On codependency, and what it means to need someone else
If you prefer to listen here’s the podcast version of this post on iTunes and Soundcloud.
It’s really hard to stop yourself from helping someone out – again, giving them your time and energy, going above and beyond, diving into a new relationship head first – especially when chemicals take over. Because when that’s who you are – a giving and loving person – it can feel like you’re simply being true to yourself. When you have all the understanding of someone’s voids and struggles, you feel compassion. And besides, when you care about someone, you want to make them happy. It feels great! The flip side of this is you end up doing it all in your relationships: you’re the savior who comes to the rescue, shows up, gives and never gets, and others continue to disappoint you, on a loop. Like being surrounded by children. You end up feeling at the mercy of others – waiting for the love and care and simple thanks you deserve, and you can’t stop being there for them, helping them live better lives. You might feel crazy to be stuck in these relationships: is this person insane? How can they be so selfish? It’s in these moments that you can begin to feel trapped, unable to see any path toward something that will fix the situation. This is also when you end up in places you never would have thought possible – humiliated, desperate, accepting behavior you would counsel anyone not to tolerate.
That sense of powerlessness is what I want to give you some new perspective on – the reason you feel trapped is because the factors that created this situation are invisible. This pattern of relating to others is actually like a blind spot you have that has been blocking you from a whole lot of joy and comfort in your life. In this blog, I want to talk to you about how this blind spot occurs and more importantly, how you can begin to change it. Though it feels like you’re a victim, the pattern is actually originating from inside you and not those around you. In short: you hold all the power you need, right now. You just have to learn how to activate it. The pattern of codependency is the product of a very simple mis-wiring from childhood. It creates a lot more havoc because of how it blinds, leading to a lot of destructive and unhealthy behaviors and beliefs. So learning about the patterns of codependents brings a whole slew of other amazing gifts. It will teach you how to be properly self-protective – like others with different upbringings than you had. Because often codependents choose the wrong people – those who are not worthy of your love: it’s a perception filter you lack. Because you want love and the relief that it brings over anything else, it means you start every relationship off at a disadvantage. It’s uneven ground to build any kind of mutual bond from.
Part 1: The What
Does any of this sound like you?
“My parents are like teenagers and all they care about is each other– when I bring up my problems, they laugh at me and tell me it’s my fault – but my problems are really devastating. Is it so hard just to say, “I’m so sorry sweetie, things are going to be okay.”
“I can’t stop trying to fix the problem. It’s easy for me and besides – I like to help.”
“I find myself saying and doing everything I think my partner wants, just to make them happy. Because their happiness makes me happy. And I start ignoring my own needs, and I end up feeling disappointed.”
“He won’t stop using – he’s promised me again and again. I don’t know why I believe him each time but I can’t imagine leaving him. I just love him too much.”
“I know she’s lying to me – I can feel it. I know she won’t pick up the phone but I can’t think of anything else to do so I just keep calling and calling. I’m obsessed!”
“My parents expect me to come to them and do what they want to do but it’s MY BIRTHDAY! Why are they the ones getting upset?”
Codependency is the way we learn to relate to one another. It’s the way we learn to love. It’s how we get to know who we are – our strengths our weaknesses. It’s also how we choose mates. And because it’s an emotional framework, the patterns it creates are invisible. When you’re in it – it just feels like you are expressing love and genuine care for others. Trying hard to be your best, for others. It’s hard to see where you’re heading, but the road always leads to getting the short end of the stick. It also leads to a feeling that you “have” to do what others want, that you have no other choice or everything will fall apart. The weight of the world is on your shoulders.
The text book definition is:
- excessive emotional or psychological reliance on a partner, typically a partner who requires support due to an illness or addiction.
But that doesn’t really begin to touch on what the real meaning encompasses. If you’re not into people with illnesses or addictions, I will say that most commonly codependents just go for other codependents. The behavior patterns of codependents are the same as addicts or alcoholics. The term was coined and popularized by Melody Beattie and a handful of her contemporaries. I LOVE Melody Beattie – her books are LIFE CHANGING. Though, the covers of these books are so depressing it will make you want to hide in a cave with a candle, to read one. It’s basically like carrying a maxi pad around with you. Nonetheless – I suggest you purchase at the very least, “Codependent No More” – I will put the links to my recommended reading list at the end of this blog.
