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On the outside, codependency looks like the ability to love and care for another to the exclusion of ourselves—the ultimate, ever-serving superhero.
The codependent’s favorite word is “yes.”
She will do anything to please you. When you are happy, she feels safe in the glow of your good vibes and gratitude.
Saying “no” feels unkind, selfish, unloving, and even scary to her. Saying “no” means you could feel disappointed and cut off her validation supply.
Boundaries? “Pffft!” says the codependent. “Who needs them?” Boundaries thwart her need to help and advise, and on a deeper level, manipulate and control. The opposite side of this altruism is the inability to respect or even recognize the boundaries of others. Crossing them is justified in the name of being helpful and loving. She does not accept that most people are capable of solving their own problems and can look after themselves.
Self-esteem for a codependent is more like other-esteem. When others feel good, she feels good. This is an endless cycle of vying for the approval of others in order to get her esteem needs met externally.
I remind myself daily that these patterns of behavior were installed in childhood and some are ancestral. These long-running programs hum undetected, which means I am not aware of them and operate from a place of denial.
In romantic relationships, while I believed I was selflessly there for my partner, my safety scanner was always on. When I perceived he was struggling, my warning system would signal danger. Instinctively, I would take his emotions on and react by comforting him and offering advice and insight. I would make his needs my own in an attempt to fix him. I sent the message that his uncomfortable feelings were not okay with me.
On the other end of the relating spectrum is empathy. When someone with a strong sense of self encounters a loved one in emotional pain or suffering, they sit with them in complete autonomy. Their feelings do not mesh with the feelings of the other. This Buddha-like human is capable of staying fully present in their own emotions while holding space for the emotions of another. They do not interrupt, comment, minimize, or offer fluffy platitudes. Empathy is a gift of pure listening at its most distilled, most sacred. It is the ability to reflect the other person back to themselves.
This may look like saying:
I see how painful this is for you.
I can imagine what feelings you are experiencing.
I see this is hard.
Empathy is not a two-way discourse. A strong, empathetic human allows the other person to feel truly heard. They are in the process without their mental and emotional state being tied to the outcome. This can feel uncomfortable, but it means accepting the other in their state of upset. A person capable of empathy carries a deep knowing that they can’t fix anyone else, can’t heal anyone else, can’t solve anything for anyone else. They do not fall into the trap of needing to fix in order to avoid their own discomfort.
There is a beautiful video on YouTube showing a father with his toddler son as he moves through the various emotions of a temper tantrum. The father holds space for the boy while he rages, kicks, screams—expresses a full array of heart-wrenching emotions. The father does not try to stop him, quiet him, or control him. He shows his love by being a witness and accepting his son’s emotions. I can imagine this was difficult for the loving dad, but he can see past his own discomfort to the future adult who will know that all his feelings are valuable and necessary.
I had the privilege to practice empathy with my daughter recently. She came to me feeling upset, distraught, and vulnerable about a situation she just experienced. In the past, I would have attempted to comfort her, suggested solutions, perhaps even minimized her problem—all in an attempt to stop my own discomfort at seeing her in pain. This time, I stepped back and poured all my energy into listening to what she had to say. I reflected on what I heard her say. I acknowledged her distress without minimizing it. I did not stop her emotions by offering her a tissue when tears fell. I felt my own discomfort and separated it from hers.
I literally sat with her without throwing her a lifeline.
What transpired felt like a new page being turned. She came to her own solution on how to remedy the issue. She thanked me for listening and being a good mom. I wonder if she would have felt the same had I showed up in my superhero suit ready to fix her. Probably not.
Empathy requires self-differentiation. As a codependent, I felt the need to fuse my emotional state to other people’s. In childhood, I felt I had to do this in order to survive. I did not know my own feelings—did not know who I was, or what my needs were. What was important to others became important to me. Unconsciously, I continued to operate from this little girl place in my adult relationships, which made it impossible for me to allow the others to have their own feelings without taking them on.
How do I differentiate between my feelings and those belonging to others? By becoming conscious of what my needs are; by dropping into my body to sense what my feelings are; by getting clear on my values and how I want to live my life based on those values.
Another important step in growing our empathy muscle is in setting and maintaining our boundaries while respecting those belonging to others.
When it comes to being available, I must be a hundred percent honest with myself. If I do not have the emotional capacity to hold space for a loved one, when I am caught up in my own emotional mess, I must find the courage to say “no” and believe that it does not mean that I am bad or selfish. When I say “yes” out of feelings of guilt or obligation, I am saying no to myself and crossing my own boundaries in favor of pleasing someone else.
Some people are not going to like the changes I am making on my behalf. They will be in shock at the person who is showing up. They will think me rude, selfish, and difficult. Who is this person who is putting themselves first, who is not jumping up to help, solve, assist, resolve, and make everything better?
When I was 25, my mother, then a pack-a-day smoker and a self-proclaimed nervous wreck, embarked on the journey of spirituality. I remember not being a fan of this new 2.0 version of her. She seemed like someone else’s mother. It took a while for me to warm up to her, to get to know her, and accept the differences in her.
I remind myself of that now. I am messing with the system that has been there for decades. Everyone understood how the dysfunction worked and everyone knew their role. When I exit the system, it goes into chaos and disarray. There will be resistance. Even if a relationship was totally dysfunctional, I am still disrupting it. I am trying to extricate myself from years of enmeshment. This will leave some holes.
It does not mean that I am doing anything wrong; I am simply choosing to behave differently. Others may need time to adjust. Some may; some may not. This is also not for me to control. It is their choice if they do not want to be in a relationship with me. Others may adjust and when they do, the relationship will be happier, healthier, and stronger.
Although reprogramming ourselves from superhero to Buddha may be challenging, it is not impossible.
There will be times of backsliding, doubt, guilt, and wanting to go back to our old ways of operating. Do not stop! Stay in awareness; practice determination and discipline.
We are reprogramming beliefs that have been running for a lifetime. And when we get to the other side, this work will be life-changing.
It will heal not only ourselves but our past and future generations.