Part One of a series on Codependency, written for The Sisters In Law Blog.
Most people who know me would call me a strong independent woman…
I pride myself on being happy by myself. I’ll be the first person to side with my male friends when their significant others are being too clingy and codependent. I might say something like, “Your girlfriend needs a hobby.” (If you’re a wife or girlfriend of one of my male friends, don’t worry, I’ll eat my words in just a few paragraphs). I would be one of those people who cannot stand it when female friends get so sad about being single. I’ll say something like, “You need to learn to be happy on your own,” while actually thinking, “Jeez, woman up, weak ass bitches!”
I had recently scored a date with a guy on OkCupid (the date was last weekend). I had a feeling the date would go well even though this guy was a fatless muscular specimen, and I’m a girl whose chin and neck are becoming more and more indistinguishable every day.I love telling this joke, and I was about to share it with a coworker at the middle school where I teach (this was a couple weeks ago).
I told him I had a date, and I was about to drop the neck-chin self-deprecation portion of my announcement when he interrupted.
This guy has a charming voice and very sincere eyes, if he told you your passenger side front wheel is low, you would think he was hitting on you. I lost my train of thought for a second, robbed of the neck-chin punch line, and I carried on telling him about the future date. Can a guy just call you beautiful and have it mean nothing? I have had male friends tell me I look beautiful before and it meant nothing. I decided to think nothing of it.
It was last Friday night and one of my best friends just canceled plans on me to hang out with his girlfriend. I was understanding, but also, see the first paragraph above. I got a text from the aforementioned coworker, asking if I wanted to hang out. Yes! We had talked about hanging out for a few weeks but had not made plans yet.
It was a hang like any other hang, we spoke candidly about everything until after the fourth (or fifth) drink went down. (Yes, the fifth. I had worked my twelfth day in a row and I have an iron liver for whiskey). I realized this wasn’t a hang. The charming co-worker started saying very kind things to me, complimenting my intelligence, holding my hand when I talked about my painful past.
This is the point where a normal girl might have said ok, yes coworker, let’s do this. Of course that’s not what I did. My brain went into self protect mode.
“I’m sorry, I don’t try on more than one pair of pants at a time.”
What Miranda? You don’t date more than one guy at a time? That is horseshit.
We continued to drink, we talked about this guy’s other prospects, we eventually left to go to our cars. I was freezing, shivering uncontrollably. I stuck my hand out for my coworker to clamp between his arm and his ribcage. He grabbed my hand and placed it in his jacket pocket with his hand. It was so warm. This felt nice, his hand against mine, and at the same time my brain screamed, “MAYDAY! Get out of there!”
The High of Validation
I became unglued for what would be a few days. What the hell happened to me? Consulting friends, some said, “Miranda, don’t overthink this,” or “Miranda, what the hell are you thinking?” Or as SIL writer, Puja, said, “You know what waiting brings, what does giving in feel like?” This would all be fine and dandy if all of the wonderful things I heard this guy say was an affirmation of what I already think of myself (the only comment that was had to do with my intelligence). Instead, somehow, I wasn’t beautiful in my own mind until this guy said so. I wasn’t desirable in my own mind until he said so. What else am I not in my own mind? Worthy of love? Worthy of belonging?
Oh holy shit, this is shame, the fear of disconnection.
I have unpacked stories of shame for almost three years straight in an effort to better understand and get past shame induced performance anxiety that occurs in musicians and other performing artists and athletes (public speakers too, I could go on). I wrote over 40 articles on it. I honestly thought I had reached the ultimate level of “Zero Fucks to Give” resilience, yet, here I am again.
That guy’s hand felt wonderful, holding mine. All the things he said, the way he said it, wonderful too. Immediately, I was shot with an all too familiar high, one to which no amount of cheese, chocolate, alcohol, shopping binges, or workaholism can compare…
…validation from a man.
Not just any man, but a charming, smart, talented, good looking man, who I like as a person. A guy who already had a leg up on my OkCupid date, since I can confirm that he is not a sociopath or a serial killer. If I gave in, I would be numbing, and there is no inescapable numbing device like the validation high I get from a man I’m interested in.
I gathered all of the possible sources of this shame I felt, where it started, who said it, and how these messages were repeated. When did I start harboring the idea that I’m unlovable, undesirable, unwantable? The answers? Parents. Relatives. Society. Since childhood. The idea that I would have to hustle to be any of these desired traits? That my levels of love and belonging could change or be lost? It sounded like codependency. I realized that as many times as I have abused that term while making fun of my male friends’ sometimes needy girlfriends, I didn’t know much about it. Since I wasn’t ruling anything out, I broke open the books and researched my ass off all weekend, only stopping to go on the OkCupid date, which ended up being meh? Underwhelming? Lacking in chemistry? The conversation and the food was good. I just couldn’t see it going anywhere, but I digress.