What codependency translates to – in your life – meaning, how you experience it, is a default tendency to focus on the feelings, wants, thoughts and opinions of others, much more than yourself. And to be powerfully tuned in to what others feel – over what you feel, so much so that you become steered by other people: your life’s happiness is based around what other people in your life think and feel. Additionally, relationships feel like the only source of solace and joy: because it’s like a soothing need, the level of attachment feels similar to an obsession or addiction. Even if it’s incredibly toxic, you can’t imagine breaking away – being in it is tolerable compared to the thought of being alone. You also can’t imagine abandoning another person – the guilt would be too intense. And in general, you fight with those close to you: you try to help them, they disappoint you, you get upset, repeat.
Part 2: The Why
If you’re at the beginning of your self-work, the following might sound possible but very unlikely. So know that ahead of time and push yourself to stay open. I had the same doubts. When someone suggested this reasoning to me I was like, “Nah, that’s not me, though. I am much more aware of what’s going on inside me.” So for the sake of getting the most out of this, try to remain in a constant state of “probably, and I just can’t see it.”
If you’re the hyper functional one in your relationships, you are focus-dependent on others who are vice-dependent. You also might be a blend of both– focusing on someone else’s problems and also soothing pain with vices. If you have vices that keep your focus partially occupied, you also likely feel like “damaged goods.” Whether you’re focus-dependent or vice-dependent, it’s a soothing mechanism – a method of empowerment you grew in childhood. Usually people with one or both are attracted to others who compliment their particular soothing style, like finding a perfect puzzle-piece for your particular voids. The other person is like the negative inverse of the role you grew up with – in other words, it feels comfortable and familiar. In the relationship that attracts you, you’re in a role that reminds you of how you coped with pain during childhood. More of those specifics shortly.
Focus-dependency ties to a need to control another person’s behavior and how they feel – whether or not they are happy and give you love and affection you desperately crave to feel whole. It’s a method for controlling the source of your own pain: I can get soothing from this other person if I just try hard enough. That can mean forcing the other person to give you care and love with manipulation, or forcing your help on another person who has said they cannot and will not change as a way of making them reliant on you. Think of the relationship like a soothing spigot: your methods are ways of trying to turn the faucet on. Why do you choose a project to work on vs a healthy partner? Because that is a reliable source of focus-soothing that will last you a lifetime! It means you can control the source – like cold water on a burn that’s deep within. It’s all very subterranean – you likely have no connection to the fact that this is a deep need operating inside you, because these dynamics are so old that they’re hidden from view. Having a project keeps you distracted from yourself and all the intense longing and emptiness inside, and with that – the pain has a name. Not to mention – temporary relief.
When I say you choose “projects” I mean a number of distractions: a project can also be a vice. For example – eating disorders are projects because they keep your attention occupied. It’s the label that goes on the dark pain and anxiety. Same goes for choosing unavailable people: it’s safe in that it creates a controllable external source for the inner pain. Therefore – we know where we are. The painful feelings inside make sense and they become much more manageable. For more about why pain is more manageable when it’s in your control, read up on lab rats and PTSD.
As a focus-dependent person, the reason you can’t see what you’re really doing or where it comes from is because of denial. Our brains protect us from what is too much to handle – especially when we’re young and helpless, so now your managing tactics have been scarred over and obscured by many years of experience – like a habit of not seeing. So if this doesn’t sound like you – that’s likely because it has become part of your identity. To question it is to threaten the one thing that is making you feel safe, so you will want to push this away as will anyone you’re in an unhealthy relationship with. The other person you’re focused on will likely shoot down all of this learning and receive it as an attack. That’s because all codependency is a mutual soothing tactic and it doesn’t work without the other person playing the opposite role.
Here’s the catch: you originally grew this habit because you were empowering yourself in the face of overwhelming pain and anxiety. Now it’s what’s preventing you from experiencing a healthy, rewarding relationship. If you believe you are this type of soother, it’s very likely because of a parent/caregiver or an unstable situation that made you feel powerless as a child.
If you are a vice-dependent person, you are using a substance or a disorder as a way to keep yourself safe in the pain that exists deep inside you. Usually that pain is of low-self-worth or trauma, or both. How the vice comes about is pretty logical: it’s the easiest solution at a given time, one that makes you feel temporarily more in control of the pain. Whether that’s a drug, sex, cutting, binging, withholding food, or focusing on fixing someone else.
Both forms of soothing come about (roughly) like this:
- You have a parent who is a child – for all intensive purposes – and not a parent, who is there for you and all about your needs.
What I mean by not a parent, is someone who is either incapable of unconditional love because of addiction, abuse or depression, or someone emotionally stunted: unable to let go of their unmet needs from childhood. This is usually because they were too young – or just emotionally young – when you came into their life. Thus, they are unprepared to give unconditionally to you – their tank is empty and they’re needy as hell.
