Have you ever come across a definition or a list of symptoms, and by the time you got to the end of it, your eyes were completely bugged out and your jaw was resting comfortably on the floor? And as the shock of recognition sank in, all you kept saying was, “Oh-My-God, Oh-My-God – this is me. I could be the poster child for this.”
That was me many years ago, after reading Melanie Beattie’s book, Co-Dependent No More. Before I understood the term co-dependent I blamed my Narcissist for everything. And why shouldn’t I? He deserved the blame and my animosity for everything that he had done. But as I looked into this co-dependency business, I realized more and more, that I played an equal roll in this sad excuse of a relationship. I was equally responsible, equally at fault, and I was totally and solely to blame, for the sorry state I was in. Sure, he was a Narcissist and sure, his list of issues and relationship crimes could circle the globe, but I had a thing too and it had a name. My label was worse than his, because…well…it was mine. I was co-dependent. I could relate to every bit of it. It was a pretty tough pill to swallow, because now on top of the hurt and everything else I was dealing with, I had to deal with this too.
When I looked at the list of co-dependent behaviors – all the people pleasing, my need to rescue and fix everyone, my belief that I had to be perfect in order to be loved, my over giving and over caring, my atrocious communication skills, my fear of confrontation, my non-existent boundaries…and you pair this with my Narcissist’s extreme selfishness, his entitlement mentality, his user behaviors, his belief that he was superior to everyone else, and his lack of responsibility, it became frightfully obvious that this was a perfect storm, a cyclone of dysfunction, where everything that needed to exist, in order for this relationship to have evolved the way it did – all those elements were present – in both of us.
All along I thought, I’m just a nice, caring person and that he was the sick one. As my knowledge grew, I realized that I was still a nice caring, person, but my big-heartedness was extreme and neurotic, because my perceptions, my beliefs and my behaviors were extreme and neurotic, in a way that I had never contemplated as being unhealthy before. You can be too nice – you can be too caring – too giving – too understanding.
I had no boundaries to protect myself, because I was never taught to have boundaries as a child, because abusers don’t want you to have boundaries. I had poor coping skills, because I never learned how to cope properly. I didn’t know how to communicate, because my childhood abuser didn’t want me to communicate. I didn’t value myself, because I was treated like I didn’t have value and it was all done in such a subtle way that I questioned whether or not, I had misinterpreted it as I grew older. I wasn’t beaten, locked in closets or anything outrageous like that. I was given all the necessities of life, but not much else. I left my childhood feeling unloved, unwanted and uncomfortably, uncomfortable in my own skin.
My primary caregiver never looked out for my best interests, she didn’t concern herself with my emotional development. So as an adult, I felt like a child, learning how to have healthy thoughts, healthy behaviors, healthy relationships and a healthy attitude. I had been in the dark about what constituted’ healthy’ my entire life, so figuring these things out was not an easy process.
Odd Traits of Co-Dependents
I have discovered a technique to determine if someone is a co-dependent. Now it’s not fool-proof, mind you, but it’s something I’ve observed and it illustrates a quality co-dependents seem to have in abundance and it is – they hate to ‘put people out.’ They feel uncomfortable asking for things or favors and can’t deal with being anyone else’s burden. As a consummate giver, taking is the opposite of a co-dependent’s nature, so when they are forced to rely on others for their needs, it puts them outside of their comfort zone. You see this not just in romantic relationships, but in business and relationships with others.
Another trait I noticed came to me, as I was watching an episode of Dr Phil. He had a couple on, who really wanted to have a baby, but couldn’t, so the wife put an ad on Kijiji looking to adopt a baby. A woman answered the ad and they developed a friendship. She promised to give them her baby when she delivered. The husband and wife spent $40,000 preparing their home for the baby, but one thing after another kept delaying her handing over custody.
When the woman, who promised to give up her baby, came out, she was asked point blank if she was going to give them her baby, and she said, ‘no.’ When Dr. Phil asked her why not, she said it was because the baby didn’t exist.
Everyone was stunned, the audience gasped, the wife was crying and her husband was furious. He said she was a monster, to have strung them along like that and to have fed off their kindness and emotions. He then asked why she did this. Her answer bowled me over, but I understood it instantly, while I dare say no one else did. To everyone else, her answer sounded, well – crazy and it was.
She said she did it, because when she was young she had given a baby up for adoption to a couple and everyone had been so nice to her. She got a lot of attention, kindness and respect. She said she had been treated like trash her whole life, so she did it because, she wanted their friendship. She wanted to feel important and cared about. While that in and of itself is phenomenally twisted, what she was really saying was, I have no one, I am so lonely and to secure your friendship and feel special, even just for a little while, I had to promise to give you the moon, because just being me wasn’t good enough.
This belief that we aren’t good enough flows into the belief that we can’t be the same as the next guy in order to be loved. Co-dependents believe that they have to be perfect. When they realize that they can’t be perfect, they logically come to the conclusion that ‘I’m not perfect and I can’t ever be perfect, ergo I will never be loved.’ Because I’m not worthy of real regular love, I have to do more, be more and give more, just to get even a smidgeon of affection.
And then they go in search of partners who are equally flawed and think, ‘because this guy is such a mess, if I give him everything , then he will be grateful and he will love me.’
