“I shouldn’t have answered the phone,” Jenny lamented. She assumed it was one of her friends she was about to meet for a much anticipated weekend away. When she heard her sister Sue’s pleading voice, her heart sank as she listened for whatever Sue was about to ask – her requests seemed endless. For Jenny, saying ‘Yes’ to any and all requests from loved ones was as much a law of nature as gravity. Sue asked Jenny to take her two boys for the weekend – Sue and her husband received a last minute invitation to an adults-only boating weekend. Jenny checked for boy-friendly food as her sister made her case. By the time Jenny located the frozen pizzas, she would agreed. Jenny felt angry at Sue for ‘forcing’ her to cancel her plans, and in turn felt guilty for feeling angry. Jenny should have been angry, but with herself. This was not an emergency, and Sue’s happiness is no more important than Jenny’s. There is such a thing as being too nice – it is harmful to you and to those around you. Jenny had a helping addiction. Her response to help was automatic – she never questioned it. It was how she felt connected to others, herself, and the world. Jenny’s inability to balance her needs with her perception of other’s is a big neon light flashing:
Codependence – Change or miss out on your own life!
Codependence is when you take on other people’s problems, needs, feelings, preferences, and goals – their lives, as your own, neglecting or even losing touch with yours. The term, coined in Minnesota, USA in the 1970’s according to Sondra Smalley, CCDP a psychologist and leader in the codependency field, initially referred to the unhealthy dynamics seen in the loved ones of those addicted to alcohol, describing how they inadvertently colluded with the addicted person’s problems through supposed helping behaviours. Codependence now refers to anyone who engages in similar unhealthy dynamics.
Sophie was codependent with her partner Joe. He was unhappy at his job and Sophie campaigned to find him a new one, re-doing his curriculum vitae, searching the internet for opportunities, and buying him shirts and ties for interviews. Joe was much happier in a new job he found through Sophie’s hard work, but then she became depressed and lethargic. As Joe no longer needed her extra help, she no longer felt sexy and attractive leading to problems in the bedroom as well. Sophie’s depression worsened and she was signed off work. Her GP referred her to a psychologist and Sophie learned how to relate in more balanced way to both her partner and herself. Harriett B Braiker, PhD, a clinical psychologist and author in California, calls this The Disease to Please and explains how this is toxic to you and those around you in her book of the same title.
You can be codependent with your job. Jackson was a rising star at work, getting promotions and pay rises that broke company records. This demanded Jackson’s heroic effort, working late nights and weekends, neglecting his personal life. Six months after he was promoted into a job he neither wanted nor enjoyed, but felt obliged to take he crashed with clinical depression.
Rachel’s son Stephen had an unfinished assignment for school due the next day. He didn’t have enough time to finish the report and go to football practice. Rachel could not bear to make him miss football, so she finished the report for him, and had it printed out and ready for him when he got home.
In addition to inappropriately meeting the needs of others, it is the codependent’s perception of other’s needs as well, as often meeting these needs is not healthy for the recipient either. This is learned in childhood Melody Beattie, one of the most read authors on the topic, explains in Codependent No More. Codependence develops when children are in unbalanced relationships with their parents where they learn to put their own needs and wants aside, in order to meet their parent(s)’ as a means of gaining their affection, attention, or approval. This “sets the stage” as Ms Beattie explains, for the child to grow up and recreate, and/or be drawn to, this dynamic in all of their relationships. It often takes people (if they are lucky) a few relationships or jobs before they realise that their problems are not simply the ‘wrong partner,’ or ‘wrong job,’ but unhealthy habits. Because relationship habits are learned during early development, they are ingrained and feel natural, making it more difficult to realise there are alternatives.
Am I Codependent?
If you agree to four or more of the following you are exhibiting some level of codependency: (1) Can not say “No”; (2) Always defer to others’ preferences; (3) Feel guilty and uncomfortable doing things you want to do; (4) Have difficulty accepting complements; (5) Feel embarrassed or responsible for others’ poor behaviour; (6) Feel angry and do not know why; (7) Believe nothing good ever comes from conflict and avoid it at all costs; (8) Constantly anticipate the needs of others and meet them before they even ask; (9) Seem to attract people who need rescuing; and (10) Find it very stressful when things do not go as planned. You can also take a questionnaire on The Mental Health America association’s website (see resources at end) to help you discern if you are codependent.
How to Recognise Codependence
At times it is necessary to sacrifice for others, but when we neglect our own needs, goals and aspirations for months or years, this is unhealthy.
Codependence leaves you depleted and you will then be no good to anyone. Over time, a person can become depressed, anxious, irritable, and angry. Sometimes it is very difficult for codependent people to let themselves feel these negative feelings, as they are working in a belief system that their feelings do not count.
Change is Possible. “But this is just the way I am – I can not change,” is both a lament and a boast frequently heard from people struggling with codependence. Martyrdom can become a matter of pride, but if you do not live your life no one else will. Change is possible; it is hard work and takes time, but it is not as exhausting as being codependent. Small changes have disproportionately large impact explains Dr Braiker because the mindset, behaviours and emotions of codependence interact, so that changing one will impact the others.
A first step in changing codependence is to develop a mental gauge of what is realistic for you to do. For example, you could visualise yourself – your time and energy – as a glass vessel filled with your favourite colour water (it is important to take some time to develop your mental gauge because you will need to use it at a moments notice as described below). Decide how much of the coloured water your various responsibilities and commitments already use and pick a level (no lower than 30%) that you should not go below, in order to have sufficient reserves for yourself and for emergencies. Then, every time someone asks you to do something, imagine the vessel and check to see if taking on the request would deplete your stores below the 30% mark, before and as part of your decision process. In addition, Dr Susan Newman explains, it is important to consider whether the request is coming from someone with whom you have a balanced and healthy relationship.
The next step is learning to say “No,” which is very hard for people with codependence. Saying “No” does not make you a bad or mean person, nor does it keep you from getting love and affection – feeling you have to earn love and affection is the mistaken belief codependents inadvertently learn as children. First, you need to consider the request rather than agreeing automatically – a codependent habit. Practise a sentence aloud to yourself stating that you will have to think about it and get back to them. Practising aloud is critical. You are rehearsing a new automatic response to have at ready, as it is very difficult to say “No” when you are caught off guard. By the time you get back to them, they may have found another solution to their problem anyway. Then go through the same rehearsal exercise for saying “No.” You will also have to shift how you get your good feelings about yourself.
Codependent people reap their feelings of self-worth from their helping addiction, so anyone working toward change will have to weather getting fewer good feelings this way, while developing new ways to get and maintain feelings of self-worth, such as engaging in any and all of the various activities they had put on hold (sometimes for decades), such as changing jobs or careers, taking up a long neglected hobby, picking up a new one, taking up sport, socialising, etc.
Think of each time you practice your new ways of relating as an experiment. Do no expect to make permanent changes overnight. See what works and what does not, amend your approach for the next experiment and so on. Pretty soon what was very difficult at first will become your new normal. Just think of how much you can accomplish if you put all the time and energy you used to put into other people’s lives into your own.
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