- Often, young parents are not yet emotionally grown and whole, enough to give the needed amount of love to a child. There are certain needs that need to be met for them to be capable of loving unconditionally – which is what babies need: unconditional love. By emotionally young I mean people who had parents who were incapable of parenting – therefore they didn’t get their needs met and they are STILL asking for them – but this time, from you, their child. So if their parent was cold or they lost them when they were young, they might still be craving validation and worthiness, similar to a child – using manipulation tactics to force you to love them, even though you are a child. It’s unconscious though – for example, a parent might say, “FINE! Go ahead and make a mess – you have destroyed your mother’s heart!” These are childlike tactics built by a lack of coping skills.
As an adult with a healthy upbringing and healthy attachment to a caregiver, you reach a point of maturity when you know you’re loved and good enough: you feel whole unto yourself. You feel confident to give of yourself because you know your own worth. Therefore, as a parent, you can self-sacrifice – you’ve got love to give. If you don’t have that, emotionally you’re a child who still feels unsure and is crying out repeatedly for more love – needing to feel whole. “It’s not fair! I need love!” So this inner child, will still cry – even as a parent. They might continue to do things they’re not supposed to – like manipulating their kids to feel bad for them. It’s a generational loop that repeats because unmet needs beget unmet needs– parents didn’t get enough love, then they ask their kids for it. Unconsciously they are competing with you for love from whoever will give it to them.
- Emotionally stunted parents do not possess the right tools for coping with adult challenges. Because many of them were not given things like compassion and non-judgment, they create another layer of damage in their children. For example, if you go to an emotionally stunted parent for help, they will tell you in their own words that you cannot express yourself to them. They literally cannot except or tolerate subjects that they did not gain the skills to manage, so they tell you, the child, “What’s wrong with you?! Stop that!” AKA I can’t go there – you will find no support if you say something like that to me again, and you will be punished for feeling this way. Parents like this might also tell kids in need of support that they are sick, wrong, dirty, irrational, asking too much, or not worth loving because they feel something their parent cannot understand. This is one of the most damaging effects of an incapable parent, because as the child who is suffering, you don’t get help for real and painful issues. Instead you internalize them and they get fester and build shame. When we deny parts of ourselves that we believe to be unacceptable – we create a deep, painful self-loathing.
This language can be subtle – for example, when you’re upset, you might have a parent who says, “What?! What’s wrong, now!? I just can’t do it – I can’t deal anymore!” All of this is code for, “You’re not allowed to have feelings that I can’t handle! Don’t tell me because I’ll break down!” Which translates to mean, “Keep your problems to yourself. You’re on your own.”
- This is one of the most painful, damaging things a child can experience. Feeling alone in their pain and aware they cannot ask for help because their parent is incapable. Feeling helpless and deliberately unseen by those who are supposed to care for them. This is why codependents adopt denial as a coping mechanism – because this is the kind of pain that is too much to manage, sober. This is GRIEF and it’s too dark, too scary. So instead – we create stories that allow us to function. To survive, we look away – at something else. Anything else or anyone else, to help us feel a bit of relief.
- Young couples have an additional set of issues that are created by the actual codependency of their relationship. Like teenagers, they will be obsessed by each other and what the other one is or is not doing – sound familiar? Codependency is an addiction of focus that alleviates unbearable pain, inside. So this addiction is lumped on top of an empty love tank: they’re begging one another to make them feel whole. Codependent couples wage battles of unmet childhood needs, “Love me! I need love!” which leaves, you, the child, suffering and invisible. All that exists is the codependent relationship playing out on an angry, desperate, immature loop. It’s their number one focus because it’s their live-giving drug. If they weren’t so trapped in need, they’d be able to focus on someone else. Just like a child, life is all about them.
For those who didn’t get enough love, relationships breed narcissism. It’s all creating the same outcome: a soothing for the inner longing. Because they’re focused on the spigot full of love, they cannot stop engaging in the loop – even if you’re suffering or even dying before their eyes. That’s how powerful the focus is: all they can see is the source of their pain relief, like a baby with tunnel vision toward a bottle. For example, let’s say one parent is the caregiver and one is the ‘never satisfied royal.’ This loop will keep both soothing in an unhealthy loop – it feels right, they’re used to chasing the other object with the sticker called “happiness” but they never catch it so they always feel desperate and unhappy, yet they chase harder. But for you, the child – you’re invisible, your needs are unmet, you feel unwanted and desperate. You will feel – by default – not lovable, as you are, so you change your behavior so that you might be seen. This is an act of empowerment in the face of possible death.
