Addiction therapist Brian Carberg discusses the best ways to set boundar...
Sobriety and Codependency
Sobriety brought more to my life than recovery: I discovered I was riddled with codependency too. Over the last five years—as well as learning how to stay sober and cope with life—I’ve learned how to unpick codependency and live a life with more freedom than I’d imagined.
I got sober in 2012; I’d been abusing drugs and alcohol for 20 years. To say my emotional growth was stunted would be an understatement. I thought I just had a problem with drugs. I didn’t expect to reveal a whole host of other issues.
One of the first things we learn when we get sober is that the problem is never the substance; it is us. Whether you believe in the disease model or the distorted thinking/spiritual malady model, the problem is rooted in both thought processes and the brain—not the action itself.
I was flabbergasted when someone told me that the problem was me. What do you mean? I’d exclaim.
Recovery has been a series of those shocking moments of revelation. I remember when someone handed me a copy of Melody Beattie’s book, The Language of Letting Go. I was flummoxed. I’m not codependent. I don’t need people! That was my response. I had no idea back then what codependency was, how it presented, and just how entrenched in codependency I was.
According to Mental Health America, co-dependency is defined as: “a learned behavior that can be passed down from one generation to another. It is an emotional and behavioral condition that affects an individual’s ability to have a healthy, mutually satisfying relationship. It is also known as “relationship addiction” because people with codependency often form or maintain relationships that are one-sided, emotionally destructive, and/or abusive. The disorder was first identified about ten years ago as the result of years of studying interpersonal relationships in families of alcoholics. Co-dependent behavior is learned by watching and imitating other family members who display this type of behavior.”
While definitions vary, there is a common ingredient: your relationship with others—intimate or otherwise.
Having had an unhealthy amount of contempt for Melody’s book for about a year, I picked it up. My jaw dropped; I felt the same level of identification that I felt when I walked into a recovery meeting for the first time. Since then, I bought a few more of her books. The following quote most resonated with me:
Ever since people first existed, they have been doing all the things we label ‘codependent.’ They have worried themselves sick about other people. They have tried to help in ways that didn’t help. They have said yes when they meant no. They have tried to make other people see things their way. They have bent over backwards avoiding hurting people’s feelings and, in so doing, have hurt themselves. They have been afraid to trust their feelings. They have believed lies and then felt betrayed. They have wanted to get even and punish others. They have felt so angry they wanted to kill. They have struggled for their rights while other people said they didn’t have any. They have worn sackcloth because they didn’t believe they deserved silk.
I couldn’t have written a more accurate description of myself. I was fascinated by the concept and was keen to learn more. What I discovered is that co-dependency has various limbs which include (and were most relevant to me): caretaking, poor communication, weak boundaries, and low self-esteem.
I care take people in a number of ways, mostly without their request for my help. I assumed that they needed it. I prided myself in my ability to fix others’ problems and seem perplexed when they were ungrateful. I also assumed responsibility for other people’s wellbeing, to the extent that my happiness reflected theirs. I have rescued people from their responsibilities because I observed either how overwhelmed they were, or how much they procrastinated about something, and became annoyed when they didn’t thank me. Assuming responsibility didn’t stop there; I also felt the responsibility to fix uncomfortable situations because I was unable to accept them as they were. The reality is that I thought that the people in my life ‘needed’ my help. However, as Melody articulates, it was me who was the dependent one because I felt a level of validation by my assuming they needed my help.
My ability to communicate was a form of co-dependency because I wasn’t able to assert my needs and would often let others needs overwhelm mine. I’d abandon my needs in favor of helping others. I also find it incredibly challenging to describe my feelings. This is something I still work on today.
In terms of my low self-worth, I incessantly sought validation in women who I subconsciously thought of as motherly figures, which only maintained my low self-esteem. Lack of self-worth was also evident in my assuming responsibility for awkward situations, or for people being mad. I didn’t even contemplate that it wasn’t my fault.
The most amount of growth in recovery has been the limb of codependency presented in my inability to uphold my boundaries. For example, if I found a particular behavior unacceptable—like a boyfriend turning up to my house drunk even though I’d expressed my boundary—I’d still let him turn up drunk. Another way this is expressed is by friends treating me badly and my not explaining that to them; thus, I let them walk all over me.
It has taken five years and a lot of work, but I have finally learned to detach myself from my perceived notion that others needed my help. I finally see that I am only responsible for me only. To live well, I now know that I need to effectively communicate and enforce healthy boundaries. Most of all, I have learned to sit in uncomfortable feelings and situations. Recovering from codependency has provided a huge part of my healing from addiction.
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