How to Make a Codependent
As I type, I feel a deeply visceral reaction because this part is heavy. I found an article by Dr. Leon Seltzer entitled, “Codependent or Simply Dependent: What’s the Big Difference?” If it were up to me, this article would be required reading. I copied and pasted so many notes, too many to post here. I wrote and wrote and wrote, furiously, like a maniac, to decifer what all of it meant for me personally, and what I have figured out is this:
I have had the message shoved down my throat my only purpose is to be a wife. Don’t be fat so I can be a wife. Don’t be too smart so I can be a wife. Dress a certain way, wear makeup, behave a certain way, be a perfect little religious girl, I could go on. Some women have grown resilient to this message, others, like me, have not, not fully, not yet. When a guy shows interest and we end up dating, I am congratulated by shame on getting just the right combination of all of these hustles for worthiness, fulfilling my purpose as the object of desire. This used to be the point where I stopped doing things for myself (because I had a man! I was done!) until I would get broken up with.
“As children, the codependent’s needy parents repeatedly gave them the message that their own wants and needs should be regarded as secondary to their caretakers’. To the extent that these children neglected their needs and focused on their parents’, they could feel valued. But to the degree that they allowed themselves to assert their own, quite legitimate, dependency needs, they were subject either to indirect punishment (say, the silent treatment) or direct (being verbally or physically attacked). In so many words, they were told that they were selfish, and should feel guilty about thinking only of themselves. And it should be noted here that in such families at least one of the parents was probably an addict, arrested in their development, and (childishly) seeking to compensate for their own earlier deprivation through a “substitute” [read, abusive] dependency on their child. That is, they defined their child’s role in term of serving them, not the reverse. Most codependents, then, learned as children that to be “good enough” to be accepted by their parents they had to deny or repress many of their thoughts, feelings, and impulses. In attempting to secure their tenuous (and so anxiety-laden) parental bond, they were required to forget about what they really liked, wanted, and needed– even who they were.”
Damn. There it was, in that article, my life’s story.
I am an adult survivor of childhood emotional, spiritual, and physical abuse, I have been conditioned for self-blame. So, when I last got broken up with, I swore an oath to being a strong individual woman. All that happened was that the shame of childhood fostered codependency remained dormant, until triggered. Instead of thinking, “Damn, what is behind all of this?” and making an appointment for my therapist, I decided to be alone, to learn to be happy alone, to be a strong independent woman. It was a facade. It was fear. This is why I ran away from that guy, this is why I immediately dismissed any meaning behind him calling me beautiful. Being codependent is what I fear, because it was what ended previous relationships.
“Codependents–and this is one of the most fascinating aspects of their character–may not, outwardly, look dependent. That is, they can disguise, even beyond recognition, their urgent reliance on others to confirm their fundamental worth. How? By saying and doing things that make them seem quite in command, even controlling. Having learned in childhood to please and placate their parents, most of them can be “managerial” with others, and in ways that convey a contrary message about themselves…in their seriously misguided adult quest for (unfortunately, conditional) relational acceptance, there’s very little they won’t do.”
Codependency, the Virus
Well, I wish I could say this stops at relationships with men. It doesn’t. Once I became conditioned for codependency, it followed me everywhere I went, like into the study and performance of music:
“Early emotional survival programs, once adaptive, but no longer appropriate, continue to control their thoughts and actions.”
It followed me into my work environments, my teaching, into my friendships. It affected my ability to become financially independent. Before understanding codependency, I was an empty shell feminist, saying all of the things one should say to fight for women’s rights but I was also trapped behind this unrelenting barrier.
This is not all sad news. Thanks to my devotion to reading everything Dr. Brene Brown (shame researcher) has ever written, I know how to deal with this shame. This is a part of my story. Owning this messy story will give me the power to write a brave new ending, as she says. Now that I own the story, the story no longer owns me. Thanks to the books and articles of Dr. Kristin Neff (self compassion researcher), I know how to be self-compassionate as painful memories become unearthed. I may even extend compassion to all of the forces that made this life hard. Thankfully, I have turned my life into one of self-care and self-love, so it only took a few days to really step out of the shame spiral, special thanks to the empathy of my friends. End of emotional seizure.
I messaged my coworker.
I told him that I’m not dating OkCupid guy any further. I felt awful messaging him, when I rejected him just days before that, and not because I don’t try on two pairs of pants at a time, but because I couldn’t hear what he had to say and love myself at the same time. I just had to get my story down first. I can’t participate in anything where I don’t love myself. While being happy alone is important, humans are wired for connection. We want to be with others, it was time I surrendered to the wiring.
I told him if he wanted to go out on a date, I’d be down. He didn’t reply for days and I don’t blame him, but he said yes, that would be fun. I don’t know what that means or if/when it will go down at all, but I am at least grateful that I was in the place I was, messy but sort of self-loving, when he was being the way he is: kind and charming. I’m glad that things went wrong so I could figure this out. Some triggers are necessary to pull.
Brene Brown, The Power of Vulnerability
Kristin Neff, Self Compassion
Leon F Seltzer, “Codependent or Simply Dependent: What’s the Big Difference?” https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/evolution-the-self/201412/codependent-or-simply-dependent-what-s-the-big-difference
(originally published on December 16, 2016)