I, myself, am a recovering codependent. I have been working on my codependency for about the past 5 years, although I have not really been focused on it intentionally until the past 1-2 years. I was so disconnected from myself; it was nearly impossible to focus on making personal changes within relationships until I connected much more to myself. Much like any healing journey, to really see changes occur in your life, you have to be choosing into it. I also believe its often hard to choose into change when you have a backlog of pain that needs clearing out, which was very true for me. And like most people, I was clueless to this fact. I knew something felt off, I struggled with intense and frequent anxiety and became easily stressed and overwhelmed. I was also deeply terrified of being alone, often preoccupied with the current status of my relationships, friendship or romantic.
Codependency is not something that is identified as a mental condition in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM) which is where every mental health diagnosis is listed yet it is something that deeply impacts many people and causing psychological distress. Codependency is basically having an addiction to relationships. Other people become the main focus and most important aspect of your life, assuming the responsibility of meeting the other persons’ needs to the exclusion of acknowledging your own needs or feelings. People who struggle with codependency often do not know themselves because they spend so much time abandoning themselves for the approval of others, much like an addict abandons themselves for the feeling of their next high, losing their true sense of self along the way. People who struggle with codependency often are care-takers to others, finding their importance and worth from other people needing them. These relationships often become one-sided since the codependent person often does not fully exist in the relationship, pushing themselves aside in support of the needs, desires, and feelings of the other person. People who struggle with codependency often feel resentful, forgotten, not important, and/or worthless because of this relational dynamic that is created but rarely will address these concerns due to intense and overwhelming fear of displeasing the other or being seen as a burden and the relationship (addiction) ending.
This relationship tendency is often the outcome of experiencing dysfunctional relationship dynamics, such as addiction, and/or relational trauma, especially in childhood. Often, codependent behavior tendencies fit into the category of “insecure” attachment styles which is developed from not getting emotional needs met, getting them met inconsistently, and/or feeling consistently fearful of your primary source of caregiving throughout childhood. I see codependency as a spectrum and the unfortunate fortunate truth is we all fall somewhere on that spectrum. It is impossible to live this life without experiencing some sort of relational trauma throughout it. The stronger and more extreme these traits occur for an individual often indicates the younger and more frequently the trauma was experienced.
Some common signs of codependency (and ones that I connect to) are:
- A deep seated need for approval from others and without it, you experience intense fear, anxiety, and dread
- Ignoring your own wants and needs in order to care for the other person
- A need for the other person to like you in order to feel good about yourself
- Inability to feel personal worth or value independent of other people’s thoughts or actions
- Often seeking recognition and praise to overcome feeling less than
- Often unaware of your own feelings, wants, needs, and limits
- Difficulty identifying what you are truly feeling and frequently minimizing, denying, or invalidating how you truly feel
- Difficulty identifying a sense of self and defines self mainly in relation to other people and the roles you play for them
- Often being the one who apologizes or takes on blame, even if you have done nothing wrong, often with the desire to “keep the peace”
- Regularly trying to change or “rescue” troubled or struggling individuals
- Feeling like things will go terribly wrong for another person unless you step in and help due to feeling overly responsible for everyone’s wellbeing
- Doing anything for the other person, even if it makes you feel uncomfortable
- Often subconsciously engaging in behaviors to try to remain in control of situations or other people to avoid loss, rejection, or abandonment
- Feeling guilt or anxiety whenever you do something just for yourself due to feeling like you don’t deserve to or not wanting to burden others
- Struggling to find any time for yourself, especially if your free time consistently goes to other people
- Not being able to feel ok unless you know the relationship is ok, especially if the individual is mad at you
- Feeling like you have no choice but to keep other people happy
- Difficulty saying no to others and making personal decisions
- Fear related to sharing your thoughts and feelings with others, often related to overwhelming fears of rejection and abandonment
- Internalize criticism as a reflection of your identity, often responding with reactive defensiveness
- Difficulty with admitting to and owning mistakes or personal flaws
Leaning into life in recovery was/is scary as hell. Some of the ways I show up for myself now would have brought panic and terror throughout my body years ago. But life in recovery feels freeing and empowering. There is this steadiness that has been discovered and developed inside of myself that often calms me and feels like “coming back to me.” This has become an internal guide and companion. The more I listen and speak up for this internal sense of me, the more connected I feel inside, and the more confident and trusting of myself I become. Becoming connected to this has allowed me to share my true thoughts and feelings even if the outcome might be negative or something I would not like.
