ASK LISA - How Do I Know If I Am Codependent?
I hope you had a great Memorial Day weekend! I will be taking a break for the month of June in order to rest and recharge. I will be excited to spend time with my husband, do a little traveling, and quiet myself to hear what God is speaking! I will be back with you guys the first week of July. Praying blessing and abundance over each of you!
Ask Lisa is a advice post for people who write in to me, asking questions about a specific problem or situation. Although this is in no way a substitute for therapy, my hope and prayer is that it gives encouragement and direction for whatever you face.
If you have a specific question you would like answered, write in. I’d be glad to tackle it together!
I’ve just come through a divorce. I married my high school sweetheart thirty-five years ago after he swept me off of my feet. I thought he was going to be the perfect escape from my family’s dysfunction and my dad’s drinking. I was determined to change everything —to be the perfect wife, mom, PTA member, and women’s ministry volunteer. In my naïve thinking I believed that I could somehow heal everything that was broken in my childhood and right every wrong. My life, my marriage, my family would be different.
It was —for a while. But little by little my husband worked more, came home later, drank harder, exploded louder. My job was to make him okay. I was the one who knew how to handle him, or so I thought. So I made sure the house was cleaned, His favorite meals were cooked, the kids were well-behaved so that things would go smoothly.
As his drinking increased, he became violent. He always apologized later, tearfully promising that things would change, that he would change. He would be sober for a while, but slowly things would go right back to the way they were before, just a little bit worse. I had to lie —lie to his boss, lie to the kids, lie to myself, perhaps — to get by.
All the while, I couldn’t focus all of my energies on saving my husband and my marriage, and be a good parent to the kids. I tried. Lord knows I tried. I was always exhausted but I just couldn’t fight more than one battle at a time. So I gave in. I needed the kids help, their affection, their support, and their love. I needed someone to love me. I gave them pretty much everything they wanted or needed. I never wanted them to do without like I did as a child.
Now that they’re adults, I can’ t keep up. Since my divorce I can barely make ends meet, but I work two jobs, help raise my grandchildren, pay for my daughter’s car payment, insurance, clothes, and food in addition to my own bills. I just can’t keep doing this, but I can never say no.
My neighbor invited me to a Celebrate Recovery meeting last week and in looking through some of their materials, I think I might be a codependent. Lisa, what exactly is codependency and is there any way to be healed from it?
Tearful in Texas
Codependence is such a challenging issue. First identified by those in the health community as they worked with wives of alcoholic men, they noticed that the entire family of the addict displayed addictive tendencies. What they saw were couples whose relationship became responsible for maintaining the addictive behavior in at least one person in the relationship.
According to Mental Health America, Codependency is a learned behavior that can be passed down from one generation to another. It is an emotional and behavioral condition that affects an individual’s ability to have a healthy, mutually satisfying relationship. It is also known as “relationship addiction” because people with codependency often form or maintain relationships that are one-sided, emotionally destructive and/or abusive. Codependent people need external sources, things, or other people to give them feelings of self-worth.
Often, as a result of destructive parental relationships, or past abusive relationships, codependents find themselves reacting to the people in their lives, constantly worrying about them or caring for them because in truth, they depend on their loved ones to make them feel useful or alive. They put other people’s needs, wants and experiences above their own. Their relationship with themselves is so painful they no longer trust their own experiences, living trapped in a continual cycle of shame, blame and self-abuse.
At birth, we are utterly dependent on our caregivers for food, safety, and comfort. Because as infants, our attachment and bonding to our caregiver is critical for our physical and emotional survival, we become reactive to the needs and weaknesses we often see from them.
If we have an unreliable or unavailable parent, we often take on the role of caretaker and/or enabler in childhood, to ensure our safety and to make sure our most basic needs are met. Unfortunately this starts a lifelong destructive thought-pattern that says, If mom or dad is okay, then I can be okay.
Intimate feelings are those that are most deeply personal. From infancy, those feelings guided us as we attempted to get our needs me. If our caregivers couldn’t respond to our needs, we concluded that our needs and the feelings driving those needs were a mistake. Finally, we concluded that we must be a mistake. _ Peeling The Onion: Characteristics of Codependents Revisited
Because dysfunctional families rarely acknowledge that problems exist, as children we often repress our own emotions and disregard our own needs to focus on the needs of the unavailable parent. Once we become adults, we can recreate the same dynamic in our adult relationships.
Codependents In Relationships
Codependents may never confront partners because in becoming the caretaker, we often assume it’s our responsibility to clean up after and apologize for our loved one’s behavior. We might even help them continue to use alcohol or drugs by giving them money, food, even drugs and alcohol. We come to believe we are so unlovable and so unworthy that this dysfunctional, destructive relationship is the best we could hope for.
