Self-care is treating yourself with love and compassion. It’s the act of doing something that increases your health and well being. Self-care restores your energy and “fills you up” emotionally, physically, and/or spiritually. Self-care helps prevent burnout and is an essential part of living a healthy, happy life.
But some people have a hard time doing things for themselves. People with codependent traits would much rather do things to lighten someone else’s load or make other people happy than do something for themselves. It’s hard for codependents to recognize and value their own needs and meet them through self-care.
Self-care is important for everyone, but it’s especially important for those of us who struggle with codependency. Self-care isn’t just a way to take care of yourself, it’s a part of healing codependency because when you learn to balance caring for yourself with caring for others you move away from the codependent tendency to allow others to dictate your self-worth.
There are three primary reasons that self-care is hard for codependents.
1. No one modeled self-care for you.
No one showed you what healthy self-care looks like. Not only was it not modeled and encouraged, it may have been actively discouraged. You were told that taking time for yourself, spending money on yourself, or pursuing a hobby is selfish or wasteful. In your family, self-care was seen as a sign of weakness; you should give and give and never need to do things to replenish yourself.
In codependent families, the focus is on the addict (or ill family member). Life revolves around the addict’s needs and moods, making it very difficult for others to take care of their own need for rest, fun, healthy friendships, creativity, exercise, and spirituality.
Exercise: Explore the messages you got about self-care as a child by writing down the answers to these questions. Did you see anyone take care of their physical, emotional, or spiritual needs? If so, how? How did other family members respond? Were they supportive or did them make comments like “Why are you going to church? That’s a waste of time!”? Did your parents do things for their own well being? Did they go on dates? Did they go to the doctor? What did they think of mental health care?
2. You weren’t allowed to have any needs.
Codependent families are experts in denial; they’ll avoid dealing with problems until they become crises. Among other things, you learned to deny and suppress your feelings. If you were feeling discouraged or anxious as a child, you probably didn’t tell anyone. You suffered in silence because asking for help would be met with anger, ridicule, shame, or your request was simply ignored. A safer alternative was to “stuff” your feelings deep inside. To survive and cope with the chaos in your family, you became adept at noticing and trying to manage other people’s feelings, but you pushed away your own.
Children in families with untreated addiction or mental illness learn that their feelings are wrong and they shouldn’t have any feelings. But, we all have feelings and they are useful in letting us know what we need. So, if you don’t recognize and allow yourself to feel anxious, for example, you’re not going to ask yourself, “What do I need in order to feel less anxious? What can I do to feel more relaxed?” and you won’t learn how to soothe yourself.
As an adult, you probably either deny your feelings so you’re unaware of them (especially uncomfortable feelings like anger, depression, fear, etc.) or you find unhealthy ways to self-medicate and numb your feelings (alcohol, drugs, food, TV and electronics are common ways to numb).
If you don’t recognize that you have feelings and needs, there isn’t any reason for self-care. So, you may not even realize that you’re not taking care of yourself until you’re so depleted that you’re physically sick or falling asleep at your desk.
Exercise: Practice noticing your feelings. Check-in with yourself three times a day by asking yourself how you feel and writing it down. (There’s a helpful list of feeling words in my resource library.) Also, ask yourself what you need in this moment. What would help you feel less stressed, loved, and accepted? What can you do for yourself to give yourself comfort, health, or renewed energy?
3. You don’t feel worthy of self-care.
Codependents grow up feeling damaged and ashamed. Abusive words or actions destroy children’s self-esteem; they feel defective, not good enough, and unworthy of unconditional love and acceptance. In families with untreated addiction or mental illness, there is also less obvious emotional neglect. As I mentioned above, children’s feelings and needs are often neglected which tells them that they don’t matter.
As a child, you mistakenly believed you were the cause of your family’s dysfunction because adults blamed you and/or you didn’t understand the real, complex reasons for your family’s problems.
Denial also leads to low self-worth. Internally, children know something is wrong in their family. It doesn’t feel safe. Either their parents are overly harsh, unpredictable, or they’re absent and the kids are left to their own devices. When kids are old enough to go to school and friends’ houses, it confirms their sense that their family is dysfunctional. But when their parents deny that there’s anything wrong (or insist that the child is the problem), they’re left with conflicting information. Either their parents are wrong or they’re wrong. Young kids trust their parents and want to please them, so they choose the latter and they learn not to trust themselves. This is a fundamental piece of self-worth. Without the ability to trust yourself, you can’t develop a strong and independent sense of self. And if you don’t know who you are, what you like, and what you believe in, it’s very hard to practice self-care.
Exercise: Notice when you’re being self-critical and harsh with yourself. Remind yourself that these are the old messages you heard in childhood; they don’t have to be your current reality. Offer yourself a kind word of-self acceptance instead. Begin rebuilding your self-esteem by making a list of your strengths and noticing the things you do right. At the end of each day, write down 3 or 4 things that you’re proud of or that you’ve improved upon.
Self-care may not come naturally to you, but you can overcome these barriers to self-care by learning from people who model healthy self-care, tuning into your feelings, honoring your needs, and trusting yourself. My next post will provide practical tips and ideas for beginning to add more self-care into your routine. Sign-up for my updates by email to be sure you don’t miss a thing!
©2017 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved.
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