WHAT THIS KIND OF PARENTING CREATES IN YOU, THE CHILD:
- All of this lack of attention and support is experienced as, “Why don’t you love me? I need love, and you don’t care about me.” It’s terrifying and overwhelmingly painful to feel this way – because this is your life-giver and you are still reliant on them for survival. This is also one of the most painful and damaging things a child can experience.
THIS IS HOW YOUR COPING MECHANISM WAS BUILT. This is what CREATES the need in a child, to EARN their visibility – by any means possible. This is how we develop the archetypal traits of codependency:
- Reading people’s moods, anticipating their thoughts, rationalizing and making sense of their behavior: searching for any information possible to help yourself.
- Sculpting your behavior to others’ – making sure you take care of them, so that you can receive any kind of love from them in return. For example, becoming a parent’s bestie and acting “adult.” Or becoming their care-giver. Or acting as a bad kid so someone will give you attention.
These two traits are KEY to everything that you honed for survival – that are now blocking you from forming healthy and mutually beneficial relationships, now. Why? When a kid’s survival is threatened – they will RATIONALIZE why their parent is not loving them and taking care of them by one of several means. This is a survival tactic.
- You choose to revolt against the system: you seek parenting from an outside source and you refuse to participate in the family structure. You know your family is crazy and you’re not buying any of it. But the pain still hurts and you feel empty inside.
- You take it on as a character trait you possess: I am just a great caregiver! That’s why I am taking care of my parent. The other half of this perspective, however, is an intense intolerance for any weakness in yourself: I am perfect and cannot let go of control. AKA I can fix it all! If I can’t, everyone will fall apart! This also is what leads to eating disorders.
- You take it as a sign you are bad and unlovable: I’m the black sheep – just a screw up – I lie and cheat and I can’t do anything right. You internalize the lack of love as self. This leads to self-destructive habits like using your body, cruelty toward others and drug use.
- I’m a baby! I can’t do anything. In other words, you infantilize yourself as a way to procure love. This includes not leaving home and instead transitioning into a relationship where someone will replace your parents.
These are just a few examples, but think about your own experience – you might have lived out years of a story that wasn’t really yours. For example, I was a bad kid and a perfect kid – both of those stories were things I adopted to empower myself in the face of painful circumstances and they were both acted out in many damaging ways. To be seen, we will often play act – the role you choose depends on how you identify yourself as a person. So if you are emotionally vulnerable or the second born, you might become the baby. Whereas, the first born will likely become the savior. *More about the roles and what they mean is in this post, Toxic Love about how we choose roles based on childhood.
How these issues play out in an adult relationship:
- You meet someone available, you focus on how much they like you and how much they are willing to give you affection: your core need is someone who will give you love, which drives everything. You see in them a good project, you decide you can change them or at the very least, tolerate them no matter how bad they get, because – you can do anything after all. Truly, this is just rationalization because just having a person like you is enough – it feels soooo good and it soothes the overwhelming pain of loneliness. You might woo them by giving them your best, or they might attach to you because they see that they can take advantage. The soothing loop begins.
As things progress, you read them and anticipate their needs then you wait for them to read you back, but they do not. You give even more of yourself, enabling them more, which degrades them more – which gives you more control and clingy adoration – which soothes your fear of being alone. The attachment grows stronger with the unhealthy loop.
As more time passes, you grow resentful because your needs are not being met and you’re working so hard to care for the broken bird. You feel trapped by the bond because you’re reliant, yet it’s degrading and unrewarding. You’re in an unbalanced relationship with someone undeserving, yet you feel at the mercy of this other person. They don’t change their problems, you beg and plead, and continue to fix them. Your life is no longer yours – it’s someone else’s and it’s a mess. You feel desperate and reduced to powerlessness. You ask yourself – how can I change this? You see no tools. It’s all on them.
How did this start? Because you were focused on their feelings: do they like you. Will they love you. When you should have been focused on your feelings: do I like them. Are they worthy of my love. Can they reciprocate it. And that is because as codependents, you believe what you want is wrong. You have grown up mistrusting your feelings and also believing your needs are unimportant and must be negated for those of others. Additionally, you had to suppress your own feelings because they were too painful and overwhelming to manage – so there’s a good chance you have no idea what you think or feel, nowadays. Your body is currently too full of pain, anxiety, feelings of low self-worth, and longing, so you abandoned your thoughts and opinions and focused on changing those of others. This was your way of empowering yourself during childhood: I’ll look at what’s in my control. I’ll turn on the spiggot. But today, it’s making you ignore the most important and relevant information in every situation: is this good for me, does this feel right, does this align with my own best interests.
