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.
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…
- 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.
- 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.
- I couldn’t continue trying to be the person I felt other people thought I should be.
- 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!