"To be beautiful means to be yourself. You don’t need to be accepted by others. You need to accept yourself." ~Thich Nhat Hanh
One of the things I discovered - or maybe rediscovered - about myself during my forty days of truth is that I'm codependent. The term was coined back in the days when clinicians and psychologists first realized that the families of alcoholics seemed to exhibit a set of behaviors that included a loss of identity, trying to control the alcoholic, taking on responsibility for his or her disease, and ignoring self-care. The behaviors were so common among the families of the alcoholics that codependency was finally recognized as a stand-alone medical condition. Codependency is widely seen in the general population, and though the families of alcoholics are at higher risk for developing this disorder, it is also prevalent in people who have never been associated or involved with the addicted.
The word itself is a little misleading. The codependent is not necessarily equally addicted to alcohol or other substances, though that can sometimes be true. The word "codependent" was developed to describe the way people often enabled their loved one's addiction by providing liquor or other substances, by covering for the alcoholic, and by generally making it easier for the alcoholic to keep drinking. Now we recognize that codependency is about much more than just enabling addiction. Codependency has been defined as the art of making the relationship you are in more important than you are. Codependency can affect any kind of relationship - romantic, parent/child, child/parent, siblings, even friendships. Codependents are caretakers; overly responsible folks who take on all the work of a relationship while allowing the other person to skate by on very little effort. We put up with egregious behaviors in the other person. We allow the other person to violate our boundaries again and again. We cover for the other person's addictions (if addictions exist) or we make excuses for their mistreatment of us. We do everything for the other person and almost never ask for anything. When we do ask for help and the other person doesn't help us, we accept it because we don't believe we deserve help. We usually suffer from low self-esteem and sometimes stay in detrimental or even abusive relationships because deep down, we believe we are not worth anything better. Codependents get lost in other peoples' needs. We forget who we are. We forget what we enjoy, what we want, what we've dreamed of doing with our lives. Instead, our lives become singly focused on the person we love - we think about and wrestle with the other person's problems to the exclusion of nearly everything else. We struggle with our loved-one's addictions, we cry, we pray, we research and read and put together action plans to help our addict recover, all the time ignoring the fact that we are dying from self-neglect.
I hate codependency. I recognize that I don't have the power to change the people I care about who suffer from addictions. I believe that recovery only begins when an addict realizes that he or she is responsible for changing detrimental behaviors and for getting help with the disease of alcoholism or addiction - or codependency! Yes, codependency works like an addiction - it is an addiction to a pattern of behaviors and reactions. I know that the only person I can change is me. But codependency whispers to me that if I just try harder, if I just give a little more, the other person will recognize exactly what they stand to lose if they don't change. Codependency is the devil on my shoulder that gouges me with its pitchfork and insists I can take the pain of living with someone who is addicted, that I am not worth better treatment and that my boundaries are meaningless. Codependency is also the angel on my other shoulder who insists that it is always right to put myself last and the other person first. It sings that song of self-denial, of selfless love, of complete and total self-depletion. It insists that I don't have needs or wants that matter. Never mind that I've taken on all the responsibility of making the relationship work; never mind that I give more time and effort; never mind that I've overlooked hurtful treatment, being ignored, and have had my boundaries trampled again and again until I believe I never had any rights. Never mind that I am completely lost.
Many years ago, my (then) husband told me I was codependent and I needed to stop trying to control him. Well, I never felt like I tried to control him, so I didn't understand what he meant. I never told him what to do and I never expected him to do everything I wanted. But looking back, I can see how I tried to manipulate situations so that he'd want to do what I wanted. It almost never worked. I spent a long time trying to get him to engage with me in our marriage; trying to get him to want the kind of life I wanted. I did most of the cooking, most of the cleaning, all of the laundry; I mowed the yard and worked in the garden. I made excuses when he wouldn't come to family gatherings. I glossed over the problems caused by his drinking. I even called in to work for him when he wanted a free day - which happened a lot in our early years together. I tried to want what he wanted me to and like what he liked until I could see that the harder I tried, the faster he was slipping away from me. The real problem was that neither of us wanted what the other wanted! But I couldn't see that. All I could see was that I had made a commitment and by God I was going to stay and we were going to work things out if it killed me. It nearly did; I lost myself so completely that I couldn't even remember what I had liked or wanted before that relationship. I began to understand during the last five years of my marriage what being codependent really meant, and I worked very hard to change my behaviors, but I never really understood the root of the problem. The behaviors were the symptoms, just like drinking is a symptom of alcoholism. I needed to heal the codependency and that takes a lot more than just stopping certain behaviors. When I got my divorce, I felt healthy - I felt that I had left codependency behind forever. Was I ever wrong!
What I didn't realize is how we tend to repeat our patterns. My codependency is deeply rooted in my past and is totally enmeshed with the low self-esteem that stems from the sexual assault I experienced as a young adolescent. We all have unfinished business - trying to make relationships work with emotionally unavailable men and/or men with addictions seems to be mine. I have a high tolerance for completely inappropriate behaviors from my partner. So here I am, looking backward and seeing how I lost myself in my last relationship and trying to figure out how I can keep this from ever happening again. Therapy, reading, recognizing the wrong behaviors at the outset, setting and sticking to my boundaries - all these things will help. In the end, it comes back to personal responsibility. The trick is to take responsibility for myself and for no one else. The other person's pain, anger, and confusion is his own. I did not drive his behaviors. I did not cause his problems. I can't solve them, as much as I wish I could, and I do wish I could.
Codependents are wonderful people, really. We love so much and so deeply that we are willing to give ourselves away. We are hardwired with the idea that loving someone means sacrificing ourselves for him or her. We give too much and we reserve nothing for ourselves. We only want to be loved and acknowledged as good. We hope the other person will give back to us the way we give to them, but they never do - probably because we tend to choose people who are emotionally or psychologically unreachable. Maybe our problem is that we've never been able to love ourselves as much as we love others. I wish there was a switch I could flip that would turn on self-love. I wish there was an easy formula that I could use to assure self-care. But like every other worthwhile undertaking, beating codependency is going to be hard work. Defeating codependency will mean admitting that I'm not perfect and I can't fix everything. Rebuilding my self-esteem and replacing external referencing with my own internal authority and the knowledge that I am good enough is going to be the key to my recovery. It will mean letting go of a lot of behaviors I've relied on and even letting go of people I love. Letting go isn't easy but it is necessary. At this point in my life, I need to make the same kind of commitment to myself that I've so easily and willingly made to the men I've loved - I will give to myself; I will take care of myself; I will honor my boundaries and not expect too much of myself. I will be kind. I will be caring. I will support all my endeavors and I believe in my ability to accomplish great things.
Recovery from codependency is a little like being in a relationship with yourself. You become the focus of your efforts, instead of giving everything away to someone else. This doesn't mean you stop caring for and about the people in your life. It just means you put as much work into caring for yourself. Jesus said that we should love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves, but few of us realize that this implies we must also love ourselves. Maybe Alan Cohen said it better than I ever can: "Wouldn't it be powerful if you fell in love with yourself so deeply that you would do just about anything if you knew it would make you happy? This is precisely how much life loves you and wants you to nurture yourself. The deeper you love yourself, the more the universe will affirm your worth. Then you can enjoy a lifelong love affair that brings you the richest fulfillment from inside out."