What does it mean to be codependent? Unless you are codependent, you really cannot imagine what it is like. It is a connection problem that links us to our primary caregivers and the way we connected (or more likely, didn‘t connect) with them. The very aspects of life that some take for granted are seen as threatening and out of reach for a codependent. The idea of independence of thought and behaviour is an alien concept that brings a level of fear that is somewhat unmanageable. Codependents see life as “we” rather than “I” and for many, “I” doesn‘t exist.
Childhood is a time for learning. Learning our limits, learning about the world and our place in it, learning about relationships. Where do we get this information? From the people that brought us into the world, our parents. The trouble is that most people who have a child (the easy part) cannot parent, mainly because, they are imperfect (as all of us are) and they were also parented by imperfect people. Parenting is an imperfect process driven by imperfect people. Of course, it doesn’t need to be perfect, that would bring its own issues, but it needs to be “ok”. This means that aware parents who accept they will make mistakes will learn and adapt parenting styles as a child develops. It means understanding how a child develops and how developmental stages work. As we grow from child to adult, we tend to adopt the same attitude with ourselves that our parents did. This can be positive or negative.
I am convinced that codependents come into adulthood seeking the basic connection with others that they failed to find with their parents. In a process of compulsion repetition, they engage in relationships with people similar to their caregivers, trying to solve the original problem. In the specific case of codependency, this means controlling the environment and the people in it to gain reassurance and emotional security, mirroring childhood. As we know, this means sacrifice, martyrdom, victimhood and the main principles of the drama triangle, fixing, anger and self loathing. Codependents feel they need to be in a relationship to feel secure and once they are, will do all they can to stay in it.
Our logical mind often tells us that we need to make changes in our lives. This is often overwhelmed by the emotional part of our thinking that holds fear, shame and reminds us how difficult change might be. This protective thinking is the main reason we become stuck when deciding what to do. It protects us from our primary fears, not good enough, abandonment, fear of commitment, rejection. The thinking we listen wants us to stay exactly where we are so we don’t face these fears. Realizing this starts the process.
What does the end of the recovery process look like? I firmly believe the end of recovery means being an independent soul, an adult or as Carl Rogers said “a fully functioning human being“. What does this look like? I have always liked the definition of a good relationship put forward by Stephen Covey. He states that a good relationship is defined by two independent people coming together, maintaining that independence but creating a special place for togetherness. This takes work but is a target that is reachable. Let’s look at there key elements of this:
Self-Care: Many codependents that I see in my practice have very little idea of the concept of self-care. This might be because they are generally dealing with the care of others which for them is a constant quest for acceptance. While engaging in such one-sided activities, the one thing forgotten is the self-care they desperately need. Especially in recovery, after a relationship with a narcissist, self-care is most essential element needed as a foundation. There are many programs available for self-care and it is important to find the one that works but there are some essentials that need to be taken into account.
An author I tend to revisit quite often is Dr Stephen Covey. I read many self-help books and some are better than others. However, Covey’s body of work is effective in its simplicity and ease to which it can be integrated into our daily lives. His best selling book, “the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” is a blueprint for life, relationships and work. The seventh habit is “sharpening the saw” which tells us to devote time and energy to self-renewal. Covey introduced this by saying “Sharpen the Saw means preserving and enhancing the greatest asset you have–you. He warns us that “without this renewal the body becomes weak, the mind mechanical, the emotions raw, the spirit insensitive, and the person selfish.” The Seventh Habit is all about having a balanced programme for self-renewal in the four areas of your life: physical, social/emotional, mental, and spiritual to help create a sustainable, long-term and effective lifestyle. Covey stressed that we should be feeding all of these areas in order to remain balanced and effective.
Accept Your Reality: Many of us live in a fantasy of who we really are. We do this because reality is too hard to accept or might not be good enough in our minds. By accepting reality, I mean facing the issues being avoided, stop procrastination fantasies that we feed ourselves and accepting who we really are. That also means examining everything we do, think, believe and the people around us.
Make The Right Choices: How many of us look back on our lives and say: “If only” or “I wish” when it comes to the choices we made and hindsight is a great thing. However, how many of us can say that we have learnt from those experiences and continue to make the wrong choices? Often the wrong choice is also the easy way out. Face the pain and start making the right choices for you… and your needs in terms of self-care.
Put Your Energy Where It Matters: Many people spend a lot of time worrying and thinking about things and issues that we have no chance of influencing. We tend to blame these issues for our situation and become bitter. This takes up a lot of our mental energy and leads to ruminating and hopelessness. By concentrating on what we really can change, we are more likely to be successful in our efforts. We can only influence our thoughts, feelings and the way we see the world. Anything else is out of reach.
Practice Self-Discipline and Delayed Gratification: Many of us are just not prepared to face issues that present themselves and would prefer to kick them further down the track. In addition, we are not prepared to wait for things and practice instant gratification to make ourselves feel better. This includes shopping, eating, sex, anything that takes the pain away. By facing our issues head-on as they arise and not delaying them, we have a better chance of moving forward. This is adult thinking.
Declutter Your Life: We all have toxic relationships in our lives that drag us down. They could be family, friends, romantic partners or work colleagues and often we feel a strong sense of obligation to them. Sometimes, we put in much more than we receive and often we wonder why we allow these people anywhere near us. Putting these relationships on a healthy footing by setting healthy boundaries and asking for our needs to be met will lead to much more energy for more important things.