practice setting boundaries, and we’ll be kind to ourselves when we’re uncomfortable. The most important thing is to do it—and it gets easier the more we do it.
We can stop trying to rescue and fix people:
This is also something we can practice every day.
We all recognize those moments we’re talking to someone about an issue they’ve had, and we feel an impulse to make an unsolicited suggestion to solve their problem. Just don’t do it.
If they haven’t asked for our help, they probably aren’t looking for it. Instead of fixing, we sit and listen, giving someone space to simply express themselves. It might feel like a missed opportunity—we aren’t used to letting problems go by without trying to solve them. But in reality, it’s a healthier way to relate to both ourselves and other people.
It’s time to take back our lives. We don’t have to keep repeating our unhealthy cycles. We can heal, and we can recover. If we can be courageous enough to face our codependency, the rewards are extraordinary—a chance to experience the joyful, healthier relationships we’ve always wanted.
We’ll know we’re recovering from codependency when we can learn to give without fear, and receive without shame.
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