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In the early part of 2011, I was battling burnout as a result of my workaholic habits.
As a lawyer on a never-ending clock, I’d finally reached the point where I understood that my behaviour was dysfunctional, and I needed to change my ways.
For a long time, I had my eye on a retreat for burnt-out executives in Carcassonne, France, run by a psychologist and his wife.
Unfortunately, I didn’t make the trip in time to save my burnt-out self. I had hit a wall before the retreat and had already had my f*ck it, quit-my-job moment.
Instead of using my time at the retreat to develop strategies to deal with burnout, the counselling became an exit review of my life as a lawyer, and the opportunity to lay the foundations for my new future.
You see, once I recognised that I had a problem, I was totally open to solutions. I had a great time in the sessions with the psychologist. I love to banter, and we had a brilliant repertoire that served an important purpose: I completely trusted him.
So, we got down to the business of understanding my dysfunction that led to my current state of affairs.
For the next few days, as we explored my inner world, the word “codependency” came up again and again and again. I was a little surprised. I’d always been incredibly independent, or so I thought.
I didn’t have a history of dysfunctional relationships. (Until he pointed out I didn’t have time for relationships, in general, because I was a workaholic. When I was in a relationship, I completely lost myself by taking care of my partner’s needs and not my own.)
I took care of myself. (Until he pointed out that while my workaholic nature meant I was financially stable, I certainly didn’t look after myself in any other ways.)
I was a lawyer. I was trained to stand up for myself. (But in reality, I stood up for everyone else and was never able to say, “No” to the people around me, he pointed out.)
I helped people all the time. (Yes, he pointed out that I tried to rescue people all the time when they were perfectly capable of rescuing themselves.)
But, I like looking after people. (No, you don’t, he pointed out. You have a misguided sense of responsibility for putting other people’s needs above your own. You end up feeling used and abused.)
Hmmm. I guess that’s when we hit the crux of the matter: why I had burnt out so badly.
At the final session, before I was due to leave, he took a really big, deep breath (brave man) and said, “Sam, you’re acting like you’re some big hero having martyred yourself for all these years when, really, you are shockingly codependent. It is dysfunctional, ruining your life, and you need to change your ways.”
As my cheeks flamed red and my eyes smarted, I felt like he’d physically slapped me. As we eyeballed each other for 10 seconds afterward, him waiting to see exactly how I was going to react (I can be a little fiery), I finally breathed out and said, “Okay.”
You see, I was a bit of a rescuer. I can see that now. You could say I suffered from the saviour complex. I would charge around standing up for everyone else, never myself, and then complain about it.
In my personal relationships, I would put the other person’s needs before my own and then feel upset when they didn’t look after me.
I drove myself mentally, physically, and emotionally into the ground because I couldn’t set limits or boundaries. I felt angry with the people I thought were taking advantage of me. The truth is it was always me. I never knew how much or how little to give.
More importantly, despite years of using my gift of the gab and honing my big, booming voice as a lawyer, I genuinely couldn’t say the word no.
I was an angry people-pleaser, and that truth was shocking to me. After the retreat, it was pretty easy for me to figure out why.
During my childhood, I was taught that my needs didn’t matter. I was taught that the happiness and well-being of other people were far more important than my own. More importantly, I learned that bad things happened if I said, “No.”
At this point, the psychologist, having done the hard part of his job—they say the truth shall set you free, but first it will piss you off—gave me the knowledge that would become my life’s lessons over the next eight years.
He taught me about the three stages of human development: dependence, independence, and interdependence.
And I got. I so got it.
I saw how myself and most humans go from dependency as a child straight to codependency as an adult, and we wonder why we all end up pooped and pissed at how our lives have turned out. Some of us take the martyr route, some of us become so selfish that we never give a thought to the needs of those around us. Few of us actually reach a stage of full independence as we continue to project our childhood conditioning and wounds onto others in our adult lives, and then, wonder why life blows up in our face, why our relationships are so dysfunctional, and why we end up burnt out and angry at life.
There was only one thing I could do. I was going to become a fully independent adult for one reason: I wanted to be free so I could learn how to be interdependent.
Interdependency is being and acting in a way where I take care of my own needs, and at the same time, I can care about the needs of others, instead of pleasing or ignoring them.
Sounds simple, huh? If only. I’ve found it’s a little more complicated.
I spent eight long years working on all the ways I was codependent, and there were many. Life threw situations and people at me, time and time again, so I could unravel the conditioning of my childhood that was creating such dysfunctional chaos in my life.
I had to learn totally new ways of relating. I had to put my needs first, time and time again, even if I felt incredibly selfish. The time for compromise would come when I began to learn to be interdependent.
The hardest part was learning how to say, “No.” I found that bad things still happened, but that’s okay, too. I could handle it. I could handle it all.
I’ve come a long way. I know the ways in which I am codependent, and life is a continual practice not to fall into the old traps.
I can now work on becoming interdependent, which is another story for another day. It isn’t easy, my friends, when the vast majority of people still come from a codependent place.
But it’s worth it. I faced my own chaos and came out of the other side. I’m on the way to being a functional human being capable of interacting with people in non-dysfunctional ways. That is, indeed, freedom.
The truth set me free, even if it really pissed me off first.