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Codependence and the Power of Detachment
HOW TO SET BOUNDARIES AND MAKE YOUR LIFE YOUR OWN
By Karen Casey
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC Copyright © 2008 Karen Casey
All rights reserved.
FROM ENMESHMENT TO FREEDOM
When we're caught in the pain of enmeshment, we don't know who we are, what we think or want, or what direction is right for us to move in. We have traded in our own identity for the identity we think another person prefers. And when we have many significant people in our lives who we assume we need to satisfy, we necessarily develop many personalities. Chaos reigns, at least in our own minds, when we are living for and through other people.
That's how I lived life for my first thirty-six years. I vividly remember standing in our kitchen and crying after my first husband, Bill, and I separated, because I had no idea what I wanted to fix for my dinner. I had spent twelve years cooking whatever he wanted, and the sad part was that it had not occurred to me that it could have been different. It wasn't because he was abusive and demanded that I cook his favorite things; I had simply lived my life around him in every regard. I remember feeling as though I were on the hot seat whenever he asked me what I thought about a book we had both read, a movie we had recently seen, a philosophical idea he had painstakingly explained to me, or even something as simple as the weather. I would nervously search my mind to guess what he might be thinking about the topic so my answer could match, or at least complement, his ideas. I feared his look of boredom whenever I offered what he considered an obviously uninformed answer.
Did he really look at me this way? Probably not. Did he demand that I pay him this homage? of course not. It was simply what I had learned to do in relationships in order to avoid being rejected. But in the end, my pandering could not keep him in the relationship. And it had given me no happiness either.
My experience with Bill was not the first relationship I had tried to control by seeking to make myself indispensable. With my first boyfriend in high school, I had behaved similarly. If Steve was moody, I was the reason. I needed to be more exciting perhaps. If he didn't call when I expected him to, I was certain a breakup was imminent. If he had not asked me for a specific weekend date, I knew it was because he was waiting for a better date to surface. I lived my life around his every mood and meager offerings of attention. I watched him like a hawk to assess how I was doing in my role as girlfriend.
My early relationships illustrate the too-common behaviors of the enmeshed, attached, codependent person. My identity was clearly an extension of the partner I was with. If he turned away, I felt invisible. If he praised me or focused attention on me in any way, it suggested I mattered. I was continuously afraid that every relationship partner and friend would eventually reject me unless I was the perfect counterpart to his or her identity. Mine was an impossible assignment. My inner turmoil and overwhelming self-doubt only increased in magnitude.
Considering myself a whole person, worthy to be valued solely on my own terms, was beyond my comprehension. While growing up, I had not received the kind of perspective from my family that would have helped me develop a positive self-image. Being constantly available and ingratiating was the only way I knew to get the feedback I craved. At the end of my relationships with Steve and Bill, I was aware that the behavior I had tried to master could not prevent rejection. But I had no other behavior to resort to. I didn't even realize it could be different.
My reliance on open expressions of love from significant other people in my life was absolute for a number of years. I didn't really appreciate the depth of my own dependence on others' approval until I had been sober and in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) for a while. It wasn't that I didn't see how much I wanted to be noticed and liked—I had just never acknowledged how anxious I felt when the attention I sought was not forthcoming.
But while I assumed that AA was going to change all of the behaviors, perceptions and assumptions that had haunted me for years and fed my self-doubt, toward the end of my first year of recovery, I was closer to suicide than at any time previously in my life. I had considered suicide the perfect out for many years; however, I had never planned it in as much detail as I did after about twelve months of sobriety. Stacked on my kitchen table were the towels I planned to stuff around the windows of my apartment. All I needed to do was tightly tuck them next to the sills and turn on the gas from the stove. I felt numb and yet relieved that the pain would soon be gone.
Then there was a rapid, persistent knocking at the door.
I wasn't expecting anyone and considered not answering, but a voice began calling my name. It sounded quite impatient, so I eventually opened the door. My visitor, a woman I barely recognized, insisted we had made an appointment to discuss financial planning. She brushed right past me and walked into my kitchen.
After a good bit of probing on her part, I told her about my overwhelming fear and depression, although not my planned suicide. She said she understood, had experienced this form of anxiety herself, gave it a name, and told me I was on the threshold of a great spiritual awakening. She said that my experience was simply a point on the continuum of spiritual growth and that most individuals who were seeking a deeper, better understanding of their purpose in life, as I had been, went through this phase.
