Setting yourself on fire….to keep others warm

In my line of work, I have come across many cases of what may at face value be confused for selflessness and loyalty.

One of the first questions we ask when beginning therapy sessions is, “Tell me about your childhood”. It may seem irrelevant for an adult to have to go down memory lane instead of going straight to the matter at hand, but more often than not, childhood experiences are the foundation of many of the struggles that we grapple with in our adulthood.

Codependency is one of those things that have their roots in childhood. A child growing up in a home where their emotions are ignored or where they are punished for having emotions, will suffer from emotional neglect. This grows into a low esteem and a feeling of shame. Growing up being invalidated / being made to feel like you’re not enough is one way in which the child learns to deny the problems in their lives. They mask up those feelings or end up compensating. With time, instead of questioning the unhealthy family / relationship dynamics, they put up with them because that’s all they know – that is what’s most familiar to them. And not to forget, would just be too destabilizing to question. There is a level of anxiety that accompanies this. A fear that is dealt with my wearing a mask that gets thicker as one grows into adulthood.

 

And so….what exactly is codependency? It is in simple terms, the need to be needed. Think of it as neediness and clinginess that is on the extreme. While this may sound quite admirable, or not, such a relationship is at a high risk of becoming manipulative. Don’t get me wrong – we all need each other every now and then, but there is a line that is crossed when it comes to codependency. A codependent person can hardly function on their own. Their lives are centered on the needs of others, to the extent of neglecting their own needs.

Imagine a life where you find no happiness outside of pleasing the other person. You give so much of yourself to the subject of your codependency at the expense of your identity. Your life is not about you any more, but about their needs, their wants, their happiness, and getting their approval. And one does this while completely blind to that which they ultimately deny themselves – self care.

The pit that is codependency gets deeper with time. One lacks trust in themselves, and wallows in low self esteem. This without a doubt exposes them to abusive relationships, but….we will talk about that some other time.

How does this present itself? Well….there is that need to be needed by a significant other, or by other people around us. You feel responsible for solving other people’s problems and when you can’t, you fear that they will reject or abandon you. That doesn’t sound great, does it? You feel like you do not have any value if you are not meeting their needs. You have a hard time trusting yourself and live in the fear that people are going to abandon you or give up on you if you make a mistake. Not the most ideal way to live but….it does happen.

You get upset when people are not praising you or recognizing your efforts. Why? Because as we said, you’re getting a sense of worth from their validation. I should add, that seeking reassurance and support from a partner is a natural thing to do, and is part of a healthy relationship. However, where there is a fear of abandonment or rejection in these relationships, it may lead to anxiety.

A codependent person feels the need to be in control all the time. They lose themselves in a self-declared mission to make the relationship their full-time job at the expense of their own healthy needs. They compromise in order to hang on to the relationship out of fear of being alone. You see, a healthy relationship strikes a balance, where the partners are able to meet each other’s needs and connect without losing their sense of being individuals. A codependent relationship lacks this balance, and goes off to the extent of the partners being unable to function without each other – needing each other in order to achieve a sense of wholeness. Unfortunately, there’s also a very clear struggle in such a relationship, where one is unable to express, or even recognize, that they have needs of their own that are not being met. There is this cocktail of negative emotions and experiences that comes with codependency – denial, holding back emotions, hyper-vigilance, compulsive behavior, anxiety and more. A codependent person will very well avoid conflict, keeping themselves from saying or doing what is on their mind, because that leads to panic. They don’t feel safe or even able to share their emotions. It sounds like a prison of the mind, doesn’t it?

 

One thing that also stands out in codependent relationships is a lack of boundaries. There is a great deal of guilt that the codependent individual feels when they have to set boundaries of even attend to their own needs. And no, that should in no way be confused with being selfless. Without boundaries, we feel bitter, stressed out, resentful and worn out. Boundaries are important in maintaining one’s dignity and mental health and where boundaries lack, abuse finds an opportunity to thrive.

 

Many studies have concluded that codependent relationships may also stem from a history of physical and even sexual abuse. This goes to show just how intense the therapy needed to rescue one from such a tendency should be. You would need a sense of awareness and insight, which would go a long way to help you have a better quality of life and most importantly, to have more control of your life and not be solely under the control of the expectations of your partner / the people in your life. With therapy, you will get a chance to heal from any attachment challenges and emotional abuse that took place in your childhood. You will be giving yourself a chance to experience a new-found freedom to feel and attend to your own needs.

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