A few weeks ago I celebrated 6 months of recovery. I’m in a strange place where I am no longer who I was when I started going to a support group, and at the same time I have a ways to go before I reach a deep sense of worthiness of love and belonging.
Recently I learned something pretty crucial about love, something that I never understood before. Worthiness does not hinge on behavior. I understand that there are no prerequisites for worthiness but I have never understood how deeply it must be felt on a cognitive level. For example, it is possible to have a deep sense of worthiness of love and belonging while also engaging in unloving behavior. This explains how I have friends who have a deep sense of worthiness while also having their vices every now and then. If they wanted to drop one of the vices, no big deal.
On the other hand, it is possible to feel unworthy of love and belonging even while engaging in loving behavior. That was me six months ago. I honestly thought I could book read, article write, and self-care my way out of this lack of deeply felt worthiness. Silly Miranda.
Codependency begets shame. A kind of binding shame that contaminates every aspect of the addiction. To break it down further, there are categories of behavioral patterns that codependents struggle with, some on a pathological level:
- minimizing feelings
- lacking empathy for others
- self-perceived as completely unselfish and dedicated the well-being of others
- masking pain, passive aggressive
- labeling others with negative traits
- unable to recognize the unavailability of others
- think they can go it alone (belief that help is not needed)
- embarrassed to receive recognition, praise, or gifts
- validation seeking
- do not perceive themselves as lovable
- difficulty in admitting mistakes
- need to appear to be right in the eyes of others
- unable to ask for what they need/want
- self perceived as superior over others
- look to others to provide their sense of safety
- difficulty in getting started, meeting deadlines ,and completing projects
- trouble setting healthy boundaries and priorities
- extremely loyal (remaining in harmful situations too long)
- willing to compromise values/integrity to avoid rejection or anger
- put aside own interests to do what others want
- hypervigilant regarding the feelings of others (taking on those feelings)
- afraid to express beliefs, opinions, and feelings when they differ from others
- accepting sexual attention when they want love
- making decisions without regard to consequences
- give up personal truth to gain approval of others or avoid change
- act in ways that invite others to reject shame or express anger toward them
- avoid emotional physical or sexual intimacy to maintain distance
- allows addictions to people, places, and things distract them from achieving intimacy in relationships
- uses indirect communication to avoid conflict
- suppresses feelings to avoid vulnerability
- pulls people toward them but pushes them away when too close
- believe that displays of emotion are a sign of weakness
- withholds appreciation
- becomes resentful when others decline their help or reject their advice
- lavish gifts and favors on those they want to influence
- use sexual attention to gain approval and acceptance
- have to feel needed in order to have a relationship with others
- demand that their needs be met by others
- use charm and charisma to convince others of their capacity to be caring and compassionate
- use blame and shame to exploit others emotionally
- refuse to cooperate, compromise, or negotiate
- use manipulation to control outcomes
The paradox of codependency lies in these behavioral patterns. Many codependents engage in these behaviors for the sake of attaining and maintaining what they believe is real (but actually conditional) love. More often than not, these behavioral patterns result in the opposite: isolation/alienation, self-betrayal, self-deprivation, self-destruction, loss of energy/resources, and susceptibility to abuse.
So, however a codependent gets his/her/their codependency on, there is shame attached to every single one of those little behavioral patterns. Therefore, it isn’t enough to simply decide to change the pattern. Codependency shame sticks until the story is known, shared, and empathy is received. Empathy for every little story of shame, every little seemingly innocuous behavior. Empathy from people who know your struggle exactly. Empathy from sharing with them, empathy from listening to their struggles too.
All this said, recognizing my patterns and receiving empathy for my struggles at a weekly support group was not the hardest part. The hardest part about cultivating a deep sense of worthiness of love and belonging was love itself. There are no words that can properly summarize the boredom I felt when I started taking care of myself every day.
Love is Boring
Making healthy meals for myself? Boring. Journaling and meditating? Boring. Exercising? Boring. Self-deprivation reversal/hygienic self-care? Boring. Boring, boring, boring. Many of these things are still boring and I probably wouldn’t do half of it if I didn’t make a list to check off of every day. I can’t believe the ease with which I exercised and ate well when shame, the fear of disconnection, was riding shotgun. The surge of chemicals that I used to get with validation seeking (norepinephrine, dopamine, serotonin) are no longer there in addicting/abnormal amounts. Shame isn’t there anymore, but neither is motivation. I had to love myself despite how unbelievably boring it is, every day. I never had a day where loving myself felt incredibly rewarding. At first, loving myself every day, I felt like I was doing these things for nothing.
Love Is Really Fucking Difficult
Then love stopped being boring and became incredibly difficult. I learned that when I’m stressed out, loving myself is the last thing I want to do. My go-to is survival mode, launching into controlling behaviors, and ruminating on every possible negative outcome, then numbing (FB scrolling), numbing (stress eating), and numbing (workaholism) with whatever time was left in the day. I’m glad I got in the habit of writing my loving action list, because that list would save me every time life got stressful. It was difficult, like pushing a boulder uphill during a sandstorm, but I fought to love and take good care of myself as much as I could.