Something inside me told me she was right. I could feel a change throughout my body as she spoke. A calm settled over me. I had not felt calm for many weeks. I had the quiet but profound knowledge that I hadn't ever needed to discuss finances with her. But I had needed to speak to someone about my crippling fears. Within a few minutes of her mysterious presence in my home, I was freed from the need to end my life. She left almost as quickly as she had come, but she was, without a doubt, God-sent.
STILL ADDICTED TO APPROVAL
One might think that following this profound couple of hours with the mysterious "financial planner," I would never have experienced fear again. While it's true that the overwhelming, free-floating kind of fear was gone, I still sought concrete evidence of approval from most of the significant people in my life. I still feared what others were thinking.
In the third year of my sobriety and following the completion of my Ph.D., I took a job that I was not well prepared for and had a boss who was demanding and demeaning. My well-worn habit of making another person my "god" was accelerated on that job. Having lived that way since childhood and having never really freed myself of the need to please others at any cost, I found that with a boss such as mine, all of my old responses were easily triggered. I was addicted to approval, period!
I also began to understand my need for control—control over what another person was thinking about me. It was a constant need in nearly every relationship in my life, as much as I did not want to admit it. As diligently as I tried, I continued to scan the expressions of others, particularly the expressions of my boss and my significant other, for my "control fix." Getting the fix one needs in order to continue living from one minute to the next, whether from a drug or from the praise of a person, is a debilitating way to live. I wouldn't say that the addiction of codependency is more harmful than addiction to alcohol or other mood-altering chemicals, but I can't say that it is less harmful either.
Eventually the pain of my work environment and my boss's behavior sent me into outpatient treatment for codependency, and I hurried back to Al-Anon, the program I had sought help from before I got sober myself. I had begun my journey in Al-Anon in 1975, as a desperate measure to try to change the drinking pattern of the significant person in my life. I didn't glean from that first meeting that Al-Anon wasn't created for that purpose. In fact, I came home with an AlAnon book and eagerly read it from cover to cover. At the next meeting, when asked how I was doing, I said that I was fine—I had finished the book! The other group members laughed and suggested I begin reading again, this time reading only the page for the day. The book's title, One Day at a Time in Al-Anon, had not even registered when I picked it up that first night.
What I had not yet fully understood was that I had only a moment-by-moment reprieve from codependent feelings, and these moments were the direct result of my willingness to look only to my Higher Power for my good feelings. I am so grateful to have been introduced to the concept of a higher Power in Al-Anon. It relaxed me to envelop myself in the comfort of "a god" as I understood him, a comfort that was always there when the comfort from a partner might not be.
THE LEARNING CURVE
Seeking approval from others for my very existence was such an ingrained habit that knowing I didn't need approval was beyond my comprehension for a long time. Fortunately, my sponsor reminded me often that I was on a learning curve and that I was right where I needed to be. Her words of comfort and her wisdom kept me from losing all hope.
Meanwhile, a treatment counselor suggested that when we feel as if we're falling into old patterns of behavior, we should retreat to a safe place for a prayer and an inner pep talk. The bathroom became my haven. I can remember how quickly and frequently I would head for the bathroom to look at myself in the mirror and silently remind myself that God (the God I didn't yet really trust) did love me and that I was worthy with or without acceptance, approval, or love of any particular person.
I can't say exactly when the change began to happen for me. I can only say that it did. I simply noted, on occasion, that I seemed unaffected by harsh words or intentional scowls directed at me by the important people in my life. It wasn't that I no longer cared what others might think; it was that I had begun to feel a new confidence. Was the change because of meetings, daily readings, reaching out to others in new ways, or prayer? Probably it was a result of the combination of all of these. More specifically, my confidence probably developed because I had let go of my shame around the attachment, the enmeshment that I felt with so many other people in my life, and I had started discussing the problem in meetings.
I also learned that controlling others so that they provide me with what I think I need to feel good about myself is like traveling through a maze that has no exit. I would never find what I am seeking. Grasping the essence of the First Step of the Al-Anon program—that we our powerless over alcohol and thus powerless over those who suffer from the disease of alcoholism, as well as over all others, too—offered me the first sign of relief, and thus hope, that I can survive within a relationship.
My second experience in Al-Anon has continued to this day. I am convinced that my sobriety owes nearly as much to Al-Anon as to AA. I say this because in my thirty-three years of recovery, I have known far too many people who have returned to drinking as the result of painful relationships. Al-Anon has not taken away all the pain in my significant relationships, but it has given me the tools to deal with the issues that surface when people honestly relate to each other.