Co-dependents believe that the world works from an imaginary reciprocating bank account. They tend to believe that if I do something nice for you, that goes into the bank and now you owe me one. And if I keep making deposits, eventually you will recognize my sacrifice and it will dawn on you, just how special and caring I am. Unfortunately, co-dependents tend to confuse giving and martyrdom for love and devotion.
What co-dependents don’t seem to grasp is that, because their choice of partner is sub-standard – that partner isn’t capable of giving them what they need. The co-dependent, then internalizes the rejection, believing that, ‘not even this flawed, broken person can love me, that’s how unlovable I am.’ And as the cycle continues, they keep feeding that belief.
Step one should be fairly obvious, and that is, ending your relationship with you Narcissist. You can’t heal yourself while still engaging with your vice. It would be the equivalent of trying to quit heroin, while still using heroin. Get out of your toxic relationship and once you’ve gained the physical and emotional distance, the view starts to come into focus and everything looks a whole lot clearer. Once you’re out stay out. Remember every time you give in and go back, you undermine everything you’ve accomplished. So make the decision, get out, get some discipline and stay out.
Step two is teaching yourself all of the things that you should have been taught as a child in terms of healthy ways to behave, communicate, and protect yourself. The word boundary almost sounds cliché, but it is the most important thing you can do for yourself. It’s your very own home security system. So, when all else fails, if your boundary alarm goes off, you know there’s a problem.
In order to know when someone has crossed your boundaries, you have to first know what your boundaries are. Take a moment to stop and think about what your boundaries might be. They might be things like, expecting to be treated by all, in a respectful manner, or to have other people make plans with you early in the week rather than last minute, or becoming intolerant of being stood up. They can be anything that you feel strongly about and anything you want to reinforce. If someone crosses these boundaries, then you have a calm (not hysterical) discussion that this is how you expect to be treated and if that person continues to cross your boundary, then they don’t get to be a part of your life. It’s that simple. Healthy people don’t put up with not having their wishes respected.
So if Jack makes plans with you for Saturday and he doesn’t show up and he doesn’t call – unless you find out that Jack is in the hospital that’s all the information you need. If you’re bent on giving him another chance sure, just as long as his reason is sound and provable, but if he ever does it again, there is no need to go any further – boundary crossed and you’re done. Period.
Once you’ve set the bar, if people continue to cross your line, that tells you all you need to know about that person and they can leave. These are things that may not feel natural at first, because you weren’t taught how to have boundaries and stick up for yourself as a child, but healthy people know where their own line is, and they try really hard to respect and not cross other people’s.
Get in the habit of saying exactly what you mean. Stop hoping that other people can read your mind, or guess what you want. Practice being direct, by saying exactly what you want, need or expect and don’t back down when it comes to defending yourself or your boundaries. Being direct and sticking up for yourself are how healthy people communicate. Co-Dependents learn early to be quiet, and not upset people. You’re an adult now, so you have to learn that healthy people aren’t afraid to say what they want and mean what they say.
Start to expect more from yourself and the people in your life. If you’re co-dependent, you’ve probably had very low standards when it comes to the people you let in your life. If you look around your circle and you see people that don’t add value to your life and don’t make you feel good, then it’s time to start cleaning house and opening up some spaces. Sure, making new friends is hard, giving up a family member might be difficult, but what’s more difficult, is being the recipient of abusive and disrespectful behavior. If you want a better life, then you have to have higher standards.
Step three is about changing the way you feel about you. During my struggle with co-dependency, I really started to think about what I was putting out there to the universe. Talk of people’s vibrational frequency and that, like attracts like, was all the rage at the time of my break up. The experts talked about how our frequency was like a radio signal, whereby only those who matched our vibration and who were like us, could pick up on our signal. I had firsthand knowledge of this, because after my momentous break up, I was still unhealthy and all I seemed to date was narcissist after narcissist, even though I was consciously seeking his exact opposite. So whatever I had put out there in the past, I was still putting out there and I kept attracting the same type of guy. And I would continue to attract the same type of guy until I changed whatever it was inside of me, that would change my frequency.
I meditated on it and I realized that if you want to change your vibrational frequency, if you strip it all down to its barest essence, what it really means is, changing your feelings about – you. It means basking in the silence and just purposefully and mindfully feeling good about you – feeling the feelings of love for yourself. It’s the feeling part that is really important – you just feel and breathe and accept your own love, the universe’s love. Breathe in love and exude love to everyone on the exhale, feel connected and loved, feel valued and important. This is a practice and a habit, that all who wish to change their frequency, must engage in daily. When you start to see yourself as a person of value, others will pick up on that vibe and follow your lead.
Leaving co-dependency is a journey. Trying to change the way you were taught to behave, communicate and feel about yourself is a difficult process, because these beliefs are held deep inside of us. But it’s time to accept that what we were taught as children was wrong and unhealthy. As adults, it’s our job to fix our own foundation, because the quality of our life starts and ends with us.
Anthony Robbins always says, “Success leaves clues,” so understand that people have overcome this and so can you. Set your plan in motion, create your list of boundaries, raise your standards and get into the habit of expecting more from yourself and others. Practice feeling good about you. Take the time and put in the work, it’s worth it, because you’re worth it.
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