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A few days ago, I saw a meme with descriptions of how people develop codependent tendencies, including abusive and otherwise dysfunctional relationships, and I posted it on Facebook.
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This is the commentary I shared:
“Some of this is accurate for me. The origins of the codependency that I have lived with much of my life isn’t fear for my safety, as it is for others. I grew up in a loving, violence-free, addiction-free home. And I developed savior behavior, people pleasing at my own expense tendencies since I was praised for them.
The catalyst was the death of my beloved grandmother when I was four. She was like a third parent. When she passed following a stroke, I was determined not to be a burden to my grieving mother, even though she didn’t expect me to be anything but a four-year-old kid. On top of that, right afterward, I was diagnosed with asthma, which meant nights when I couldn’t breathe easily and would come into my parents’ bedroom and my mom would sit with me in the bathroom as I breathed in steam from the shower. I know that is what parents are supposed to do—nothing exceptional—but I somehow interpreted it as beyond the beyond.
So, I wanted to make up for it by excelling in what I did and taking care of the people in my life. Through the years it just became habitual and then addictive. I felt like I had to be all things to all people to be loved and accepted and included. Who wouldn’t love a caregiver?
Most of my relationships had elements of what was described in these cartoons. It was only after treatment and 12 step (CODA) meetings and working my program that I began to change. Even now, at 63, I need to be mindful of my motivations for doing things. I am getting better at setting boundaries with family, friends, and clients. I can be there for support, but I no longer feel compelled to heal, fix, save, and kiss boo boos to make them all better. Notice, I used the word ‘compelled’? It doesn’t mean I don’t have the desire. I just don’t act on it in ways I would have before.
I have wonderful people in my life who remind me about being enough as is and that I don’t need to earn love or approval. What a relief it is to say no to what I truly don’t want to do.”
When a former co-worker asked me the question, “How did you get like this?” I was puzzled. “Get like what?” I volleyed back.
I rolled back the clock and recalled that even as my folks were role models for resilience in the face of the early deaths of their fathers and mothers, there was little room (at least in my child’s mind) for taking much time to grieve. As much as I know that my mother missed my grandmother, who died when she was the mother of that four-year-old and my two-and-a-half-year old sister throughout the rest of her own life, she kept on keeping on, not missing a beat in taking care of us.
The paradoxical messages I received from them included:
>> “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” (Mom)
>> “What hurts you hurts me.” (Dad)
>> “Don’t let them (boyfriends who initiated breakups) see you cry; they will know you are vulnerable and take advantage of that.” (Dad)
>> “Walk in like you own the joint.” (Mom)
>> “They put their pants on one leg at a time, just like you do.” (Dad)
>> “Your life is in the hands of anyone who makes you lose your temper.” (Dad)
>> “If that’s the worst thing that ever happens to you, you’ll be okay.” (Dad)
I know that all of what I called “Mom-isms and Dad Wisdom” came from love, but they were confusing. One of the erroneous memories I held onto for decades was that my parents told me on occasion, “Don’t do anything we would be ashamed of.” It wasn’t until she was on hospice in 2010 and we spoke about my childhood that my mom corrected my version of the Mandela Effect. She replied, “We told you not to do anything you would be ashamed of.”
Holy shift moment! All along, I had made my parents’ approval the barometer for all of my decisions. But the truth freed me up to take my own inventory, using my own discernment.
Clearly, I am not alone, as many of my friends resonated with the post as well.
“As a parentified child in a very chaotic single-parent household, I tried to make it better for everyone…not realizing how much of me I was giving away. Took me a long time and I too at 63 am still learning and growing. My biggest gift lately is starting to tell the truth to people who deeply hurt, neglected, and abandoned me throughout my life instead of glossing over what really happened to save their feelings. My challenge is to say it peacefully and gracefully without anger and resentment…I’m a work in progress.”
“At 68, I’m finally learning I’m valuable for just BEing.”
“Nurturing is one of my superpowers. It’s been difficult but rewarding to give it when I want to but not over give. I have also had to learn to be less insistent. When someone tells me that they don’t need my help, I believe them.”
“Lots of surgeries as a child and people told me what a good, brave girl I was instead of letting me feel my feelings. So I kept trying to be a good brave girl/woman. So much more. At 86, I’m still working on it and have learned to say no.”
“I got lucky early on by a teacher making a comment to me about my ‘resourcefulness ‘ in helping people and how I would probably always attract people with obvious needs but he warned me about the covert needy who become your friend to help you, but actually, they are tapping you for what they need. I was around 15 or maybe 17. I was super sensitive to projections but didn’t know their name until a college psychology class. By 20, I was aware of my tendencies in response to others, and dissecting most of my family relationships and close friends. That was interesting. Intervention, elephant pointer outters kinda shake things up. Mixed with my studies on death and dying and caregiver cycles in the early 80s definitely gave me a viewpoint to be always assessing myself as to why I do what I do, coming from what am I thinking and feeling, to being able to help others. Inside of Church dynamics, this stuff was wild. Think Family Systems theory gone wild! In more recent years, it was my own daughter who destabilized me and I had to relearn my acquired patterns through 30 years so I could actually be a help to her issues, which actually meant, don’t ‘try’ to help, solve, save. Tough but I am grateful for the meat grinder experience. It actually let me realize things that were amiss in my nonprofit, and explained some of the board members behaviors, especially when held accountable. Fascinating stuff. Thank you Edie Weinstein for BEing you and caring so much and sharing your story. HUGe hugs! Breathe, you made it! You have helped 1000s! May you be filled with the grace of peace and knowing that you are wHOLY wonderful as is.”
As are we all.
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