Welcome, my fellow unselfish, forever forgiving martyrs! Have you run out of cheeks to turn and are wondering why things aren’t getting better in your home? Read on.
According to author Melody Beattie, “A codependent person is one who has let another person’s behavior affect him or her, and who is obsessed with controlling that person’s behavior.”
In my own words, codependency is people-pleasing and care-taking to the point of resentment, anxiety, and victimhood.
The Codependent’s Journey with Stepparenting
My journey with codependency is long enough to fill a book, so I will keep it brief. I can tell you the other names I assigned to codependency before I knew what to call it. (Warning: sarcasm ahead.)
As a small child, I called it “fitting in.” You’ll only invite me over if I do everything you want and I get to be the butt of all the jokes? Be there at 6!
As a student, I called it “being a perfectionist.” You’re so right….my worth is completely dependent upon the red “A” at the top of this piece of paper.
As a daughter, I’ve called it “being responsible.” I would literally rather jump into hot lava than disappoint my mother.
As a friend, I’ve called it “being motherly” or “concerned.” What? You’re annoyed by me checking in on you on the hour, analyzing your ex, trying to make you happy and asking you to text me the second you get home? I simply cannot risk you feeling your own emotions alone.
As a community member, I’ve called it “being helpful.” The position of event chair is suddenly open and the event is scheduled for 10 minutes from now? Sign me up!
As a partner I’ve called it “caring.” Seriously, the more in need of a rescue, the better.
As an employer, I’ve called it, “teaching a lesson.” Who has time to figure out the real world for themselves?! I’ll do it for you!
Doesn’t sound so bad, right? It’s not, as long as “caring,” “motherly,” and “teaching” don’t become FIXING, “responsible” and “perfectionist” don’t become RESENTMENT, and “fitting in” doesn’t become ANXIETY and INSECURITY. I capitalize those words so they can no longer hide behind their codependent masks.
What’s behind the masks?
So why the masks? Why the euphemistic language? I believe we use these positively perceived terms because, in our heart of hearts, we truly believe we are helping.
I honestly slipped into each of these roles and wore them like badges of honor for decades. I didn’t think I was wrong, I didn’t feel “sick,” and I certainly did not think I had something worth recovering from.
Maybe you’re like 1990-2015 me, and you also still don’t see the issue here. If I’m helping, and the people I love are happy, then I’m happy too, right? If they’re truly happy, then yes, you may have a point. What caused the shift in me was finally realizing not only was I unhappy but so was everyone around me. My staff, my friends, my partner, my mother.
I finally sought out a therapist to help me “fix” myself, because clearly I had failed. Countless self-help books, retreats, hours, and dollars later, it hit me.
Not only is it not my responsibility to make anyone else happy, but I’m also actually hurting the ones I love by not empowering them to make themselves happy.
BOOM! That one truth changed my entire life and started my path to recovery from codependency.
As I began my recovery, I realized how much damage I was causing myself and others. I was basically telling the people I loved that they were helpless and only I could save them, then I would turn around and feel resentment that they wouldn’t accept my help.
After decades of playing both the “hero” and the “victim” simultaneously, I was exhausted. I developed an autoimmune disease, I had migraines, I’d lose sleep, I’d work 4 jobs at a time, all in the name of “helping.”
What a fabulously tired, ornery, distracted version of myself I gave my loved ones. And to think they never said, “Thanks!”
Fast forward to meeting my husband, post revelation. The first year of dating and stepparenting was perfect for my recovery journey.
I couldn’t possibly get obsessed and enmeshed with this person! For 40% of the week, he was on homework duty, dinner duty, travel sports duty, and dance practice duty. It was codependency detox! By the end of the year, I had grown to not only tolerate my alone time (gasp) but I actually enjoyed and looked forward to it.
Moving in together and combining lives and spaces challenged my newfound independence and sense of self. If my husband had a stressful day at work and I couldn’t cheer him up, trigger. If the meals were more homemade and the house cleaner at the kids’ other home, trigger. Teenage inspired, hormone-induced apathy must be my fault.
Stepchildren… More people for me to help!
It took me about a year of feeling stuck in the mud of my own confusion to recognize these uncomfortable feelings for what they are. I had just given codependency another name, another mask. This time I called it “WORRY.”
That’s what parents are supposed to do, right? The problem was the content of my worries. The constant fear of failure, or not being needed, of being dispensable. Woof. How did I not see this before?
Naming these fears and uncomfortable feelings for what they are does not make them disappear, but it does unlock my toolbox for coping. Knowing that these feelings are able to be controlled by me and not by someone else is incredibly helpful.
The chapters of my life that led me to codependency also taught me one very important thing: if there’s anyone I can count on, it’s me. I can control my thoughts, my feelings, and my actions, and that’s enough.
The release of pressure I feel inside my home, my head, and my relationships since naming this relapse out loud has been immense. I’m grateful for another lesson and another chance to get it right.
Tips for Recovering from Codependency
If you are being introduced to codependency for the first time and are just now realizing this may be something you struggle with, breathe. Please be gracious with yourself. For a moment, show yourself some of the forgiveness you’ve shown so many others over the years.
This is a heavy realization, but it can change your entire life for the better. Much like other addictions, the compulsion to people please and fix cannot be effectively battled alone in a world full of triggers.
Here are a few tips for a successful, supported recovery:
- Find someone you can trust to speak to, like a friend or, my favorite option, a therapist
- Do your homework on the topic of codependency
- Follow social media accounts that positively support your recovery
- Avoid triggers like unhealthy, boundary-less relationships
If you do have to be in a relationship, or co-parent, with someone who has a personality disorder, substance abuse disorder, or who is also codependent, please be aware of these triggers and know that it is not selfish to maintain and strengthen your boundaries.
This awareness is crucial to your health and happiness, and your family needs you exactly that way: happy and healthy. I wish you strength and love on your recovery journey. You deserve it.
P.S. If you feel like you’re buckling under the pressure, I understand. Here is my experience with anxiety as a stepmom.