When you’re used to not feeling your needs, you have a tendency to choose people who are not good for you – like drug addicts and people with behaviors that don’t align with your values. And when you’re looking for anyone who will love you, you’re not choosing others for the good parts – you’ll take pretty much anyone and that makes you an easy target. People who need caregivers are motivated by a fear of falling apart, so they’ll attach to you as hard as possible – which to you, feels intoxicating and like a relief. Just like you, they’re so locked on to getting what they want, they’ll take ANYONE who will give what they never got from their parents. You aren’t able to sense how much this relationship really betrays your values and wants: you’re not sensing your own boundaries, although they are there, buried deep within. So you’re acting against yourself, unconsciously. Hence, you might eventually be baffled by your own behavior as though it’s a separate self.
If you are going into a relationship because you feel like you need someone else to be fulfilled, you will always be settling – no matter who you choose. Regardless of which codependent roles you play, to rely on someone else for happiness, feels terrible. It makes you do desperate things that betray who you are – it makes you controlling and manipulative. It makes you use dirty tactics to keep others attached. It makes you accept behavior that hurts you. Codependency is a sickness that makes you unhappy and weak and it makes others unhappy and weak, on the receiving end. Why? Because dependent people feel like assholes – when you think you are going to get gratitude from the person you’re helping, you’re actually going to get resent and secret loathing. By enabling them, you’re keeping them weak and creating more of what they hate in themselves. Making people increasingly dependent on you makes them hate who they are and hate you for loving them. It drives people away and keeps them sick in dysfunction.
Dependency on someone else is not love – it’s need. It feels dire and desperate. Love is strengthening – it makes you feel confident and self-assured. It makes you feel better about yourself, not weaker. Happiness comes from being whole, unto yourself, without needing anyone else. If you’re looking to a relationship to make you feel whole, this is a fatal flaw in your thinking – this will never make you feel whole. Only chasing and soothing on a loop. You’re looking in the wrong place. But the pain is what drives this loop – I know! So let’s focus on that element. How to feel okay and solid in yourself. That’s a mighty and wonderful goal.
I know this is heavy! But the good news in all of this is, you are seeking out help and understanding, right now by reading this. Because of how deep this dynamic goes, I recommend you take this a step further and go to therapy. It’s the best way to nip this in the bud. If you’re not able to go to therapy because of the quality of care in your area, start by reading a shit ton of books and ask the universe for a wise friend who has gotten over similar issues. These patterns run deep and they’re hard to lose unless you know what to target – so it’s extremely helpful to work with help from a guide.
This healing/self-work process is all about becoming whole from the outside in. By that I mean, we’re going to start with the actions of a healthy, self-loving person and with simple enacting of these processes – the internal changes will follow. (Fake it ‘til you make it!) And with that – I want to give you some specific steps to take toward this goal.
Part 3: The How
I wanted to start this section by saying that you do have control and power in whatever situation you’re currently in. You’re just not using it now because you can’t see your own power. That’s what I want to help you begin to own: what you can do with your own body and self in every situation, regardless of what anyone else does. You can change everything in your life just by changing yourself.
REFLECTION EXERCISE: My Coping Style
Before we get to the tools, I invite you to do a reflection exercise is your journal. Think on your parents and upbringing and ask yourself, what was the coping mechanism you took on in the face of the type of absent parenting you experienced? What was the behavior you were faced with? How did that affect you? How did you empower yourself in the face of that, based on what you’ve read thus far? The tendency will be to downplay your own experience. Try hard not to do that. Write it like someone else was writing it. Know that the current patterns are something you can undo; they served you at one point, but now you are going to work to let them go. Remind yourself that this is your goal: to become emotionally healthy. Write this goal in your own words, to yourself in your journal. Decide it for yourself. Set your sights on that target and don’t give up on it. Okay here we go – some tools!
Tool 1: The Love Bank, “Get PAAAYD!”
Receiving care equally from others likely feels REALLY uncomfortable. Think about the last time you were sick and someone took care of you – did you feel really bad allowing them to do everything for you? Or think about someone doing things JUST to make you happy, even though they don’t like that thing, themselves – does that feel awkward to you? If not, good for you – that’s a sign of emotional health. If so, that’s because receiving is an issue for codependents: they’re not used to it and therefore, it feels icky. This issue is also a cultural thing – for example, British and Asian cultures are often reserved and not overt with affection, especially physical affection. Regardless of where it came from in your life, it has made you incapable of receiving equally from others. So this tool is kind of like a muscular workout for you!
