The term co-dependence has been in the recovery vernacular for a long time. It originated in reference to the enabling family and friends of those with addictions. You know, the folks who will consistently pick their partner up at the bar when they are too impaired to drive. On the one hand, that is a positive, protective gesture for everyone on the road and on the other, an action that may perpetuate the pattern. Another example is the spouse who calls their loved one’s boss to say that they are too ill to come to work when they are actually hung over from a bender the night before. Perhaps it reflects a litany of excuses for why this person is unable to change. The word has evolved to reflect the attitudes and actions of those who are known as people pleasers, approval seekers, those who are emotional chameleons and enmeshed with loved ones. I know the phenomenon well since I too exhibit some of the Patterns and Characteristics of Co-Dependence as explained in the website Coda.org.
The most notable for this co-dependent in long-term recovery, include
- minimize, alter, or deny how they truly feel.
- perceive themselves as completely unselfish and dedicated to the well-being of others.
- think they can take care of themselves without any help from others.
- judge what they think, say, or do harshly, as never good enough
- are extremely loyal, remaining in harmful situations too long.
- compromise their own values and integrity to avoid rejection or anger.
- put aside their own interests in order to do what others want.
I came to the awareness of its role in my life in my 20’s. I had been reading my journals from college days (I still have them) and noticed a pattern in relationships. I would bring into my life, people with wounds that I thought I had to heal. Having grown up with parents who modeled doing it all, including raising a family, working several jobs, volunteering in the community, having a large circle of friends and maintaining a life-long loving relationship, I believed I needed to emulate them. If I wasn’t busy doing things for others, seducing them to love me and continuing to do what they wanted so they wouldn’t leave, I was worried that they would. I realized that this persona that I called ‘Little Shirley Temple, tap dancing for attention,’ was born in early childhood. The charm and charisma that are also aspects of co-dependence were taking root and growing in me. Those qualities do serve me as a therapist, writer, and speaker, but when left to run amok, can devolve into dysfunction. And so they did, in many relationships over the years. Quite simply, ‘Shirley’ wanted to be loved best of all.
In 1986, I met a man who became my husband. He too was charming and charismatic, as he wooed and won me. The red flags began waving early on in our relationship. A child of an alcoholic/rageaholic father and a mother who rode her own emotional roller coaster ride, and desperately wanted to be loved, he was primed and ready to go head to head and sometimes heart to heart with me. The former, rather than the latter characterized much of our nearly 12 years as a married couple, before he died in 1998 of Hepatitis C. At the time, I was deeply immersed in my own fear-based patterns. I felt called to heal his wounds, kiss the boo-boos and make them all better. I ramped up the attributes of this process addiction, thinking that if I met his needs more fully, he would be kinder and more patient and less angry. Many years later, I came to call that ‘savior behavior’.
What are the signs of savior behavior?
- Consistently putting the needs of others before your own.
- Ignoring signs of fatigue and burnout, but unable to slow the pace and regroup.
- Doing for others what they are fully capable of doing for themselves.
- Feeling resentful and unappreciated.
- Attempting to help others circumvent pitfalls and personal potholes while falling into them yourself.
- Anticipating what others want and offering before they even ask.
- Wanting to appear altruistic and earn approval.
- Getting extreme gratification from being a caregiver.
- Believing that you know what is in another’s best interest.
- Attempting to convince others how to feel and what to say.
One of the most brilliant things he shared that remain with me to this day as barometers for my progress are these lines. He said I was “an emotional contortionist who would bend over backward to please people,” “a deer caught in the headlights when it came to decision-making,” and that I would “be looking over my shoulder to see if the ‘propriety police’ were watching.”
For years, I resisted viewing them as behaviors to banish, since they had earned me love and approval. I had become adept at reading people to determine what they wanted and would often provide them with same before they could even request them. I would hesitate and procrastinate, delaying decisions until the last possible moment to prevent making the ‘wrong one’. I would cover my mistakes and lies that I had told in order to keep the peace. I would sacrifice integrity to prevent rocking the boat. I would second guess myself in an effort to be absolutely certain I was heading in the right direction and even then, I doubted.
In the past 18 years since his death, I have evolved dramatically. I chalk it up to a number of factors. They include a sense of freedom from living with someone who in many ways was as addicted to his anger and married to his wounds, perpetuated by having lived with parents who were unhappily married, as I was to being conflict avoidant and having been raised by parents whose marriage and lives I idealized. I have also remained in the recovery field as a therapist, teacher, and journalist, which keeps me on my toes and won’t allow me to sink into complacency. Many of my friends are in recovery from all manner of addictions and they call me on my stuff often. In addition, I have been able to stretch my comfort zones as I speak my truth and express my own needs. Three examples from this week alone, follow.
I had been doing some work for someone I love. It was rewarding and fulfilling creatively. It made a difference. The person publically praised my work. All of these fed my approval seeking inner child. While I was paid, the budget wouldn’t permit remuneration in alignment with what my investment of time and my expertise was worth. I was able to confidently let her know my feelings and she accepted them. I am not moving forward with the next round with her professionally, even as we remain friends.
A few weeks ago, while in the midst of a slump, feeling discouraged about the trajectory of my life, a friend reached out and generously offered to have me enroll in a 21-day program her was leading, in order to turn it around. I was excited about it until I learned that one of the requirements was that I would need to take that time away from social media. I knew I wouldn’t be able to do so for many reasons, among them, the requirement to post my articles so that they will be well read and the need to remain visible to the public. I also find social media to be a means of having ongoing discussions about topics that matter. I sat with my decision for a day and then reached out to him to share my concerns. He understood and let me know that it was a must and when I was ready to take that leap, I was welcome in the program. Not sure that will ever happen, but it was nice to know there was an option. The interesting thing, which is a common phenom, is that my decision to state my case assertively meant that the training had already begun and perhaps had met its goal.
Lastly, I shared with another friend that I noticed a pattern in our relationship that she had expectations that I respond immediately (or nearly so) to her messages. She is assertive in asking to have her needs met, which I do admire and it sometimes borders on excess. I pointed out that it seems my role in her life is to provide resources and promotion for her work in the world, which is valuable. I let her know that there are others in my life to whom I have been offering attention, including one whose mother just died and another who is facing the possibility of a breast cancer diagnosis after just having had hip replacement surgery. The tone of the message was not apologetic as it would have been at an earlier point in my life. It was clear and compassionate to both of us. I have not heard back from her, but have no sense of trepidation about her response.
In all of these cases, I am worlds away from that emotional contortionist. Ironically, over the past few weeks, I had been in the throes of bronchial distress to such a degree that I injured my ribs from coughing and ended up in the ER on New Years Day. Last night, they were healed to the point at which I could actually do a back bend. I remain on the road with recovery.