Everyone laughs when I tell them that I wrote Codependency for Dummies. But codependency is no laughing matter. It causes serious pain and affects the majority of Americans, both in and out of relationships. I know. I spent decades recovering.
There are all types of codependents, including caretakers, addicts, pleasers, and workaholics, to name a few. They all have one thing in common: They’ve lost the connection to their core. Their thoughts and behavior revolve around someone or something external, whether it’s a person or an addiction.
It’s as if they’re turned inside out. Instead of self-esteem, they have other esteem, based upon what others think and feel. Instead of meeting their own needs, they meet the needs of others, and instead of responding to their own thoughts and feelings, they react to those of others. Hence, they have to control others to feel okay, but that just makes matters worse. It’s a haywire system that leads to conflict and pain and makes emotional intimacy difficult. (Also see my blog about symptoms of codependency.)
Some people criticize the codependency movement and say that it’s created more loneliness. They argue that relationships are nurturing and that we’re naturally meant to be dependent. I couldn’t agree more, but the point is that codependent relationships are not only painful, but are sometimes destructive. Codependents have problems receiving the good stuff that relationships can potentially offer. Many choose partners who are unhealthy.
Codependency for Dummies explains the differences between codependent and healthy interdependent relationships, between healthy care-giving and codependent caretaking, and understanding the boundaries between responsibility for yourself and responsibility to others, something that eludes codependents.
Not all codependents are caretakers, but if you are, you have a hard time listening to other people’s problems without trying to help, sometimes even feeling responsible and guilty for their feelings. This creates high reactivity and arguments of blame and guilt. Couples blame each other for their own feelings and defend themselves when their partner shares his or her feelings.
Boundaries and Intimacy
What’s missing is a sense of separateness between them – called emotional boundaries – that your thoughts and feelings belong to you. “I’m not responsible for your feelings, and I didn’t make you feel them.” Weak boundaries make real intimacy difficult, if not impossible. For that to happen, you need to first have a sense of separate identify and feel safe enough to express your true feelings without feeling afraid of being criticized or rejected.
This is where the codependent core issue of low self-esteem comes in. When your sense of self is weak, you’re afraid of rejection and abandonment, but on the flip-side you fear losing yourself when you get attached in a relationship. You tend to give up your needs to accommodate your partner, sometimes letting go of outside friends and activities you used to enjoy. Even when your relationship isn’t working, you feel stuck or trapped. Contrary to common belief, many codependents aren’t even in relationships, because they’re afraid of losing their independence.
If you’re dating, you might have to dance a tightrope of pursuing partners, but never really commitment, or distancing yourself, but never really leaving. It’s a two-step that’s even done in marriages, but creates constant pain in the relationships, highlighted by fleeting moments of closeness – just enough to keep the dance going. Some couples give up on intimacy entirely.
Codependents have a dilemma. If you can’t say “No” without feeling guilty, you end up resentful from agreeing to things you rather not. Due to fears of rejection, you avoid taking positions at all costs – like a clever politician, you’re indirect and don’t want to say anything that might upset someone else. Additionally, due to guilt and low self-esteem, codependents are always explaining and justifying themselves.
Improving your communication by learning how to be assertive, how to set boundaries, and how to handle verbal abuse is a vital part of recovery.
Codependents spend their precious lives worrying about things and people over which they have no control. Healing from codependency starts with getting to know yourself better, honoring yourself, and expressing yourself. Here are some tips:
- Practice on saying “No.” Remember, “No” is a complete sentence.
- When someone tells you a problem, just listen. Say, “I understand. That’s a real problem.” Period!
- Identify your feelings throughout the day. Journal and share them.
- When you don’t feel great, ask yourself what you need. Try to meet that need, and reach out if necessary.
- Do things that make you happy. Don’t wait for someone else.
Building a relationship with yourself leaves you no time to worry about someone you can’t control. That’s how you heal codependency.
©Darlene Lancer, 2012