Wednesday, April 14, 2010

“No One Cares”

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: “No one out there cares that you’re sober.” Or how about this one: “I’ll have [20 years] tomorrow and nobody outside these rooms gives a rat’s ass.” Or maybe this one: “Nobody understands what an accomplishment this is.” Heard anything like that before?

How about this: “It doesn’t matter what other people think.” Or maybe this: “I don’t give a fuck what other people think.” Or my personal favorite: “Someone else’s opinion of you ain’t none of your business.” Yeah. I like that one a lot.

The idea that what other people thought of me doesn’t matter was a foreign concept to me when I started Recovery. For most of my life, I lived according to what other people thought of me. I tried to say things, do things, so that others would like me (or sometimes to make them hate me). If they had a good opinion of me, I had a good opinion of myself. If they criticized me, told me I was worthless, that was how I felt. My self-esteem was entirely dependent on other people.

This way of living is a recipe for disaster—particularly for those of us with this disease.

If we are dependent on others’ opinions about us in order to feel good about ourselves, that leads directly to our acting in ways to affect their opinions. It means that we spend our energy trying to change them, trying to control them. To make matters worse, we can be somewhat successful when we do this. There are plenty of people out there who are willing to play along. We do nice things for people and they show gratitude and appreciation. We feel better about ourselves because of their reaction.

But they don’t always react positively. Some people resent any attempt to be controlled. Sometimes their reactions are consciously calculated to give us the exact opposite reaction of what we are trying to achieve. We do something nice, and they react with scorn. That can lead us to feel bad about ourselves. After all, we did this great, wonderful thing for someone—without even being asked! How dare they not appreciate it?! I’m thinking of an ‘R’ word… “Resentment”.

Entire books have been written on this cycle, and it has a term very familiar to many of us in Recovery: codependency. It’s a vicious cycle. You do something nice for someone, not because you want to just be helpful, but because you are expecting something in return: for them to be nice to you; for them to feel a certain way; for them to say a certain thing. We put ourselves in positions to be rescued, refusing to do something we can and need to do for ourselves in an attempt to force someone else to do it for us. That way, we can later rescue them. Sometimes it’s referred to as an unwritten or unspoken social contract.

Can I take a few seconds to call a spade a spade? This. Is. Control. It is manipulation. When we engage in this cycle, when we engage in this behavior, we are attempting to control other people. To make matters worse, there is a large portion of our culture out there that thinks this is the way things are supposed to be done. Certain religions, like Christianity, are particularly guilty of it. Women on the whole are trained to do it from a very young age. They are taught to be ‘nurturing’. True nurturing is something else entirely. More often than not, what they are really taught is codependence.

Breaking the codependent cycle is as difficult as breaking any addiction. It takes developing boundaries. It takes sticking to them, because the people around you won’t be used to it. They will test you. They will throw tantrums and hissy fits and all kinds of shit at you in an attempt to see if you’re serious, if you really mean it. But it is possible.

We can refuse to do things for people that they can and need to do for themselves. We can insist on doing the things for ourselves that we can and need to do for ourselves. We can provide help to others only when it is truly needed. We can wait until we are actually asked for help—it’s the best indicator that someone is willing to receive it. Someone who doesn’t want help may very well fight you in your attempts to provide it. Ask anyone who has tried to get a loved one to stop drinking or using before they were ready.

It is true that helping others feels good. But when we get locked into that codependent cycle, we come to depend on that giving of help to feel good about ourselves. Once that happens, we are no longer truly giving. We are now manipulating. We are doing something for someone else not for the joy it brings them, but the feeling it gives us. This form of manipulation is every bit as dangerous as any other.

If our self-esteem is dependent on what someone else feels about us, it’s not truly our own. Our own self-esteem remains low. Under-nourished. And does in fact get chipped away at bit by bit, because the good feelings we do have aren’t coming from within, but without. That diminishes our inner selves. We think lower of ourselves; we think that how we feel about us isn’t as important because other people feel good about us. We come to value someone else’s opinion of us more than we value our opinion about ourselves.

Someone else’s opinion of you is none of your business.

Other people are allowed to feel how they feel; that means you are allowed to feel how you feel. When we have low self-esteem, when we don’t like ourselves, it’s much easier to focus on how other people feel about us—especially if they have a good opinion about us. Doing the work so that we feel good about ourselves is a lot harder than manipulating someone else to feel good about us. More often than not, it’s easy to make someone feel good about us. But, if we are focused on how other people feel about us, we are distracting ourselves from the fact that we don’t like ourselves. It’s Denial all over again.

We crave external validation. We are human beings, social creatures. We want other people to like us. We want others to approve of us. It’s natural. The secret here is some of the oldest wisdom: be yourself. It’s foolish to think everyone will like you, and futile to try and make it so. You can’t control other people, only yourself. So be yourself. The people who do like you will really like you—and for who you really are.

So what do we do when we find ourselves caring what others think of us? We do our best to let go. We remember that their opinion of us isn’t as important as our opinion of ourselves. We remember that we can’t control others, only ourselves. Instead of seeking the approval and validation of others, we give it to ourselves. We look in the mirror and say ‘I love you’ to the reflection.

Someone who wasn’t in Recovery once tried to insist—and very loudly—that they could control other people. She said (in effect), “If I come up to you, spit on your face, and tell you you’re a sack of shit, wouldn’t that ruin your day? Wouldn’t that make you feel bad?! Come on, now. Honestly.”

Honestly? Only if I let it.

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