It is very, very hard to change the only behavior that you're familiar with; mind-sets are deeply ingrained. But they can change. I am living proof.
When we are overly attached to the feelings, the opinions, and the action of others, we have no life of our own. We are not emotionally separate and healthy, but enmeshed and unfocused. When we are willingly, obsessively encumbered by the emotional presence of the other person, we cannot have clarity about our own lives, and we cannot hear the messages that are trying to reach us about the right path to take or the right decision to make.
Offering attention to others is not a bad thing. But there is a significant difference between offering loving attention to someone in need and totally giving up attention to one's own needs in the process. Nobody is helped by our obsession with others. While it is neither right nor helpful to isolate ourselves from the people who happen upon our path, learning from them comes as the result of healthy interaction, not obsessive, compulsive attention.
The value of detachment is that it frees both persons who are caught in the web of obsessive attention and attachment. Detachment doesn't mean a sudden decision to ignore a loved one. Rather, it means lovingly moving our attention away from them. It means looking about our life fully and appreciatively, not narrowly, as we are wont to do when we have captured a hostage by means of attachment.
DETACHMENT IN ACTION
I first became acquainted with Jean in an Al-Anon meeting. It was a large group of men and women, and it was the custom of this particular group to stay together as one unit throughout discussion, so I never spoke to her individually until I happened to sit next to her at one of the noon meetings. Instantly I could tell she had the kind of program—i.e., a gentle way of living—all Al-Anon-goers seek. I was curious about her history and told her so. I also wondered what happened to her, because Jean's glow told me what life was like for her now.
We met for lunch, and she gave me the short story on how she had come to Al-Anon. Jean was the middle daughter in a middle-class "functional" family, twice divorced, and the mother of two boys. She had been an artist, making her living in the arts for more than twenty-five years in Vermont. Because of a change in her personal life, she gravitated to her present home and the city where I met her.
"I knew years ago that I wanted to be on a spiritual journey," she said. "[T]he universe sent me an alcoholic, and the journey began."
Like so many of us, Jean had gotten romantically involved with a charming, fun-loving man who turned out to be an alcoholic. He followed her to Florida, where they shared a vacation condo for a time, and the cycle of pain and chaos began. He got sober, then relapsed—again and again. She propped him up for a while, expecting the next round of sober days to last forever. Eventually he moved on, but before that time, she was guided toward Al-Anon.
One of the first things Jean said to me was that before Al-Anon, she felt she was on a "brain train," trying to analyze and control every event and outcome. She is aware that for many years, men had been projects for her. When she couldn't change the man, she would change herself to make the two of them appear more compatible as a couple. That habit rings true for many of us in Al-Anon. It's one of the classic symptoms of our disease. No matter what circumstance we find ourselves in, we will try to change it or us to provide the outcome we think we deserve.
One of the things Jean learned in Al-Anon was detachment, which she describes as "stepping back and leaving room for God to do God's work." Detachment can mean stepping back not only from people, but also from places, things, or activities. Jean shared that she had never known contentment until she decided to quit doing many of the activities that had consumed her time for years.
Jean has attained balance in her life now—balance coupled with a peacefulness that radiates from her. She now works as a personal chef for an elderly couple, and she loves the quiet rhythm of her life. Her creativity has continued to blossom; she simply exhibits it in new ways, such as in how she cares for the couple, how she prepares meals for them, and how she is nurturing them on the final phase of their life's journey. Caring for others deeply from an objective stance—which is, of course, one way to define detachment—is what she is constantly practicing.
Jean's image of stepping back is a great one to conjure up during those moments when we're tempted to take charge of a person or an experience that is clearly in God's domain. Stepping back allows us to let God take ownership of the solution. Deciding to leave the situation in God's hands rather than trying to change it ourselves offers us the same relief that we ask for in the Serenity Prayer: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change."
One of the best reasons for stepping back or detaching from a person, place, or thing is, as Jean discovered, the quiet contentment that almost immediately comes over us. Our minds cannot be on two things at the same time. No matter how organized we are or how much of a perfectionist we want to be, our minds cannot handle more than one thought in any single moment. When we try to cram in more than one, our anxiety level rises. Thinking only one thought at a time, and then occasionally getting really quiet between thoughts, will profoundly change how we experience life. We may need to remember to step back many times a day, even many times an hour, but the payoff is worth it.
Excerpted from Codependence and the Power of Detachment by Karen Casey. Copyright © 2008 Karen Casey. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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