A few weeks ago, I realized and accepted that I have deep seated issues with codependency. These issues have affected my ability to study and perform music, they have screwed with my relationships, and affected how I do my job. It was an emotional tornado for me, triggered by a compliment from a guy. Countless life experiences bubbled to the surface, demanding perspective. I got my ass kicked. Friends were on notice, my therapist moved our appointment up two days (best therapist ever). This would pass, right? Except…
I Have No Sense of Self
“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.”
–Leon Seltzer in “Codependent or Simply Dependent: What’s the Big Difference?”
That’s kind of shitty. Who I was meant to be, who I would naturally become, was buried in the service of people pleasing. Abuse, and remaining in an abusive environment, fueled self-blame and self-deprivation which buried my original self even deeper as negative self-imagery took over and began to carve out its path…
Fortunately, this is where music saved me. In my teenage years, playing trumpet was a refuge. My parents knew nothing about it so they couldn’t make me feel like a piece of shit. No wonder I majored in it (I don’t know that I would have otherwise). My codependency with my parents would eventually become my codependency with my career and this led to countless experiences of shame based performance anxiety. Sounds terrible (pun intended), but one thing I can be thankful for is that the anxiety I experienced as a musician ended up serving as a litmus test for my resilience. Once finally hip to the shame research of Brene Brown, my journey back to my original self began (though the journey originally began for the purposes of being able to play the trumpet without shutting down, it all seems silly now).
…so for now, no sense of self. Other than my gender, the fact that I am a dog owner, and that I enjoy comedienne memoirs, no sense of self. Codependency kind of/pretty much has its claws in what I thought were my greatest qualities: that I am a fighter, that I tirelessly seek answers. I hope I’ll be introduced to this buried inner child, but that will require tremendous love.
Dilemma number two:
I have no idea what love is other than what has been written in research books (the chick lit novels and rom-coms lied to me…LIED!). The only love I have ever been taught to know is conditional, which isn’t love at all. Conditional love created the idea of a deficit, something to be made up for, permanent until fixed. The goal was to be good enough, a non-fat, Malayalam speaking, super Indian, with straight As, who dresses like a proper girl, who helps around the house. Thanks to shame all I achieved was fail, fail, fail, fail, fail, fail, and fail. With self-deprivation, add 20 more fails. The goal was not to be healthy, connected, and knowledgeable, but to feign my grasp on these things. It was all about fooling others (hello, Imposter Syndrome) in order to be enough. I have engaged in self-care before, which is self-love, but it was always laced with the shame of codependency/people pleasing. The self-care was, until recently, for the purposes of playing my instrument better.
So I dug back into a fewbooks:
“I define love as thus: The will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.”
–Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled
“We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness, and affection…it is something that we nurture and grow…We can only love others as much as we love ourselves. Shame, blame, disrespect, betrayal, and the withholding of affection damage the roots from which love grows. Love can only survive these injuries if they are acknowledged, healed, and rare.”
–Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection
Extension of self. Nurturing. Okay. Got it. I’m good now, right?
Not so much.
Control vs. Personal Power
I followed the sources of one never ending litany of shame to a Venn diagram of sorts. One between control and personal power.
“The codependent’s behavior—whether controlling, manipulative, supportive, super-responsible, sacrificial, or rescuing—is driven by the same never met childhood need: to be fully, unconditionally accepted by their caretakers, and that includes being able to feel safe and protected, attended to, empathized with, respected, esteemed—in a word, nurtured. So in their seriously misguided adult quest for (unfortunately, conditional) relational acceptance, there’s very little they won’t do.”
“We are the most dangerous to ourselves and the to people around us when we feel powerless. Powerlessness leads to fear and desperation…the feelings of powerlessness that accompany failure start with those all too familiar ‘could have/should have’ self-inventories and our fear grows in tandem with a strength in our belief that an opening has been forever closed. Pervasive feelings of powerlessness eventually lead to despair…moving out of powerlessness and despair requires hope. Hope happens when we set goals, have the tenacity to pursue those goals, and believe in our own abilities to act. Hope is learned when boundaries, consistency, and support are in place.”
–Brene Brown, Rising Strong
It turned out that several of the things I was doing to have a codependency-laced semblance of control, were the same things I would do to cultivate hope and gain a stronger sense of personal power. This has been the biggest ass kicking of all and here’s how it has played out so far:
Goal of working out:
The minute I press play, I either envision myself thinner or I think about how much more acceptable I’ll be if I keep this habit up, what I’ll get, how I’ll be seen. I acknowledge this as shame and I let the feeling pass. I keep working out no matter how much I want to quit right at the moment, and that feeling of wanting to quit? It’s potent.
Goal of performing:
Despite knowing better, my playing is on constant surveillance. Not for the purposes of adaptation, but to control or guarantee my success. Perfectionism, imagining how my playing will be received: I acknowledge this as shame and I let the feeling pass, knowing these thoughts are not grounded in reality, I contact a friend for empathy, and then I play, doing the best I can no matter how much I want to put the horn away.