Think of yourself as having a love bank – it’s like a piggy bank, but it’s shaped like a heart. You have to keep it full by giving and then receiving equally from others. Because that’s not natural to you, you’ve got to train yourself to ask for and cash any incoming checks. That means, when others try to do things for you, you have accept them and be grateful. Imbue this with value that you will grow to feel and enjoy. This act of “receiving” is like a paycheck you are putting in your bank, one that makes others feel more valuable because you allow them to do them. Don’t dismiss the acts value, accept and welcome these acts – honor them and the meaning of their gesture. Additionally, if you’ve given a lot of yourself to a person without repayment, you’ve got to STOP giving to them. Because this is going to ruin you, financially.
Right now – because of your background – you are constantly depleting your tank until you feel empty. Your receiving department isn’t being used – and you’re not cashing any checks! Instead of looking for ways to give or help others, I want you to ask things of others. Let them give you their gifts. Begin to practice accepting gifts graciously – this will be like learning a new culture and it won’t be very relaxing. Trust me, it gets easier and eventually, it will come naturally– but you’re going to have to “act as if” as a start. This is not about controlling the gifts others choose to give or deciding their gestures are not good enough– it’s about learning to graciously accept and acknowledge the meaning behind an act of love. It’s an art. Currently you’re fixated on OUTPUT: What do they want? How are they feeling? How can I help? I can make it better if they just listened to me!
If this is confusing, here’s some shorthand: you deserve, from others, what you do for them. I want you to assume the receiving position – especially when it comes to new relationships. You are not a fixer– you are a treasure. You don’t have to DO anything to be loved. You are of the same value whether you lift a finger or not. Your value is unchangeable. Take off the tool belt.
Tool 2: REGULATORS vs. ME-OFFICERS
This is a silly visual metaphor but here goes: you are a cop on the beat in the city of Me. Meaning, your jurisdiction is not someone else’s city – you have no authority, you are not there to protect and serve, you are crossing a boundary and they don’t abide by your laws in other territories. When you try to patrol other people’s cities – you’re like a regulator – you’re unwanted and you’re going against the code “To protect and serve” by trying to regulate the lives of others. (Deep exhale.) Yeah that was a long one. The point of this one is, everyone’s responsible for their own destructive behaviors. Whatever’s going on in someone else’s life is not for you to solve. This is a tool to help you begin to practice exercising a lack of control over the lives of others. Embrace your job – which is to protect and serve YOU. Let the people around you make a mess! Let them destroy everything again and again! It’s not your job. If you stop obsessing about whether or not they’re messing up, your life becomes more manageable and therefore, happier. Not to mention, being forced to confront the work you’ve got to do is the best way to start change. If you intervene all it does is enable the bad behavior. You are a cop in the city of me, not a regulator.
Tool 3: Let’s Build an Internal Veggie Bed!
Aka, let’s start building some healthy boundaries. This is another visual metaphor for a new practice I want you to take on for building new boundaries – one new one, each week. Think of yourself like a rich and beautiful garden that’s unable to thrive because you’re not keeping out the weeds. They’re growing all over you! To fix this, you need to build some wooden retaining walls – boundaries – to give yourself the space and healthy soil to grow.
This is a once a week assignment you will do in your journal. So much of being a codependent is about being a martyr and not having healthy boundaries. “Doing it yourself” even though you shouldn’t have to, allowing people to ask anything of you, feeling obligated to help, tolerating rude and selfish people and giving them what they want. If you relate to this, it’s because you do not have healthy boundaries. A big major fat heads up: when you enact this process of retraining yourself, it will NOT FEEL LIKE YOU. It will feel foreign and unlike you. But you’ve got to act as if and make YOU important in your own eyes. Slowly it will become synonymous with who you are.
How do you build a new boundary? Choose one thing that makes you annoyed – that tests your tolerance. Or one thing you do for others that makes you wish you could be treated the same way. Or one thing that takes the focus off you and your feelings, and puts it on someone else.
A few examples:
- You always do what a friend decides when you’re out and having fun. Whether or not your friend meets a date decides if you go home early or not, no matter how you feel.
- You constantly surprise your significant other with gifts that are perfect for them, you plan everything around them, and they don’t even return your calls promptly.
- When your friend is mad at you – even if you can’t tell why or you know it’s for an irrational reason, you will do anything you can to make them like you again.
So a part of this exercise is to start enforcing a new boundary each week. If you are setting a boundary around something like reciprocation – you want to be reciprocated for the efforts you put in, you must enforce this by NOT coming to a person’s rescue the next time they fall apart. Take care of you, first. Your needs should always come first. If you are working on feeling controlled by others – your new boundary will be to not respond to manipulation tactics. You might write in your journal your new boundary is: If someone is not respectful of me and my time, they are not allowed to have access to me. What does that mean when it comes to enforcing the boundary? Don’t call the person back. Do not engage. Do not respond to their pokes and threats. If they are not being respectful and loving, they are not allowed to be in your life. You set the terms by whether or not you give another person your time and attention. Turn the spigot off.
