Tuesday, October 2, 2012

“Thinking About Codependence”

A lot of us in Recovery have issues with codependence. Our families tend to suffer from it to an even greater extent, and make no mistake it can be every bit as painful as what those of us dealing with the Disease go through.

I had the fortune (misfortune?) to begin recognizing my own codependent thoughts and behaviors early on in my Recovery journey. In a way, I was working on these issues before I had even started the work of recovery from my addictions. Naturally, I didn’t make much progress until I began addressing the latter.

I’ve heard codependence called ‘addiction to people’. I’m not sure I see it quite like that. I tend to look at it more like the Disease, just without substances. A lot of the behavior patterns, the ways of thinking and relating to others, are so similar to active addiction. And certainly codependence walks hand in hand with the Disease; it’s pretty rare to find a couple where one is an addict or alcoholic and the other isn’t codependent.

The work I’ve done on my own codependence has taken a lot of forms: learning to have and enforce strong boundaries for myself; not offering help in situations where it hasn’t been asked for; allowing others to be responsible for themselves and the situations they’ve gotten themselves into; not making assumptions about what others think and feel; asking for help when I need it. There are many others.

Changing these patterns has been tough for me. Something I still struggle with is the idea that my allowing someone else to have their problems and deal with them themselves does not mean I don’t care about them or what they’re going through. It’s meant learning the difference between having compassion for someone, versus feeling sorry for them. And also that having compassion for someone and what they’re going through does not automatically lead to action on my part. Just because someone is having a hard time in life, that does not mean I have to abandon my own boundaries that I’ve set for myself.

Just because someone is having a bad day (or a bad week, month, or year), that doesn’t give them the right to treat me poorly. Just because I feel compassion for someone else’s situation does not mean I allow others to manipulate me. If anything, when someone else is going through a hard time, I have to be extra vigilant about maintaining my boundaries because I know my tendency is to abandon those boundaries, to cancel out myself and rescue the other person--even if only temporarily from their own feelings.

Codependent manipulation can be downright insidious. Throwing a pity party to try and get others to rescue us? Not healthy behavior. It keeps the pity partier thinking of themselves as helpless, and prevents them from doing what they need to do to take care of themselves. And it’s bad for the helper, too. I know from my own personal experience that being a rescuer leads me to have an inflated opinion of myself. It feeds my ego in unhealthy ways. I start thinking about how great I am that I do all these wonderful things for other people—and without even being asked! That’s not about being someone who cares for others, that’s about me puffing myself up.

It’s taken me some time to learn to recognize the difference between when I’m being a rescuer and when I’m genuinely helping someone. I have to watch my motives, my thoughts and my feelings. I need to keep on asking myself, ‘am I doing this to try to control the other person?’ It applies to my emotional sobriety as well. I still catch myself having imaginary conversations all the time that aren’t about anything else other than me trying to control a situation in which I feel powerless.

I like to tell my sponsees that codependence work is like 12-step graduate study. Work through your steps for your addiction first, I tell them. A lot of the work we do on our addiction helps combat those codependent ways of thinking and behaving. If we get through all our steps and are still having trouble with codependency, there are a ton of books out there on the subject. (Followers of this blog are familiar with my deep love of Melody Beattie, just to name one author.)

In the end, though, this is yet another one of those ‘quality problems’ that we get to work on. Once we’re living the spiritual lifestyle, once we’ve put together a few one-days-at-a-time, life begins to open up for us. Instead of our lives being what our addiction brings on us, they become what we make them.

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