A couple of years ago I found myself sitting in a dark room at a party. Somehow, at a party surrounded by friends and family, I felt so alone. Tears were streaming down my face when a friend walked in and found me. I didn’t want anyone to see me. I was overwhelmed, a mess, and I couldn’t get my thoughts together. My friend sat on the bed next to me and didn’t leave. We sat in silence for a while until I realized she wasn’t going anywhere. I finally said “I’m trying my best to keep a smile on my face but deep down I’m unraveling, and fear I’ll never be good enough for some people.” Eventually, we made eye-contact, and I suddenly voiced my greatest fear. . “What if I end up standing alone.” She smiled at me and said “That sounds like the title of a book.”
. . .
It’s been years since that moment. I’ve written a lot but still have not tackled that word, alone. Maybe that’s because the word itself doesn’t stand alone. It’s accompanied by some other heavy hitters. Alone has these friends called shame, anxiety, and her best friend of all, codependency. Unluckily enough, I had to get to know some of these friends first. Today, I am writing to you about codependency.
Codependency is a word that has a stigma, even within myself. It is used against others as a quick way to cast them out. But before we dive in a little deeper about its meaning, let’s talk about where it comes from.
Codependency is usually rooted in adverse childhood experiences. Many children take on inappropriate emotional/household responsibilities in order to survive a traumatic upbringing. This could potentially cause a child to neglect their own needs for the sake of someone else’s. Some inner dialogue might be “I need to make sure I do this for this person before I can be safe, accepted, or meet my other needs”. Eventually these kids can become resentful because no matter what they do, it’s never enough. That is because the person they are attached to (often with an illness or addiction) is in a cycle of disorder. There is nothing someone else can do that stops their poor behavior. Codependent people have no control over someone else.. We are all powerless when it comes to controlling others, especially in the case of addictions. Addictions take until they have taken everything. Nothing is ever enough.
By definition, codependency is characterized by “excessive emotional or psychological reliance on a partner, typically one who requires support on account of an illness or addiction.”
The co-dependent person ends up focusing more on how they can become valuable to the addict, instead of realizing the value they already have. The scary part is that they end up binding themselves to the chaos. They teach themselves backwards equations that don’t work. For example, “If I unload the dishwasher, do all my chores, and have straight A’s, I wont get told that I’m not doing enough. They may even stop yelling at me, and possibly even be proud.”
But then when they get yelled at regardless and the praise doesn’t come, the resentment and sadness sets in. But after a while they will try again to be enough, as if trying to correct a faulty equation.
I hope at this point you’re growing in empathy and compassion. Scarlet, we all do some form of this. Don’t believe me? Should we talk about social media? It may need its own letter...
We all pay attention to the attention, sometimes to the point where we drive ourselves up a wall. We forget that there is no equation of “being enough” or “being liked”. Social media constantly takes. You will always need a new post to keep the attention of others in order to be relevant, or to feel you are enough. Nothing is ever enough.
So, where do we go from here? Where does the codependent person go from here? Remember that first word I mentioned? Alone.
In order to break the cycle, codependent people need to detach. And not in this “Miss Independent, I don’t need anyone” type of way. Humans weren’t meant to stay or be alone indefinitely. We all need safe people. However, the codependent person suffers from what we therapists call enmeshment.
Enmeshment is to “involve (someone) in a difficult situation from which it is hard to escape”. Remember my earlier example where the kid tries to be good enough but nothing seems to work? This is the “hard escape.” When we are enmeshed with someone else, it’s like two matching strings have been tangled in a knot. We can’t tell which is which. Where do I end and where does the other person begin?” We end up taking so much responsibility for the whole situation we forget half of the responsibility is out of our control. To stay enmeshed is to stay trapped in chaos. It will cost you your sense of identity, worth, and peace.
You must get untangled. You must leave the chaos for a bit. This is difficult for the codependent person. They may attempt several times to leave the system before they actually do. I don’t necessarily mean physically leaving people or things. Sometimes it is extremely necessary, but what I really mean is leaving the idea that they have to give constant attention to thoughts, emotions, people, or things in order to prove their worth.
Some common lies would be:
If I can figure it out, I can fix it.
If I try harder, it’ll get better.
If I’m more loving, patient, understanding, and have more faith then…
Do you see a common thread in these sentences? The codependent believes they have the power to change the situation/person by staying in it and doing more.
Codependents need to practice a few things. First of all, learning to detach. Secondly, taking action in order to meet their own needs. Lastly, doing things for others without needing the reward or attention. This is hard and scary when they have always based their decisions on what will make others happy or the family system “functioning”. Doing this in the beginning may spark feelings of guilt and/or anxiety. This does not mean you are doing something wrong. This means your brain is learning a new way. A better way.
Not only will these behaviors free the codependent, but it can change a family system. Psychologists figured out that if one person in a family system changes, everyone’s roles in the family are impacted. This can be either positive or negative, depending on the type of change.
This concept is nothing new for Christianity. Jesus is the ultimate agent of change and redemption for His family. He asked people to leave what they knew, which was dysfunctional, so that they may find life and peace within His system that He created.
“If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life for me, you will find it.” Mathew 10:39
To give up your life is to give up your dysfunction. This is more than just finding physical life. It’s psychological, emotional, and spiritual life. It is leaving the narrative that you are never enough, and being written into a story where you always were by grace through faith.
. . .
As I remember that night, I think about how alone I was in that room. But then this friend sought me out and came after me, and I realized I didn’t really want to be “alone”. I wanted to detach from the feelings of shame and the thoughts in my head that I am not enough. However, being alone could have been the very thing that forced me to detach, and by doing so I gained peace.
Recovery is hard. Time and time again I catch myself depending on others to meet my needs. However having grace for myself means remembering I can take a step back, detach, and choose a different path.
It’s my responsibility to take care of myself. We don’t need others to be happy for us to be happy. We don’t need others to tell us we are worthy to be worthy. We don’t need others to say we can succeed for us to succeed. We don’t need others to stop their addictions for us to be loved. Would it be nice? Of course.But to be so enmeshed with someone else is to be controlled by another human being who isn’t God. Another human being who did not make us, create us, or die on the cross for us.
Detach, let go, and go heal. It is scary but it is worth it.