What is Co-dependency?
Co-dependency is a learned emotional and behavioral condition where an individual suppresses their own needs in order to focus on and prioritizes the needs of a partner above their own, often due to an addiction or illness. Co-dependents often form one-sided, emotionally destructive and/or abusive relationships.
It’s quite possible that I have been co-dependent my whole life. I didn’t know it was toxic. In my mind and experience, it was my way of making sure someone knew I loved and cared for them. I was surrounded by examples of women who were giving to the point of destroying themselves.
Outwardly, I acted as if I wanted to give everything to help someone else. Inside, I secretly resented everyone who took advantage of my desire to give, because they rarely returned the favor and I didn’t feel comfortable requesting it. I envied people who just expect everyone else to take care of their needs. I didn’t feel like I had the option.
I have spent my life feeling responsible for the happiness of others and often wrestled with my own freedom and needs. I have thrown my energy, time, money and sacrificed in what I thought was an effort to nourish my relationships. The most depleting aspect of co-dependency is often choosing people who are bottomless pits of need. No matter how much you pour into them, they are never satisfied, rehabilitated or grateful. The mirror you have to hold up to yourself is that you are also empty because you are giving everything while receiving nothing in return.
The Downsides of Co-dependency
As I explored my own co-dependency, I was surprised how much I was disconnected from my own feelings and needs. It took years to stop being a people-pleaser. I had to learn that, “No”, was an acceptable answer even if it ended a friendship or relationship. And, subsequently, any relationship it ended probaby wasn’t healthy for me anyway.
In my mind, I was doing nice gestures, but they were really controlling and manipulative acts designed to make someone feel like they owed me. I was creating Secret Contracts with people. Secret Contracts means they weren’t aware of the expectations that came with their acceptance of the action or gift. I didn’t trust that I was enough to keep someone participating in my life so I unconsciously created insurance that they would stick around.
While researching for this writing, I discovered an article about Co-dependent gift-giving and I was flabbergasted. I thought my gift-giving was a gesture straight from the heart, but that was also a form of attempting to control someone.
I love gift-giving and I thought that it was something I was really good at. I thought I tapped into what the person really wanted and provided it to them in a loving act. But, what I was really doing was gaining validation through their excitement or happiness of their gift.
Or, I have given a gift that I thought would be helpful based on a conversation. I would buy a book that I think they need to read and give it to them. The article said, that is a sign of co-dependency as well and it is more about shaping them into a better person. This again is an attempt to earn favor or to solve their problems for them.
It could be an attempt to distract myself from my own issues, to seem perfect in their eyes, but ultimately, there are strings attached to the gift. It’s not just a gift.
When I became aware of what I was doing, I had to find my own worth so I would stop being transactional in buying love and loyalty. I suspect my fear of abandonment is what led me to believe the way to a person’s heart was to bribe them with money and things because that is how I was bribed in exchange for not having my emotional needs met.
In examining my co-dependency, I had to face all the negatives, but I didn’t want it to be only this dark cloud cast over my life.
I had to look at what were the upsides to being a co-dependent person once I stripped away the self-defeating aspects. I wanted to not just beat myself up for not seeing that I was co-dependent, but see where I used them in a positive way to support myself.
What are the Skills Co-Dependency gave Me?
When I was younger, I had to know instantly the mood of the adults around me. I had to know whether they were having a good day so I could relax a little or if I needed to be my best self to avoid getting in trouble. I also had to know what things bothered the adults and what made them content.
This made me perceptive of what people felt whether they communicated it or not. It served me very well in my career in sales and in support of Supervisors. It also made me able to anticipate needs and keep track of what made people around me happy. I can quickly create a personal profile and use it to my advantage.
Ability to Process Information Quickly
When the adults arrived home, I would run through in my mind everything I had done within the house before they came home. I had to remember if I had “crossed all my I’s and dotted all my T’s”, to quote the cliche. My recall was nearly spotless.
I can listen intently for vocal cues and mentions of things that are of interest. People discuss things they want and it is layered into the most minor conversations. They often appear to be throwaway statements in small talk, but I am perceptive in if someone is really excited about it by small changes in tone and speed.
Compassion, Empathy, Dependability
As a co-dependent, I had to find compassion. In order to find compassion, I had to be able to put myself in the shoes of another person. And, if you make yourself responsible for the happiness of another person, you have to show up. This creates a person who can tap into compassion, empathy and be on time when situations demand presence.
Of, course, as a recovering co-dependent, I have to now do this when it is for someone reciprocal and only when necessary and not because I’m keeping score.
Living in a state of perpetual chaos teaches you how to handle crisis after crisis. I actually ended up with a job where I had to do risk assessment and I felt right at home because I am so comfortable quickly weighing options, assessing the situation and moving calmly forward with a plan.
In my last relationship, I was constantly putting out fires, but I always knew as long as I could do some research that I would discover a way out of the situation and I always did. When most people run, I put on my gloves and roll up my sleeves.
When I was unaware I was co-dependent, it robbed me of intimate, giving relationships because I thought I had to manipulate them to maintain them or sacrifice myself into exhaustion to be validated.
After becoming aware of what I was doing and seeking help to unravel the reasons why I sell my soul to the lowest bidder, I have become better at choosing myself and honoring my feelings.
But, instead of looking at what I may have lost, I would rather see the loving, compassionate, giving, empathetic person that is still here and can now give all that energy to someone who will want to return it for no other reason than they see I’m a pretty cool person who deserves to be loved.