The first time I heard the term ‘codependency’, I was sitting in South Pacific Private, where my family and I were participating in the Family Program – an outpatient program designed for family members who have recently had a loved one complete the three-week in-patient program at the treatment centre. This was six years before I would become a patient at SPP myself.
When I first heard the therapist introduce the concept of codependency , I recoiled. To me, being codependent was to be ‘needy’ and I had spent years building a reinforced wall that was impenetrable to all but a select few. And even those I did let in, were in on my terms and kept at what I felt was a safe distance. I believed those that were codependent were weak and the idea that a person could be vulnerable with another human being baffled me.
Yet, as I began to learn more about what codependency truly meant, I came to realise I exhibited many of the defining characteristics of a codependent. Years later, I now understand my resistance was being driven by my fear of vulnerability, of not feeling safe and of truly being seen.
During our therapy sessions it was explained to me that codependence actually develops as a result of growing up in a dysfunctional, less-than-nurturing environment and manifests in adulthood in two key areas: the relationship with self and relationships with others. People that suffer from codependency are often people-pleasers, driven by an intense need to have everyone around them ‘like’ them.
I grew up in an environment where I often felt alone. I was fearful of being anything less than perfect as I believed being flawed would result in being abandoned.
My intense striving to be perfect backflipped during my teenage years and I became very rebellious. In hindsight I now see this behaviour was an attempt to gain attention from my parents, which worked to an extent, but not in the way I had desired. When I was caught drinking or lying, I was often disciplined quite harshly and with little explanation. As a result, I came to believe it wasn’t safe to make mistakes.
One of the factors that indicated to me that I may be a codependent was that I found it difficult to own my own reality. For codependents, this is often a result of having your reality minimised or denied as a child. Often parents will lie to their children about an argument or incident, with the aim of “protecting the child”, however, if the child witnessed the event first-hand, and was then told that either “it didn’t happen” or they were being “silly”, the child will begin to distrust their own perception.
Full of fear and feeling like nothing I ever did was good enough; I became quite controlling in my teenage years. This manifested in a number of ways including extreme control around my diet, my schooling and even my hobbies such as music. Yet the thing I tried to control more than anything was what you thought of me. My need to control people was driven by a burning desire to be accepted and loved as this was the only way I could feel good about myself.
As I grew into adulthood, I had developed an unconscious need to detach from reality. During my 20s, I only cried a handful of times and I remember wearing this emotional numbness like a badge of honour. I had decided crying was weak, and my core belief that it wasn’t safe to be vulnerable, meant I didn’t allow myself to feel deeply into any emotions. What I’ve come to realise is that by repressing my reality for so many years, I was unable to accept and process unpleasant feelings in the present.
This need to avoid my reality later resulted in the abuse of drugs and alcohol as they enabled me to stay disconnected and relieved me of the intolerable feelings of the present moment. It became an anaesthetic to my feelings of worthlessness and unlovability.
Another way codependence manifested was my avoidance of intimacy. I’ve had a history of either ‘blowing up’ healthy relationships or choosing unhealthy partners as a way of avoiding intimacy. I had thought codependence was when two people were enmeshed, when in fact, a codependent can be extremely anti-dependent, meaning intimacy is blocked. By becoming needless and wantless in a relationship, the exchange of intimacy becomes a one-way street. To be truly intimate with someone, is to have them see you as your truest self, flaws and all. Yet my core belief was, “if you really see me, you won’t love me”. Crippling fear meant I was incapable of showing up in a relationship as my authentic self.
Codependent adults will also have difficulty maintaining healthy boundaries. You will either be walled, meaning you don’t let anybody in, or you’ll be boundaryless, allowing anyone and everyone to get too close. I definitely fell into the walled category. Despite desperately wanting to be loved, I was terrified of rejection. Therefore, I would wear different masks depending on who was around me. I became so good at this that it was completely unconscious behaviour and I’m still working on recorrecting this today.
Unable to sit with my own reality, I would often let other people’s reality control my own. This meant I was highly sensitive to the moods of those around me. For example, if my dad was in a bad mood, I would become very jumpy and uneasy. Later on, when my partner was having a bad day, I would feel this personally, making up that I must have done something wrong and falling into a pit of rejection which diminished my self-worth.
Since coming into recovery, I’ve experienced a number of large shifts in both my old behaviours and belief systems. By living a life based on estimable actions, I’ve been able to slowly rebuild my self-worth. I’ve come to accept that no human being is perfect and that my value is not based on what another person thinks of me.
Repairing the emotional, intellectual and spiritual forms of abuse I experienced, is an inside job and a continual journey. As my spiritual life continues to grow, I’m able to embrace more of my imperfections while allowing others around me to share theirs.
If this article resonates with you and you would like more information on where you can find support visit: https://www.codependentsanonymous.org.au/.
For further reading: Facing Codependence by Pia Mellody
Ash B is a former client of South Pacific Private, Australia’s Leading Treatment Centre for Addiction, Anxiety and Depression. If you or someone you care about is struggling, reach out to our team on 1800 063 332 or take a free self-assessment.