Innately we live out of a false belief that tells us we cannot survive without our partners; therefore we will often do anything to stay in our relationships, no matter however painful. This is what drives us. We fall in love with an ideal of what love will do for us, how the other person will complete us, fill us, even fix us. Using sex as a means of false intimacy, relationships temporarily fill the void inside that God Himself was meant to fill.
The fear of losing our primary relationship and thus being alone overpowers any other feeling a codependent might have. The mere thought of trying to address any of our partner’s dysfunctional behaviors can leave us feeling so unsafe we will excuse their behavior, we will deny it above all else, because in doing so we can avoid the rejection we fear most of all.
We say to ourselves:
• I’m the reliable one.
• They need me. They can’t live without me.
• If I say ‘no’ they might reject me.
• Who is going to help them if I don’t?
• This is just my lot in life —to take care of everyone.
We lose perspective. Our vision becomes blurred and the line that distinguishes where we end and another begins disappears. Codependents have never developed a strong sense of self —who we are, what we think, feel, believe, want, or need. We’ve never learned how to speak our wants and needs directly in our relationships and learn instead to abandon ourselves to what other people want. We learn to unconsciously manipulate people and situations to get our needs met.
We can adopt roles that support our own codependent needs —the martyr, the savior, the advisor, the people-pleaser, and the yes-men. This never heals the codependency and only fuels the destructive cycle in our relationships. Fortunately, as we become more aware of our defense mechanisms, our lack of boundaries, as well as the underlying needs that fuel our codependent behaviors, we can learn to develop new ways of being with ourselves. We can learn how to care for ourselves. Draw boundaries for ourselves. Perhaps even love ourselves.
We can notice and prioritize our own emotional needs in order to better care for ourselves. We can focus our energies not on solving our loved ones problems, but on being present with ourselves and empowering our own solutions for our own lives. We can draw better boundaries to avoid rushing in to care for and provide for others, choosing instead to take a step back and become less invested, less involved. We can learn to say no, even in the face of potential ridicule or rejection. We can learn the blessing of the internal yes, our internal yes —and to speak our yes’ and our no’s to others.
We can heal from our childhood wounds, learn to feel our own emotions, name them, speak them, own responsibility for them. We can learn to get validation from God and ourselves. We can resist the pull of the fantasy and learn to embrace the possibility of a healthy, stable reality.
We can learn to believe:
• I don’t have to enable poor choices in others in order to feel reliable. I am discovering who I am, and I no longer need to be something for someone else in order to feel good about myself.
• They don’t need me, they need God.
• If I say ‘no,’ they might reject me. That will hurt, but I will be okay. God will never reject me. With Him, I am safe, I am loved. I am enough.
• I cannot be other’s savior. Only God can rescue them, heal them, grow them, and save them.
• My lot in life is not this —God has designed so much more for me. I can accept His love and learn to love myself. I can heal, grow, and become healthy in my relationships.
Friend, God is not done with you. He has so much of Himself He wants to teach you, heal in you. Your journey is just beginning. Don’t give up. The healing path is never a straight path, but the rewards are better than anything you could imagine. Safety, rest, hope, joy, abundance, wholeness, peace— that is His promise for you and your future. Keep taking steps on your journey. Keep believing. Keep trusting.
I will be praying for you!
**The advice offered in this column is intended for informational purposes only. Use of this column not intended to replace or substitute for any professional, financial, medical, legal, or other professional advice. If you have specific concerns or a situation in which you require professional, psychological or medical help, you should consult with an appropriately trained and qualified specialist. The opinions or views expressed in this column are not intended to treat or diagnose; nor are they meant to replace the treatment and care that you may be receiving from a licensed professional, physician or mental health professional.
In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, I’ve created several extensive tools to help you learn more and begin your journey towards healing!
LISA’S MENTAL HEALTH RESOURCE KIT
About This Community
Don't we all want a little peace? My heart for this community is to provide just that - a needed refuge from all the burdens that weigh us down, some encouragement and inspiration to keep us weary travelers moving forward on our journeys, and some practical advice to help each of us navigate the challenges of life and relationships. Whether in our parenting, our marriages, our faith, or the broken places in our hearts, this place is for anyone who dares to reach beyond the hopelessness that surrounds us and embrace a lifestyle of emotional abundance and peace!
About Peace for a Lifetime
In my book, Peace for a Lifetime, I share the keys to cultivating a life that’s deeply rooted, overflowing, and abundant, the fruit of which is peace. Through personal and professional experience as a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, I've discovered how to take the broken pieces of life and find indestructible peace with myself, God and with others. Through my story and other’s stories you’ll realize that you can experience the life for which you long. You can experience abundance beyond anything you can imagine. You can experience peace, not just for today, not just for tomorrow. You can experience peace —for a lifetime!
Peace for a Lifetime is available on Amazon.com.
Book Trailer: https://vimeo.com/155392891