Ashera is a Marriage and Family Therapist with an extensive background in sexual health education. You can ask her stuff anonymously and she won’t get weirded out. Seriously, try her. Send your queries through our anonymous contact form here.
I am beginning to fully understand the depths of my codependency, and it sucks. This all came out through talks with my friends and my therapist, and I’ve realized that much of who I am has been structured around trying to appear to be a good person. I have ended up in multiple toxic relationships because I kept trying to “save” people unconsciously. At the time, I rationalized these choices as seeing the best in someone or having an intense connection. I thought I could look past all the red flags and use my love to heal them. I couldn’t, and, after having my heart broken time and time again, I’m beginning to feel jaded. Hence the talking, and this painful self-discovery.
While I’ve gained awareness of this pattern, I feel like I have even more doubt in myself than before. I thought I enjoyed helping people, but now I’m concerned that I was only doing this out of my own codependency and that all of my efforts were really self-serving in the long run. It’s confusing and feels kind of hopeless. Can I help others if I myself am so damaged? Am I a really a fraud?
I sincerely wish I could reassure you that you are good and whole as you are with no qualifications. But no matter how much I believe in self-love, I put more stock in self-reflection and self-accountability as a tool for the betterment of the world. I think your heart was in the right place, but along your path your scope widened. You found that there’s a deeper, darker shadow side to yourself. Now’s the time to reconcile that, so you can get to work and be a better, more whole human than you were before.
I hope that you know that you’re not alone in this. Plenty of people have chosen projects over partners in order to ignore the fact that they themselves must grow. It’s really easy to saddle up with someone who is struggling with serious issues and then by proxy point to yourself and say, “See?? I’m so good in comparison to them! I clearly have no more work to do.” As you’re beginning to realize, this is not the case. So buckle up, buttercup! It’s time for some growth.
Growth and change are not static, predictable things. While some days you’ll be living your #BestLife, there’s multitudes of emotional sludge and metaphorical dead bodies to dig through in order to get there. Therapists might call this “trauma work” or “aiding someone through the change process.” Witches call this Shadow Work. However you set about this journey, it will be a long road full of mishaps, reflection, and little victories. Try to remember to be gentle with yourself.
Before we jump into what the healing process will look like and some routes to go about it, we should probably unpack what codependency means.
The term “codependency” is commonly used when we talk about addiction, especially when the term “enabler” comes into play. While such a dynamic is present in those relationships, it is myopic to say that an addiction must be in place for the relationship to be codependent.
Codependency occurs when the people within a relationship cannot make choices objectively anymore. Their relationship defines them, and they will bail their partner out, make excuses for their person’s shit behavior, and burn bridges before thinking of losing this toxic dynamic. A person with a serious codependent streak probably won’t do this just once: they NEED their dynamic and they highly value what others think and say about them.
TL;DR: they forget where they end and others begin.
Now that this pattern has revealed itself, you’re naturally full of doubt. This is how you’ve structured relationships for a long time, and your codependency created a warped power dynamic. It was masochistic and mean, but it was also intense, and I’ll bet that intensity felt a lot like love. This deep probing of your very nature has led you to some serious existential doubt—questioning your own inherent worth and goodness is nothing short of prolific.
In order to break this streak, it’s imperative to continue on with the self-work that you’re doing: find out who you are outside of these relationships. Reevaluate what criticism means to you and notice the internal cues you get from affirmation, stress, and negative feedback. Do you need someone to run to? To you need someone to run to you?
It might be wise to take a step back from your obligations and relationships for the time being. This intensive emotional surgery requires a sterile environment, after all. There are many resources out there for you, such as CoDa, a 12-step program to restructure healthy relationships. Books like “Codependent No More” by Melody Beattie are widely regarded as helpful tools in navigating away from these tendencies. You’ve mentioned working with friends and a therapist on this, which I think is great. It is important, however, to not replace them as the authority figure. Codependency is often borne of trauma, and a couple deep heart-to-hearts, directives, and a checklist are not going to instantly “cure” you. This will take a long time, and that’s okay.
I’m curious to know what “being a good person” is to you. Is it being self-sacrificing, and, if so, when do you self-actualize? Saying “no” to others and allowing them space to be upset or unhappy with you doesn’t need to be internalized. I want to remind you that sociopaths, or those with no conscience, don’t have the capacity to care if they are good or bad. By this process of elimination, you are probably doing okay. While this is a difficult realization, it doesn’t make you a bad helper. It’s a reminder to continually check in on yourself and your boundaries, to do what you love for the sake of loving it. With this growth, you have the opportunity to transmute knowledge into wisdom, and that, in itself, is a blessing.