After connecting with my doctors and a counselor to begin to heal myself, I started to journal a lot about my experiences. It was New Year's Eve and I had recently broken up with my ex-boyfriend for what I wish I could say was the last time. In my journal that night, I came to an epiphany about feeling responsible for other people's happiness. I vowed to myself that from now on I would only focus on my own happiness instead of trying to make everyone else happy.
When I shared my new found insight with my counselor, her face lit up and she said to me "That is exactly what Melanie Beattie says in the book Codependent No More!" I had never heard of the book before, but I figured if I had just come to that exact same conclusion on my own and there was an entire book dedicated to helping me make that desire a reality, I should probably go out and get it.
The day the book arrived, it was a Friday afternoon. I was working at home, at my miserable corporate job. By 3:00 I was pretty burned out on the week, so I picked up the book and started reading it. I am usually not much of a reader, but I could not put that book down. I read it voraciously, one chapter and then the next. By the time I came up for air, it was 5:30 PM.
As I read through the pages of the book, I saw myself. There is a section early in the book where she lists the characteristics of codependent people, and I highlighted one after the other. Of course, not all of them applied to me, but many of them did. Here are just a few:
- You think and feel responsible for other people, for other people's feelings, actions, choices, wants, needs, well-being, lack of well-being, and ultimate destiny.
- You feel anxiety, pity, and guilt when other people have a problem.
- You feel compelled - almost forced - to help that person solve the problem, such as offering unwanted advice, giving a rapid-fire series of suggestions, or fixing feelings.
- You anticipate other people's needs and wonder why others don't do the same for you.
- You find yourself saying 'yes' when you mean 'no,' doing things you don't really want to be doing, doing more than your fair share of the work, and doing things other people are capable of doing for themselves.
- You do not know what you want and need (or, if you do, you tell yourself what you want and need is not important.)
- You try to please others instead of yourself.
- You find it easier to feel and express anger about injustices done to others, rather than injustices done to yourself.
- You feel safest when giving and you may feel insecure and guilty when somebody gives to you.
At first, I felt so relieved. It was as if a huge weight was lifted off of my shoulders. According to the book, some people have a really hard time giving up their codependent behaviors, but I was like: Wow, you mean I don't have to feel responsible for all of those people anymore? Cool. What do I want to do with my life now?
But then I started to realize that it is not that easy to just give up those feelings of responsibility for other people's happiness. And it was especially hard not to feel guilty watching others suffer when my life was actually going quite well.
For awhile, early in my recovery, the only way to avoid being codependent was to avoid situations that would cause me to feel that way. So I would intentionally keep to myself and focus on my own life. And when I was around people, I would try to avoid conversations where I would be exposed to other people's problems and issues, especially with the people I cared about the most. I knew that if I was aware of all their problems and suffering, I would want to jump in and help - and risk sacrificing myself in the process.
These past few weeks, it seems like I have been exposed to all sorts of issues and problems. And I can feel my instincts to help starting to kick in. I was talking to my youngest niece on Halloween and she was telling me how she doesn't get to see family as much as she would like, especially me and her cousins who live in Ohio. She seemed so sad about it. I immediately started planning ways to spend more time visiting.
On Sunday, I was at a party with a friend of mine from yoga school who recently lost her sister. After our check in, I could tell that she was still suffering. (Of course she is suffering. She lost her sister three months ago!) And I found myself offering to take her yoga class next week and meet up with her afterwards to have a coffee and chat.
As I observe my reactions to these situations, I wonder if I am falling back into my familiar pattern of codependency. I definitely felt compelled to do something because I wanted to try and make it better for the other person. But at the same time, it is also perfectly normal to want to spend more time with my nieces and nephews or to lend an ear to a friend who is going through a difficult time.
This week I am in Ohio staying at Mark Johnson's house. I was going to do some laundry, but I noticed that the only thing he had in the house was fabric softener. As it turns out, he had accidentally been using it instead of laundry detergent. He had an entire unopened container that he had just bought, in addition to the one that he was already using.
I decided to go out to Target and get laundry detergent for the house. I thought about taking the unopened container of fabric softener with me and exchanging it for detergent. But then I caught myself and thought: Mark Johnson is an adult and he can take care of this on his own. I am not responsible for making sure this fabric softener gets exchanged for laundry detergent.
As I was getting into the car, he called me to check in. And of course, I told him the entire story about my internal struggle with the decision to exchange the fabric softener and how I decided not to do it because it would be too controlling and codependent. It didn't occur to him at all that I would be controlling or interfering in his life by exchanging the fabric softener for laundry detergent. He thought it was sweet.
There are many definitions of codependency, some of them more clinical and some of them more practical. The way I have come to understand it, there are two main qualities of a codependent person. First, you focus an excessive amount of your energy on other people's issues, problems, needs and desires. And secondly you put other people's issues, problems, needs and desires ahead of your own.
In trying to make sure I am conscious about the choices I am making in my life, sometimes I end up over-analyzing them instead. (And turning the car around to go back and get that darn bottle of fabric softener, because after all, it is just fabric softener!)
Just because I am a codependent person, doesn't mean that every single behavior or instinct that I have is born out of codependence.
There is a difference between codependence, which can be one-sided and self-sacrificing, and interdependence, which can be a healthy reciprocal relationship between two people. And while I am still learning the difference, I think it is less about what you are (or are not) doing for the other person and more about how you are treating yourself.