Experiencing anxiety and trying to love myself at the same time emerged as the most difficult in one particularly odd place: creativity. Weird right? Creativity is supposed to be fun. I used to engage in creativity as a strategy, for purposes of making me resilient so I could perform. I wasn’t digging too deeply into any of these creative acts for two reasons:
- Codependency would hijack its usefulness, rendering me uninterested.
- Every time I got more and more into a creative art I felt opposition, accompanied with the all too familiar shame tape: You’re not good enough.
By now you all know how much I love to deconstruct a shame tape (I’m weird like that). For once, this one was not created by a parent or family member. This shame tape was created by my addiction.
Even though my dream to be a great trumpet player was driven by validation, I still learned to play the trumpet well and I have had some incredible experiences as a performer. Even though caring for my appearance, my grades, my accomplishments, and my friendships were all perceived as currency for my acceptability, I still ran 3 half marathons, I passed two semesters of college calculus in high school, and I have written more than two books worth of blog articles. I forgot several amazing things that I have done. Rather, I never took proper stock of what I have accomplished (imposter syndrome) even though there was only one thing I truly, truly failed to do.
I failed to maintain high levels of validation, something no one succeeds in doing.
Everything I had ever done seemed to be contaminated by my validation seeking failure. That’s why I felt opposition in creativity, shame was trying to convince me that I fail at everything I set out to do. I had to tell myself that I never failed to do all of those wonderful things, that my sense of accomplishment was poisoned by validation seeking.
Goal seeking and validation seeking created a gray area for me (think Venn diagram). Validation seeking won me some ability, but never saw me to my goals. At best, I was stopped just before I reached where I wanted to be. That’s when I would hit a barrier.
As hard as this was to swallow, I could celebrate knowing that I may begin the work of reclaiming some of the things I would normally be proud of myself for doing. I could celebrate the future too. Perhaps I could revisit some of the goals I once set.
Love is Alright, I Guess
There are two things I love about love, even though it’s boring half the time. I have begun to love play and rest. I am allowing myself to go back in time and do all of the things I never allowed myself to do (or the things my parents didn’t allow me to do for some silly reason). I bought a video game console, I tie-dyed a T-shirt. I’m going to take tap dance classes. I’m going to go horseback riding. Who knows what else? I’m going to have fun.
The other thing I love about love is boundary setting. Boundaries are the best. I now say “no” a lot. I don’t reply to texts and emails right away. I typically don’t hang out with friends Monday through Thursday because I prioritize my self-care Monday through Friday.
I can’t complain about life when it comes to boundaries. Every time I screw up and I break one of my own boundaries, I am hyper aware of how I feel when that happens. I am self-compassionate, then the boundary gets stronger. I commit to loving myself more, to being more vigilant about what I need. It’s almost like a weird little game I have made up: How protective can Miranda be of her newfound prioritization of self-love and care?
I understand that love doesn’t have to be wonderful all the time, it doesn’t have to feel amazing (sometimes it does feel amazing), and sometimes it can be boring or downright difficult.
I have put really strong boundaries around my trumpet playing. I still get hired to perform and I am still a teacher but just like love, I make trumpet playing my own before I share it with others. The most heartbreaking thing concerning my trumpet playing is that I have had to accept that it was not my dream. My dream, unfortunately, was being enough. Now that my priority is taking care of myself as a person, my trumpet playing can sit comfortably in the diminished role of adding to what is already a joyful life, instead of being the key to my survival, my lovability, or my happiness.
Exercising is still the worst, but I have returned to it. I don’t have to train for a half marathon and I don’t need to join Beach Body. I’m only exercising so that I have deeper sleep. I still eat healthy meals and I allow myself a certain amount of sugar (20-30g) every day if I want it. Food and exercise are for nurturing and I don’t give a damn what I look like or how much I weigh at the end of the day.
I have begun to notice a significant change in my behavior with family, friends, coworkers, and students. There is more interdependence. I don’t hang out with my friends all of the time but somehow the time I spend with them feels more special now. Actually, I think I could say that about everything in my life at the moment.
My life is joyfully ordinary. Never in a million years did I think that “joyfully ordinary” would be how I want to describe my life. Little did I know that this is the place from where I would feel the most personal power. I think this is what the last three years of writing, reading, and soul-searching has been for.
It wasn’t about being able to go on stage and perform with confidence, it was about learning how I may truly love myself, and to do everything I dream to do from a strong foundation of worthiness of love and belonging.
Leon Seltzer, “From Parent Pleasing to People Pleasing” Psychology Today
Recovery Patterns of Co-Dependence, CODA Group Handbook
Brené Brown, Daring Greatly
Kristin Neff, Self Compassion