This is tough! It can take a few tries before you’re ready to commit, just because it’s new and scary. If you fail the first time at setting a boundary, try again – it just means it wasn’t fully baked yet, inside you. You weren’t angry enough, yet. You’ll get there it– will just take a bit more time to really see and “know” the truth of your situation.
Tool 4: Remember to Let Go
This is one of my favorite tools ever!!!! It’s a little mantra/meditation to use in moments when you recognize yourself getting attached to a future outcome before it’s happened. You can embrace the unknowing and your lack of control by accepting all outcomes, ahead of time. A way to remember it is imagine you’re holding onto a rope attached to a bull and that bull is at the gate of a cage. Before they open the cage door, remember to let go of that rope. Let go of your attachment to the thing altogether and welcome anything that might happen. Quite literally go through a mental visualization where you play out the future outcomes happening – and plan out that you will be okay with it. Even if you want one outcome over another, mentally practice being okay with both good and bad outcomes. Tell yourself what you need to hear if things go the way you don’t want them to – for example, if you’re waiting on hearing back about a job interview: “I will be fine no matter what. If they don’t want me, that’s because this job isn’t meant for me.”
If you go through this exercise before something big is about to happen, you will find that you are mentally way more okay with what happens, regardless of the outcome being good or bad. Because you expected it – you are prepared and because of that, it’s way more doable. Welcome the fact that what is meant to be, will be. When you fixate on an eventual outcome – this is truly what sets you up for hurt. It’s less the actual outcome, more the expectation. We lump on soooo much pressure that creates how “major” the shock becomes. Additionally, when you fixate on what’s out of your control, you lose access to your real power in any situation. You cannot see what is in your control, only what you’re upset about. Surrender to the moment, accept all outcomes and then you will be able to say, “I need to be with friends who remind me of my best self.” This practice will just give you the safety buffer before anything happens – the outcomes will be the same but this keeps you safe in how you emotionally react to it.
Tool 5: Date Yo Self!
This is a tool that I want you to do from this point forth, forever and ever. Part of codependency is believing what you want is wrong or too much. It comes from ignoring and negating your own needs growing up, but now it’s blocking you from placing value in yourself. Not being focused on your needs is a habit that creates a perception, but it can and will be retrained.
The easiest way to act-as-if is to pretend you are dating yourself and you are really into you. Treat yourself like you’re trying to impress you in as many ways as possible. So imagine it right now: how would you treat someone you wanted to impress? Smile when you see yourself in the mirror. Be kind and sweet to yourself. Make sure your room is nice and tidy for yourself. If you’re cold, get yourself a jacket. Prepare yourself a nice dinner that takes time and light a candle. Rent a movie and give yourself a nice foot massage. Beyond the pampering, I want you to listen intently to your needs. Since you have been cut off from your own needs, it’s going to be a very acute listening process. Am I stressed? Do I need to get to a gym class? Even if your brain is obsessed by thoughts of someone else, I want you to go through the motions of caring for yourself. Do whatever you can to support yourself with a distraction.
To be emotionally healthy, you should treat yourself like you’re perfect and worthy, exactly as you are – everything you want in your life, is valid. That is the truth. If no one has ever told you that before, I am telling you that right now. You deserve to be loved and coveted, no matter what you do for others or what you give to others. Your value exists at priceless, permanently. You don’t have to change A THING about yourself or DO ANYTHING FOR ANYONE in order to earn kind and loving treatment. It isn’t about what you do or don’t do and it has nothing to do with what you have or how you look.
Tool 6: Put Your Shoes On!
Imagine me rapping this: “If you’re runnin’ ‘round in pain, stop n’ put your shoes on!” Or don’t, but it’s funny, trust me. This is a visualization tool to remind you in the moments of powerlessness, when you’re running in circles, the only thing you need to do is take a step to empower yourself. Big or small, just do anything you can think of that will get you closer to grounded and rational. When you are calm and emotionally sober, you can navigate the hurdles vs when you’re freaking out and panicking, you break things and start fires.
