Codependency. Just the word is enough to make my inner toddler stand up and start throwing toys and animal crackers. For a trauma survivor the idea that I have my own identity, separate from what my abuse taught me seems ridiculous. Of course I have my own identity, repetition compulsion showed me this is how relationships always are. I didn’t know that in my core self I needed to be needed to feel worthy; therefore always ignoring my own needs and sense of self. How defiantly demeaning even to suggest that I might be codependent.
Just so we are on the same page, I will say that when I found out my therapist thought I was codependent I was filled with anger and resentment at how others were always hurting me, doing it ‘to’ me, and if you had my life you’d be pissed off too. And she dropped it oh-so casually and then it became a part of every session. Go figure, she was a smart cookie.
And, just so we are seriously clear, then she dropped the mother of all ‘S’ words. SHAME. Because codependency and shame are two sides of the same coin. Well great. Let me jump for joy now that I know what is wrong with me. And, yes I know that’s shame right there, bugger off.
Codependency has lots of definitions, the ones that resonated with me were that I sacrificed my own needs, wants, and thoughts to satisfy someone else in hopes that they would love me and never abandon me. Because codependency is rooted in attachment and I had a disorganized style, being loved for me was never even a thought. I was only going to get love, that elusive, slippery, most assuredly abandoning heart goo, if I was always one step ahead of what you needed, AND taking care of it for you. If someone I cared about was displeased with me, OMG that was the most terrible thing, especially if it was one of my abusers. Enduring my abusers unbearable scrutiny and judgement of my actions, therefore ME, I’d be curled up in the corner beating my head against the wall. Their disapproval changed my mood instantly, I was over-responsible for others feelings, over-explained everything I was doing and couldn’t just be. The bottom line, of what do I ‘need’ to feel emotionally safe, never entered into it, never occurred to me. I never belonged with anyone, including myself.
We develop our attachment style based on our family of origin (growing up years.) Attachment is a deep and enduring emotional bond that connects one person to another. If a parent is struggling, if there is mental illness perhaps, addiction or grief, then the lesson to the child is, emphatically your needs don’t matter. Overcoming that broken core belief seemed impossible in the beginning, and throughout recovery it has reared it’s many-faceted monster-head, piercing me with stunning accuracy like a sniper. It lays in wait for me to screw another relationship up, do something horribly codependent and find myself blamed in the middle of situations where I wanted the outcome to be what I wanted it to be, control control control. Through sheer willpower, I was going to push through and effin make them love me; make them stay, keep them hostage. I was infinitely exhausted, worrying and planning on how others should react, just so I could feel okay. And the funny thing was, I never felt okay.
The stain of my abusers lies had saturated the threads of my innermost fabric and I could not ever measure up. Codependency lead to pervasive shame, of who I had been, who I was, and who I could become. It’s not conscious. It isn’t like I woke up one day and decided I’d try ‘on’ codependency. When my Littles were experiencing life and lived in fear of the next encounter, my brain said ‘well I am gonna survive!’ So I adapted to my circumstances, and thus codependency was born; and because it was never good enough, shame was a constant companion. As an adult, frozen emotionally in time, it showed up as an over-functioning, people-pleasing, angry, resentful, anxious, depressed, victimized, disconnected person who had no boundaries. I thought my shame was reality; that it was me. That was a big chunk of truth to swallow. I wanted to spit it back out ferociously.
But I couldn’t. I couldn’t because it was all connected on a root level. A codependent level. A shame level. Because here was what my therapist was trying to lead me to: in codependency, the broken core belief is if you don’t need me, you won’t have any use for me, and you will reject me; because I’m not worthy of love, and care, and belonging. My value and worth comes from only being indispensable and crucial in your life. Only thing I could be loved for, was what I do and who I am for this person. Not my authentic who-I-am me. What was important was attuning with needs I could meet in them, and the role that I could fill for them. And if I couldn’t be validated as a person that you needed most importantly in your life, then my value was gone. Poof. Again.
At that moment in time, being able to have clarity of what the bleep was going on with me, in all areas of my life; professional and personal, was like jumping off a cliff blindfolded. The idea of stepping into who I am and staying for a while, feeling comfortable with my accomplishments and mistakes, felt like it was out of the question. Value myself? Wasn’t that selfish? Wasn’t I supposed to ‘take care’ of other people, didn’t that equate to love? And self-sacrificing?
Didn’t that make me a good person?
Everything seemed black and white. The polarized view of what my function was, had shaped me to mirror my abusers, and self-abandon to the point where I had no clue who I was outside of you.
So this is where things got interesting. The more I was able to accept that I was in this place, not because I was defective, but because this was how my brain was soft-wired; change was possible. This was learned. It wasn’t hard-wired. The codependency, the shame, all taught to me during a time when my brain was a sponge, and growing. I had to learn to stop paying penance with my soul for others mistakes, hurts, and traumas. I was false-nurturing myself by over-caring for them.
How does this happen?
I knew you were going to ask. I’m so glad you held on until we got here.
It happens one moment, one situation, one awareness at a time. It happens when I bumble through setting a boundary, saying no and not explaining why. It happens when I let myself feel the hurts, live in the joys, and nurture my Littles. It happens when I don’t expect it to, by just staying in the moment. It happens when I ask for help, and am struggling, and am okay with struggling. It happens when I don’t step on other peoples toes, but am entitled to my opinion. It happens when I do something for me. It happens when I don’t do things for you that you can do for yourself. It happens when I accept, what I allow is the reason that I get the result I do. It happens when I start to set boundaries for me, not for the other person. It’s a process, and I make a lot of mistakes and second-guess myself. I’ve learned that thinking I can dismantle and untangle the broken core beliefs of codependency quickly is a bit like juggling balls of fire and trying not to burn my fingers.
This is my list…so far at least. The process shows up in every arena in my life. It keeps growing and evolving.
I hope my therapist from years ago knows how impactful her guidance was. I am grateful to know there is a different path. I hope, if you are suffering with codependence and shame, that you can see there is a way out. A better way. Today my toddler is playing nice with herself, and her adult is celebrating the magic of growth. Tomorrow she might slip back into broken core beliefs of codependency, and that’s okay too. Being gentle with my heart is paramount.
Today I believe I am enough. I believe you are too.