Goal of relationship building:
This is a doozie. I realize that I talk…a lot. I talk so damn much that I hardly listen. I have friends who know me better than I know them. I have not relinquished control for long enough to listen, truly listen, ask questions and listen, listen, listen. I have finally grown tired of hearing my own voice all of the time. Now, I wonder if I am contributing lovingly to my time with my friends. How could I have loved them, if I had not been unconditionally loving myself all this time? Before I beat myself up too hard about being a shit friend, I acknowledge this as shame and I let the feeling pass. Be self-compassionate, my therapist says.
Goal of mindfulness:
I’ll be walking down the street with my dog and sense that my mind is clear. No validating thoughts, no maladaptive daydreaming. I get uncomfortable with the silence. The high of validating daydreams, foreboding joy, or scenario rehearsal gives me a sense of control. Also, it’s a numbing device, it feels good. I have struggled with dropping this habit, and I eventually learned why.
“Having become nothing less than addicted to pleasing others—and people pleasing really is kind of relationship addiction—for them to “abstain” from such habitual approval-striving requires a great deal of patience, restraint, fortitude, and discipline…there will be a strong deep seated resistance to changing it. And this opposition will hold regardless of how much, consciously, the individual truly desires to change it. For the anxious child within can only view such efforts as gravely threatening the need for personal security (which is so intimately linked to avoiding parental disapproval)…like any other addiction, implicitly the keyword has been more. For without the ability to truly “get” that they’re good enough, they’ve spent their whole lives trying to get more and more of what finally could never lead to the self-approval and -acceptance they’ve yearned for all along.”
Ugh. My article would have been more aptly named, “So, You Found Mordor”. Mount Doom is kind of still way over there, and you have a lot of walking to do, you may lose a finger, you’ll need others to help you even though you kind of crave solitude with this burdensome thing that hangs around your neck…and there are spiders.*
Love: A Choice
I haven’t spoken to my parents in 8 months. I’ll continue to stay away until I sort things out, until I’m stronger, until I truly gain a sense of autonomy. I wish I could give them credit for their baseline ability to love me, not letting me die in infancy, clothing, feeding, and sheltering me, seeing that I am educated, but I can’t. It is in my head that you better effing do those things if you choose to bring life into this world and oh shit…
That’s my go-to…baseline.
I don’t naturally love myself beyond baseline. I do whatever is necessary to keep walking along the surface of this planet but I’m not truly living because I have not truly unconditionally loved and felt the effects of that love. Self-love requires a ton of effort for me.
In an effort to keep perspective and to stick to my newfound goal of cultivating love, I have written down all of the ways in which I loved myself or others that day. Every little thing from getting sleep, brushing my teeth, and making meals, to working out, walking the dogs, doing my hair, reaching out to friends, and playing the guitar or engaging in various other creative acts for fun. Some days it’s easy to love myself, other days love takes more time and effort than usual. I realize that love will take a long time to cultivate. Some days I am happy I have a plan, other days I curse that I even have to have a plan.
Love is not a go-to for me. I’m new to its effect, free of condition. I went to lunch with a friend and his kids, I chose to listen to them talk enthusiastically about all sorts of things, and I felt connected to them. It was a strange feeling, I was happy about it though. Another day, my dog ran up to me with a squeaky ball and dropped it at my feet, I chose to put whatever I had in my hands down and we played fetch, it turned into a wrestling match between the two dogs myself as referee. They were so ridiculous, I laughed so hard. I felt more joy playing with them than I had before, and we had played so many times before. I have done several of these loving things before, but as an empty shell.
I didn’t have to make these choices to love, but I am always glad I did. It sets everything on a different course. I liken this to a reference made by relationship researcher, Dr. John Gottman, that I will regularly be presented with Sliding Doors moments.** “Not all bids are spoken or obvious…attunement means paying attention to subtle clues. You don’t always have to comply with the request, but you should respond with love.”
Cultivating unconditional love is going to be the biggest ass kicking of my life, so I decided to arm myself with mantras. The latest have been the greatest so I felt moved to share.
“You were lovable yesterday, you are lovable today, you will be lovable tomorrow.”
Whenever I am attacked by shaming thoughts, this is what I have found myself saying. It has, so far, stopped many a shame spiral. I find myself saying the above mantra whenever I pass a mirror or when I work out.
“You are now free to let other people down.”
I am not, nor was I ever impervious to letting people down. I would hope the people I let down are compassionate and know I am doing the best I can with what I have, that I have the capacity to adapt, if they have the heart to give me a second chance. If not, who cares? I think this is imperative to worthiness, as it doesn’t have anything to do with my reliability to those who matter to me (necessary for trust).
So I’m going to need to be courageous, I’ll need to persevere. A lot will be new for me. I know loving beyond baseline will be tough, but it will be worth it.
It is worth it to figure out how to truly live.
*Lord of the Rings reference for the two of you who haven’t read the books or seen the movies.
**Sliding Doors is a movie starring Gwyneth Paltrow, where the lead character has to make one of two choices in a given moment and the movie follows the storyline of both choices.
Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection
Brene Brown, Daring Greatly
Brene Brown, Rising Strong
Leon Seltzer, “Codependent or Simply Dependent: What’s the Big Difference?” (psychologytoday.com)
Leon Seltzer, “From Parent-Pleasing to People-Pleasing” (psychologytoday.com)
Maxwell Maltz, Psychocybernetics
John Gottman, What Makes Love Last
Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer, “Cultivating Self Compassion in Trauma Survivors” (self-compassion.org)
(originally published on January 3, 2017)