If it’s taking a break from the issue and calming your chemicals, or calling a close friend, or eating some food, your first step is simply to get more grounded – don’t skip to the future or fixate on the past. Don’t further engage the issue, get closer to the most capable, balanced You that you can. Everything you need to know is already inside of you – how you handle yourself doesn’t require anything from anyone else. Step back and empower yourself to be calm. Soothe yourself so you can let go of what others think and simply try to define how it is you truly feel. Fear will cloud your judgment – it will make you feel like you need to fix something or everything will hurt too much. “Put your shoes on” means take a step in a direction that will protect you and support you. Head to a meeting, call a wise friend, go to a yoga class – return to your journal and write what you know to be true. Empower yourself in as many ways as you possibly can. Your power lies in how you care for your own body and in getting grounded in the truth of that self.
Your job is to stay aware of what’s happening and how you feel, separate from anyone else. If you’ve been manipulated over and over again for a very long time, it’s likely created a false reality and the outcome is not trusting yourself. If this is the case for you, you need to get back in touch with how you really feel based on REALITY. So your first step will be create enough distance and room for yourself, so that this awareness is possible.
Tool 7: Unlock Obsession
Obsession is painful and degrading because of how helpless you feel in the moment. So the next time you are in a state of obsessing – remind yourself that there’s a magic key to unlock it. Obsession is a symptom of something else – deeper, related to you. It’s not about what it’s about. It’s happening because it’s telling you something about yourself: it’s resistance to a truth. Obsession is often our way of not arriving at acceptance – the habit is self protective – a way of hiding from truth.
Often it’s an automatic reaction to something that isn’t acceptable to us. Obsession is a natural part of grief – it’s part of the path to healing. But outside of grief, it’s a roundabout way of dealing with feelings. Like covering your eyes and singing loud so you can’t hear what’s being told to you. So to unlock this obsession, the key is to look beneath the surface and examine what it is that’s unacceptable to us. What is the feeling that threatens our feeling okay? We can directly deal with the fear by confronting the feeling beneath it and choosing to know it, process it, and then release it. It also helps to name it – “I am afraid to be sad. I am afraid to be alone.” Once you can see the truth that the obsession is shielding you from a feeling that is already inside you, you can help yourself and soothe.
If you cannot stop your obsession even though you have become aware of the pain, I also recco scheduling your obsession to take place solely within a certain window of time in the following day. It must be scheduled so it doesn’t take over your life.
Before I wrap up the tools, here’s something to look out for in the future: Codependency is thought of by many as a first stage to grief– the stage following is anger. So you might find as you move through your particular baggage that you feel an intense rage and anger. Don’t worry, it’s intense but it’s a sign of healing – it happens when you’re safe enough and strong enough to look at whatever you were not capable of seeing before. Keep going and keep investing in your health.
One more thing I recommend is the personal priorities pond episode – this will help you grow stronger for the healing process. It can be hard to feel like your own person when you are strongly addicted to another person. I also suggest you go to a help group that’s specific for family members of alcoholics – why? Because this type of dynamic is PERFECTLY aligned with children of alcoholics. Same patterns manifest.
In closing …
I want to say Thank you to all my awesome new sponsors!! Justine, Ariela, Ty, and Johnathan and Hollie! You are amazing!! I heart you.
A large part of codependent behavior is actually grieving for what you never got during childhood. It’s like being stuck in a desperate clinging position. Like a reaction to feeling like you’re losing what is out of your control. Most of the time what you see and feel is an extreme reaction – because the nature of codependency is control. When something isn’t in your control, it feels overwhelmingly painful and threatening. So more than anything, moving forward I want you to tell yourself to just soften. Release the need to clench and solve. Let go and remind yourself that everything is much more okay that you perceive it to be. Your job is not to control everything and make it better. It’s just to take care of you, and enjoy this day as best you can.
This is not about not needing anyone or never being needed by a loved one – we need human connection and we thrive with relationships! Feeling like a vital part of another person’s life is a great thing! But it doesn’t mean you can’t be happy, alone. The goal is balance: so you are safe and autonomous and strong, not being dependent on the love of others. You can be proud of who you are and grow that self as an individual and rely on others to be strong when you need them, too.
Much of this process will be about nurturing yourself and not judging yourself. Know that you are strong enough now to support yourself through the learning process. It will be a mental excavation that will bring up some overwhelming stuff, but it leads to lightness and love. You are capable of growing to know real and equal love. It starts by saying you want it – that it’s your goal, and then committing to that process. Don’t turn back – don’t say you don’t want it. It can and will be yours – but it starts with acknowledging you are this way, understanding how it happened, and choosing to train in your new, healthier habits. I know that’s true for a fact – I did it myself! And it’s soooo worth it. At the beginning, this process will feel like you’re trust-falling backwards. But if you practice the actions of a healthy persona, the rest will follow. Don’t give up! With that, I wish you luck and love and all the happiness that is meant for your future. This is a great gift in disguise. Be brave and smile.
Essential reading list: