I’m a Codependent

So I guess I’m into admitting things on here now…? Last week I came clean as a swear-aholic (damn right!), a few months ago I talked about being a perfectionist, and really the whole point of this blog was to come out as an abuse survivor and talk about it.

Well, it’s time to admit one more of my issues: I’m a recovering codependent.

It took me a long time to realize my issues with codependency. In fact, I had no idea what “codependent” meant until 2016 when it came up at the mental health day program I attended. I remember that day so clearly because when the clinician explained codependency to our group, I got shivers up my back: I had never been described so perfectly before.



(source)

Language has power, right? And so does knowledge, to paraphrase the familiar colloquialism. Coming to understand the word “codependency” and recognizing how I participated in codependent relationships…shit! It was eye-opening! And it allowed me to take a monumental step forward in my therapy work and in my recovery as an abuse survivor.

I now imagine a codependent relationship as a circle—it’s a revolving loop of two people who need each other in the worst possible way. I’ve come to believe that it’s also a form of self-medication; whether we are the person in the relationship who holds power or we are their victim, we’re still using another person to try to fulfill a need.

In emotional abuse, power-hungry narcissists create a “sub-reality” in which they gaslight, manipulate, use, or otherwise abuse their victims. Narcissists prey on passive individuals who often have a strong inclination towards being caregivers and once victims are convinced that we’re responsible for our abusers, the cycle of codependency is created.

But how can you recognize signs of codependency in your own relationship or with people you care about?

Never fear, I have a list! (Note: I’m going to assume in my list that you are looking to identify codependent tendencies in yourself, but you could easily interpret these when looking at someone else. Also, I use the term “partner” when talking about the other person in a relationship, but for most of these points it could also be your parent, sibling, friend, coworker, or another person in your life. Read it however you need to.)


How to Tell If You Are Codependent: A Handy List

1. You define your worth based on the opinions of others

More likely, on the opinion of one, specific person (i.e. your partner). Codependent people require external sources to tell them who they are and if or how much they matter.

2. You no longer trust your own experience.

You question your feelings, thoughts, and behaviours and always assume that you are wrong. You live with a deep sense of shame, guilt, or embarrassment, regardless of what you say or do.

3. You consistently put your partner’s needs before your own.

You never say “no,” you get things done regardless of your own needs, and if your efforts don’t “work” you become depressed and feel like a failure.

4. You cover for your partner’s shortcomings and feel responsible for their behaviour.

You come to believe that no matter how they act, your partner’s behaviour is a reflection on YOU because you have assumed responsibility for it. (Or rather, they have foisted the responsibility upon you and because you’re codependent, you accept it.)

5. You feel viciously abused by the mildest criticism.

This is because you’re working so damn hard to keep the person who holds the power happy and because you depend on them for your own happiness. In this situation it’s easy to begin thinking self-deprecating or suicidal thoughts, especially in moments when you feel criticized.

6. You seek permission from your partner before doing anything.

Since you can’t trust yourself (see #2) and you need the approval of another to let you know that what you’re doing is okay (see #1), you always have to ask for permission first. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing, without your partner’s “okay” you can’t confidently do anything. (And it should go without saying that gaining this “permission” is often excruciatingly difficult.)

7. You are always afraid that your partner is going to leave you.

This becomes your worst fear and leads to doing just about anything in order to ensure that your partner stays with you.

8. You focus on your partner’s emotions and struggle to differentiate between how you feel and how they feel.

Instead of having your own thoughts and feelings, you become a mirror for the other person’s emotions.

9. You change your personal values for your partner’s.

You become utterly loyal to them and adopt their values as your own. You may take on their interests and hobbies and will quickly back off when challenged to avoid anger or rejection.

10. You have become hyper-vigilant and are compelled to keep track of your partner at all times.

You know their routine inside-out and backwards, you jump up as soon as they enter a room, you are constantly listening out for them, and you put significant effort into anticipating what they need before they even need it.

11. You’ve become controlling with others (NOT the person you are codependent with).

Since you feel so utterly out of control in your own life, you attempt to regain a sense of stability by exerting strict boundaries or expectations on other people, or in other places, in your life.

12. You avoid conflict with your partner at all costs.

Your #1 operative is to keep the peace with your partner, so you acquiesce, you give in, you avoid; you do whatever is necessary to make sure everything is “okay.”

13. You allow your body to be used for your partner’s pleasure.

Sex becomes an act of duty and you allow your body to be used regardless of whether or not you want to participate. You may fear your partner’s touch, but you’re simultaneously compelled to give in because you can’t say no and view sex as one of the things you “have” to do in order to keep your partner happy.

14. You participate in self harm in response to the codependent relationship.

“Self harm” can happen in many ways, but it is all an attempt to regain a sense of control (see #11). We typically think of self harm as cutting yourself, but it can also include bingeing on or restricting food, pulling out your hair, picking at your skin, forcing yourself to stay awake, exercising excessively, using drugs or alcohol, or engaging in any behaviour that intentionally causes your body harm.


I’ve heard it said that once you’re an addict, you’re always an addict, and I now know that one of my addictions is being codependent. I vividly remember living that way, but after a lot of very hard work, I’m now able to have healthy relationships instead of destructive ones.

I hope sharing this helps other people recognize codependency and take steps towards managing it in their own lives or with someone they love. Thankfully, I’ve been able to radically change my experience and the best advice I think I can give is to reach out, get help, learn more, and focus on your own needs first. You can overcome codependency. You absolutely can.

xxJ

Codependents; the modern day two-headed monsters. (source)

Au revoir!

When I left my husband, I realized that I had lost much more than a marriage.

Now I understand that successful relationships involve people growing together as they work through their issues, face difficulties, celebrate successes, and find a shared identity as a couple while maintaining autonomy as individuals. But when you are in a codependent relationship, things are very different and when I walked away from my marriage, I was struck by a deep sense of not knowing myself.

In my relationship with the man who became my ex-husband, I molded myself entirely to how he wanted, or how I thought he wanted, me to be. I stopped doing the things I enjoyed doing. I stopped saying how I felt about things. I questioned my intuition. I lost faith in my ability to do anything. I became exhausted by the effort of trying to maintain the status quo (i.e. keep the peace and/or keep my husband happy). I had done this in previous relationships and friendships before (had I ever!), and at the time of my separation, the only thing that felt true about my identity was that I had become an expert at being passively codependent.

Yay. 

I was so lost when I was left on my own. I didn’t know what I liked to do anymore or what I was capable of. I felt dumb and useless and tired. The overwhelming sense I experienced was of being a complete stranger to myself, and I spent more time feeling triggered or completely drained than anything else.

I’ve always had a high level of self-awareness. In fact, even in the worst periods of my life, when I was shrouded in intense depression and anxiety, when I was beholden to my abusers, when I was contemplating suicide, I still had the knowledge that something was wrong and that I needed something to change. But since I framed my identity using the parameters my boyfriend/husband/parents/friends gave me, I couldn’t determine what was true and what wasn’t.

After many years of counselling, an amazing mental health day program, a consistent treatment plan, incredible support from some of the quality people in my life, and an unwavering sense that I absolutely could NOT give up, I began to unpack my experiences and rediscover myself.

And I realized a few key things…

  1. I could recognize that there were parts of me from my past that were still true, but that my experiences had fundamentally changed me. The core parts of me were still there, but they had to be rediscovered and given a new, healthy framework to exist in.
  2. There were things I had considered “core” parts of myself that I needed to throw out and replace with other things that came from a place of authenticity.
  3. I couldn’t continue trying to be the person I felt other people thought I should be.
  4. I had the capacity to discover my identity again, if I chose to work at it.

So I began to work diligently at figuring out who the hell I was now and who I wanted to be post-separation, post-abuse, post-youth, post “Life 1.0.”

It started with identifying how I had allowed myself to be defined in the unhealthy relationships I had before. What, if anything, was true about me based on those parameters? I started trying to throw out old, bad habits… goodbye passivity! See ya later mandatory politeness! Au revoir overextending myself!

I also grabbed some of my “bad” traits that had been misused and misinterpreted, and created new, healthier frameworks for them. For example, I had bought into the belief that being sensitive and empathetic was a bad thing. It led me to be overly emotional, hot headed, and too accommodating. Not true! Being emotionally sensitive and highly empathetic is a gift! I just had to learn how to use it well! I renegotiated a new understanding of that quality in myself and have set to practicing this new way of thinking.

The second (or third?) step was to unearth good qualities that I wanted to embrace. This wasn’t an extensive list…more like, an exclusive one! I prioritized things and made sure I was focusing on a few, core traits that I felt were latent in my being, but which were also underrepresented or misunderstood. Basically, I dug up the good qualities in myself, like independence and determination, dusted them off, and put them back in my emotional tool-belt so that I could grab them instead when I went for one of my old, unhealthy, codependent habits.

And I realized that there were some skills I really wanted to have that I would need to work at embodying. I had to learn how to be assertive. I had to learn how to be alone. I had to learn to be angry in healthy ways. I’ve put time into teaching myself these new things, folding them into my identity as they become more and more familiar.

Leaving my emotional abuser was the catalyst in finding a new and healthy identity for myself. I am in no way complete, nor am I an expert in self-discovery. And I don’t expect myself to stay exactly as I am right now, but I do expect myself to keep working on living in a healthy way that supports a healthy sense of self.

It’s possible for you to do this too, no matter your relationship status, your history, or your future plans. Abused or not, we can all love and accept ourselves while striving to improve.

Your identity is not something that should be handed to you.

It may seem easier or more familiar to continue existing in the frameworks other people craft for you, but over the long term, you’ll do yourself a disservice in allowing others to define you.

So take a moment, envision yourself as you wish to be, and start taking steps, small or big, towards your a truer, more vivacious self!

xxJ

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The flowers in my garden, like this Teddy Bear Sunflower, remind me that I’m always growing and that sunshine can always be found if you look for it.

looks like/sounds like/feels like

People have a hard time understanding what emotional abuse is. In fact, I’m going to confidently state that most people really don’t get it.

Like, at all.

Because to most people domestic abuse = physical violence. To most people, domestic abuse is loud and nasty and BIG and leaves bruises and cigarette burns, broken lamps and smashed dishes and holes in walls.

And yes, sometimes (too often) domestic abuse is vociferous and physically violent. But what if I told you that domestic violence isn’t always physical? What if domestic abuse can be subtler? What if it’s relatively inconspicuous? What if the victim is so good at compensating and pretending that EVERYTHING IS OKAY ALRIGHT?! that no one has any idea what’s going on? (Not that I’ve ever done that before…)

I think emotional abuse is usually misunderstood because most people don’t realize that neglect or silence can be just as vicious as a punch in the face.

I  want to try to explain more about what emotional abuse is and how people may experience it, so I’ve drawn upon my past as a teacher and what follows is basically going to be like a kindergarten circle time where we all gather together to talk about what something “looks like/sounds like/feels like”. Except instead of discussing “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” or how a bean seed grows, we’re going to tackle emotional abuse. Decidedly not a kindergarten-appropriate topic (Or maybe it is? I mean, kids are never too young to learn about consent and showing respect!) but I’m hoping you’ll find it insightful.

So, come join me on the carpet. Please sit criss-cross applesauce with your hands in your lap, eyes up, and mouth closed…Ms. J is going to start the lesson…

Emotional abuse looks like:

  • Absence
  • Stifling
  • Codependence
  • Intense control
  • Financial control
  • Manipulation
  • Vindictiveness
  • Pettiness
  • Insecurity
  • Narcissism
  • Lack of intimacy
  • Withholding (affection, money, time, etc.)
  • Lack of consent
  • Isolation
  • Patterns of negative behaviour
  • Idealization
  • Chronic forgetfulness
  • Posturing
  • Grandiose gestures that are out of context or used as leverage
  • Forced affection
  • Saving face
  • Hypervigilance
  • Disdain
  • Perpetual indifference or apathy

Emotional abuse sounds like:

  • Shouting
  • Silence
  • Harsh words
  • Lies
  • Backhanded compliments
  • Gaslighting
  • Indignation
  • Name calling
  • Threats
  • Put downs
  • Reprimands or punishing
  • Criticisms
  • Punitive statements
  • Questioning
  • Comebacks
  • Rationalization of unhealthy things/ideas/behaviours
  • Scapegoating

Emotional abuse feels like:

  • Loneliness
  • Despair
  • Confusion
  • Anger
  • Craziness
  • Self-loathing
  • Low self-worth
  • Lack of purpose
  • Rigidity
  • Fear
  • Shame
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Mood swings
  • Self-harm
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Needing to be in control
  • Surreal
  • Duress
  • Pain
  • Exhaustion
  • Stress
  • Being overwhelmed
  • Worry

People who exhibit these behaviours (or other similar ones) chronically are perpetrators of abuse. Those who struggle continually because of these feelings and behaviours, are victims of abuse.

My own experience of abuse was insidious and cumulative and I’m tired of feeling like I have to prove that my experience was real.

Emotional abuse looks/feels/sounds real.

Abuse = abuse.

And accepting that helps people like me by letting us know that what we’re going through, or what we’ve been through, is just as real as a punch, kick, or slap.

You can now un-cross your legs and go have free-play time. Just don’t hog the Lego table and remember to use kind words with your friends.

xx J

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Feels like belly rub time for my pup, Kara.


Do you have anything you could add to the lists above? I’m sure there’s more that I’ve missed. Comment below and share your thoughts!