I still at times struggle with trying to control outcomes, especially within relationships, but have found myself way more willing to release than I ever have been before. Boundary setting and self-expression of my thoughts and feelings within personal relationships was also a struggle for me until I realized that avoiding these things was not allowing the people in my life to really get to know me and love me. I remember the first time that I shared something with a long-time friend did she did that made me feel angry because it did not feel respectful of me or my time. It had not been apart of our friendship dynamic to do this as we became friends in high school, the height of my codependency, and so I would typically respond to her with something like “oh no problem, I understand” leaving myself feeling resentful and not important. I decided that day I would shared how I was feeling. After I sent the text, I threw my phone away from me and did not look at it for like an hour. During that time, I was mentally preparing myself for this friendship to be coming to its end. When I looked at my phone again, I was pleasantly surprised. Her response was considerate of my feelings, acknowledged her flaw, and expressed her care for our friendship with a desire to come to a mutual understanding of the situation. That is when this question flashed through my brain: “how many times have I sat feeling resentful and not important in this relationship due to my own lack of showing up?”
Now some of you may say I got “lucky” as not all people will respond in that way and to you I say, you are so right. It is so true, not every time we show up for ourselves and express our own thoughts, emotions, needs, or desires will the other person be in favor of what we are expressing. And this is a great challenge of recovery, the inability to no longer constantly people please when also being authentic and connected to yourself. But that is how we start to discover who our “people” actually are. Living in recovery means coming to a place where you decided you no longer want relationships in your life that require you to not exist in them in order for them to exist. It is opening up to the process of being in connection with someone else while remaining in connection to yourself. If showing up as yourself in a relationship means the relationship now has “trouble,” that is a “troubled” relationship to begin with.
So far, my recovery has looked like:
- Expressing myself honestly to friends, family, and coworkers especially when something hurts me or doesn’t sit right with me
- Scheduling breaks throughout my day
- Spending way more intentional focus on refueling and recharging self-care
- Owning up to my mistakes and accepting my flaws/imperfections
- Intentional reflection and exploration of moments of activation to identify, own, and understand my triggers
- Intentional reflection of fears connected to my judgements and pain connected to my blame
- Practicing allowing myself to feel all of what I am feeling (I still resist this at times but it now takes me way less time to get through moments of funk as a result of emotion avoidance due to my willingness to turn towards and face hard emotions)
- Feeling a sense of worth and value internally
- Significant decrease in shame spiraling and self-doubt replaced by compassionate and understanding self-talk and self-trust (although these are always works in progress, especially when stress is higher, this is one of the best gains I have grown in through healing/recovery)
- Significantly more self-awareness and self-understanding, especially related to how my past has and can continue to impact me today
- Letting my best (aka whatever happened or was able to get done) each day be enough
- Being ok spending time alone
- Intentional “relaxing and easing” into present moments, even when I don’t like my external circumstances, to build more present contentment
- Discovering activities I enjoy and practicing acknowledging that joy
- Saying “no” when something is not working for me
- Allowing other people to feel how they feel, even if they are mad at me, without “fixing” it (I have learned personally I feel safest in a relationship when I am allowed to feel whatever I am feeling and so therefore I want to create that space for others in relationship with me)
- Making intentional time to connect to myself through breathing/meditation, yoga, journaling, prayer, and conversations with my heart and inner little girl
- Developing an intimate and trusting relationship with God and unconditional love
What would a recovery journey look like for you?
I hope learning more about codependency and hearing a little about my journey instills hope in you. This process has not been easy. It has involved many, many hours allowing and feeling pain so that it could exit my body. It has required me to acknowledge and accept things about my self and my life that I initially fought my therapist to continue to deny and reject. It has required me to take responsibility for my emotions, actions, and triggers. But it has been beyond worth it. The ways I have grown can not be taken away from me and just like shame and anxiety can spiral, so can confidence and self-trust. The more I see myself acting and thinking in ways that shows me that I have my back, the more I know I will have my back, and the less scary navigating this world and my emotions starts to feel. My nervous system gets to spend a lot less time in survival mode as I actually have started to feel comfortable in my own body. And I wish this for everyone (in a non-overly-responsible-for-it kind of way).
If you are on an emotional healing and/or codependency recovery journey, I believe in you and I am so rooting for you!