The first time I heard the term “codependent” I was sitting across from one of those free college counselors.
I was quite skeptical and confused by what she meant.
A few years and many graduate level psychology courses later, I’m still piecing together what codependency means and what it looks like in my life.
Codependency has become a hot topic in psychology lately, and is quite prevalent among women. It sometimes involves a relationship where addiction is involved, though this is not true in my case. There are many definitions of codependency out there. Here are a few:
“Someone who is codependent is one who has let another’s behavior or feelings affect them in a way that interferes with work, creativity, other relationships and personal growth.” Copyright 2009 NBC Health
“The condition or fact of being codependent; specifically, a) tendency to place the needs and wants of others first and to the exclusion of acknowledging one’s own, b) continued investment of self-esteem in the ability to control both oneself and others, c) anxiety and boundary distortions relating to intimacy and separation, d) difficulty expressing feelings.” H. Dan Smith, EdD, MFT
Or simply, “the need to be needed.”
There are also jokes about codependents, Q: “What flashes before a codependent’s eyes before s/he falls off a cliff?” A: “Someone else’s life.”
But for many of us codependence is not just a definition or a punch line, but a harsh reality.
In many ways, the simple awareness of my codependency has helped. I now know that it’s okay (even healthy) to get my needs met, it’s okay to say no, and it’s okay to have (and even express) feelings. Some of you may be raising one eyebrow to me right now, but honestly these facts were revolutionary to me when I learned them, and I’m still working on them.
Though my knowledge of my codependency does help, it doesn’t fix everything. I still find myself trying to figure out when I’m being codependent, when I’m being healthy, or when I’m being just plain selfish.
For example, the other day I wanted to cook dinner for my roommate because I knew she was tired and she was in the middle of watching a movie. So she tried to help me cook, and I told her “no, don’t worry about it, just go watch your movie, I’ve got it.” Then I literally had to stand there in the kitchen and think, “Okay. Did I just offer to cook out of obligation? Did I offer to cook because I wish that I had someone to offer to cook for me? Will I resent her for this later?” (ie, am I being codependent?) OR “Do I just sincerely want to do something nice for my roommate, and I don’t mind because I’ve seen the movie before anyway?” (ie, am I just being a good friend?). I decided that I really just wanted to cook for my roommate to be a good friend, not out of obligation. Sigh of relief. Commence cooking.
Another example. Two of my sisters are pregnant. As their sister, I feel I should throw them baby showers. However, we couldn’t fit them in over Christmas. So whereas in the past I would have felt obligated to organize the shower anyway, now I feel like it’ll just have to rest on their friends’ or my mom’s shoulders because they live closer and Christmas was the only time I’d be up north to help out. Now I’m not sure if I’m setting good boundaries (it will still get done if I don’t do it, and it doesn’t make sense for me to plan it from so far away) or if I’m just being selfish, because I don’t want to do it. I’m still not sure on this one.
These scenarios may seem silly to you. They probably are. But to me, they are the questions that fill my brain and my heart every day. Do I say no to the person who needs my help at work, if I’m already feeling overloaded? Do I sit and talk while someone else does the dishes, because they’ve asked me to let them get it this time? Do I say no to an invitation not because I have anything better planned, but simply because I would rather not? Do I volunteer more because I’m never doing enough? Is it helpful if I tell my friend I’m worried about her, or am I trying to “fix”? Are my feelings valid? Are my feelings important enough to share? Am I being too sensitive? Do I just need to suck it up?
One of the hardest realizations in my journey of recovery was realizing that many of the things I thought I was doing out of love, I was doing for selfish reasons. Doing the dishes, folding the laundry, calling friends, giving hugs, making personal sacrifices, reaching out, being supportive- often these were unconscious efforts to get others to do my dishes, fold my laundry, call me once in awhile, give me a hug for no reason, sacrifice for me, reach out to me, be supportive of me.
What I didn’t get was that no one knew that’s what I needed. How could they if I never asked? I was too capable, too strong, too independent, too perfect to ever need anyone’s help.
Yet, now that I know part of the answer- simply to ask people for what I need- it’s still a struggle. What about the things I can’t ask for? What about the feelings that can’t be comforted? This is my frustration now.
When I’m lonely, who can I ask for stimulating conversation? When I need physical touch, who can I ask to hold me? When I feel empty because the holidays are so damn romantic, who can I ask to kiss me?
The simple answer is, of course, Jesus. Jesus will love me. Jesus will support me. Jesus always wants to hear my feelings and He knows my heart. In my strong moments I know He is more than enough.
But in my weak moments I am frustrated. Jesus can’t hold me, can’t hug me, can’t touch me. So I guess I’m just not quite sure what to do with these needs. The codependent in me just wants to pour myself into serving others and neglecting myself. The recovering side of me knows that part of the answer is that I just need to feel it. Good or bad, I need to allow myself to feel it.