About a year ago I was living with a partner who wasn’t right for me. I knew it the whole time, yet I kept giving a “last” chance to the relationship because I believed we love each other, and if there’s love, anything can be fixed. We were traveling around Scotland, doing work exchange on eco-farms and permacultures, when I met a lovely woman in her 50s (let’s call her Lisa). She was doing a shamanic course nearby and frequently came over to volunteer on the farm. This friend was the only one to dare to point out what I knew but didn’t want to see (and everyone else knew it too but didn’t want to tell me)—that my relationship was hurting me more than it served me. She said our dynamic was of a typical codependent relationship, me being the chaser and the other running away, while he made it look like I was the one who didn’t let him live. He was feeding off of my codependency.
Even after this discussion with her, it took me months to finally step out of the relationship. But something started that day. Lisa took me to some meetings with her, where women of all age gathered, sat in circles, shared herbal infusions and homemade snacks and talked. They told stories of their lives and we all listened and when the time felt right, we offered insight if the person needed it. What struck me most about people’s stories was the fact that each person exhibited different characteristics of codependency and their dis-ease. (Note: I put a hyphen between “dis” and “ease” because codependency is not a clinical illness. Rather, it is a learned behavior with origins in early childhood and within the family itself.) It manifested so uniquely in each individual. So I understand that codependency is so much more than just being addicted to love.
What is codependency?
According to Psychology Today, codependency is “a dysfunctional relationship dynamic where one person assumes the role of ‘the giver,’ sacrificing their own needs and well-being for the sake of the other, ‘the taker.'” You might ask: why would any rational person subject themselves to this dynamic? It’s because of the need to seek validation from anything or anyone outside of ourselves. It’s a collection of self-defeating behaviors that make up how we respond and react to people in our relationships—and how we turn to controlling behavior to make ourselves feel safe. For example, an alcoholic person’s partner may keep the home tidy and well-run so that they maintain an appearance of normalcy. Another “giver” may continue to forgive a cheating partner because they feel their sacrifice is noble and “loving.” Still another “giver”—romantic, platonic, or familial—may bail out a “taker” from financial difficulties by giving them money.
Burdened with the need of approval, a codependent works harder to obtain love, respect, and acceptance they feel they need. A codependent over-works or over-gives in order to avoid the more destabilizing prospect of having to deal with difficult situations, people, or emotions—either in themselves or in others. Codependents do not feel as though they have any worth or relevance unless they are sacrificing parts of themselves for others, or even for a cause. Over time, this can take a direct toll on our mental, spiritual, and even our physical health.
Are you codependent?
I always identified as an independent woman who can handle anything on her own, so when I was called codependent, I felt offended. How could I be codependent when I have spent most of my life as a single independent person? I am not someone who couldn’t stand on her own feet without a man supporting her. Except I was. Whenever I was in a relationship, I became codependent.
I was completely unaware of the codependency that began in my childhood and wove its way through every facet of my being. I changed and adapted to the people around me, and to my partner to protect myself from the excruciating feelings of rejection and insecurity I suffered as a child. Any family system that discourages the expression of feelings and direct, honest communication can lead to codependency. Our emotional needs go unmet, and we feel ashamed of our traumatic emotional wounds, low self-esteem, and low self-worth. We retreat into ourselves—into our world of isolation, devoid of the meaningful connections we crave.
I understood that the independence and strength that was so important to me was rooted in feeling unsafe and alone as a child. From then on, I subconsciously began to craft a collection of self-defeating coping mechanisms—and I learned early on to develop controlling behaviors designed to make myself feel safe. Many of these traits and behaviors will sound familiar to you: people-pleasing, rescuing, fixing, poor boundary setting, self-abandonment, self-sabotage, poor communication skills, hyper-vigilance, perfectionism. We use them as we look outside ourselves to fill our empty voids.
How to recover from codependency?
If any of the above sounds like you, don’t beat yourself up about it (shaming encourages the cycle of self-hate). Just notice that this is happening. Simply witness the roller-coaster of feelings and inner dialogue rather than interacting with them (that encourages more of the same). The ideal way is to regulate our inner world, so we veer less to extremes and remain peaceful and at ease.
Codependency breeds from within because we internalize critical discipline growing up and use it on ourselves as punishment as adults. However, we don’t grow from abuse, which means we must work on releasing this internal tendency.
Practicing mindfulness and radical honesty and self-acceptance was what helped me the most. Take a look at how you treat yourself. Could you be more gentle and kind with yourself? For example, when you make a mistake, do you slam yourself with criticism afterward?
I noticed as I attempt to observe the conversations inside, I more often catch myself being rude to myself. Whenever I notice that I take a pause. Take a deep breath and state that this isn’t helping me. I look for constructive affirmations instead, like: “I can do this. It’s okay to try again. I believe in me. One step at a time, there’s no rush. Even Rome wasn’t built in a day.” At this point I even started to be happy if I made a mistake because I noticed I learned better and more quickly when my first attempt failed, than from doing something right at the first try.
Internal codependency resolves when we heal our abusive relationship with our own self. So too, does the wounded inner child find healing this way. I really believe that our relationship with ourselves sets the tone for every relationship we have with others. And for me, working on healing my inner connection resulted in more healthy relationships. Self-healing takes time and the building up of trust with our own self is a foundational step for a better, healthier, happier life.
Slowly but surely, I am also learning to stand in honor of and embody my truth, whatever that may be. I try to show up and be vulnerable. And the funny thing in this is, by doing this I reached to a greater level of freedom, strength, and independence but in a different way. This time, it all comes from courage and love, instead of fears. True, sometimes I still struggle, but healing is never a quick or linear process.
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Photo: Toa Heftiba via Unsplash