I believed that unless I had an open-door policy, eventually no one would come knocking and I would be rendered lonely and isolated. I can laugh at that now, but back then, my “savior behavior” that had me believing that I needed to be spontaneously available to provide whatever was asked of me, as an insurance policy against abandonment.
I was born into a family in which love, nurturing, and support were in large supply and shared in abundance. No addictions, abuse, or fractured marriage. My parents adored each other and my younger sister and me, plying us with messages that we could do or be whatever we chose professionally as long as we could support ourselves and it made us happy. We were given ample opportunity for learning and trips to the library were frequent. Lots of hobbies and activities, living in the then-suburban paradise of Willingboro, New Jersey: Girl Scouts, swim team, Hebrew school, playing with friends. There were family trips “down the shore,” to Canada a few times, to a ranch, to Chicago and Lake George. The only major loss I experience was the death my beloved grandmother, who passed right after my fourth birthday. Although I couldn’t verbalize it at the time, it felt like losing a third parent.
I felt loved by my immediate and extended family. The aforementioned grandmother was one of 13 children, so there were lots of aunts, uncles and cousins around to shower us with attention. On my father’s side, I had a smaller group of equally adoring relatives. As confidently as I presented on the outside, there was this undercurrent of insecurity. I was considered a wunderkind by some folks in my life — a little adult who could hold her own in conversations with the grownups. “Precocious” was a word used to describe me at times. I did my best not to let it “go to my head,” and noticed that sometimes as a result, I kept my head down so as not to outshine or overshadow anyone, even as I craved the spotlight. I felt that I couldn’t express self doubt, so I finessed my way through much of the time.
Still, I secretly relished the oohing and ahhing and did my best to keep up with expectations. Unlike many children, I had no need to earn love and approval. Instead, I recognized on some level that I already had it and didn’t want to lose it. I internalized a belief that I had to know the answers to everything and attempted mightily to do that. I read voraciously, partly for enjoyment and in some ways to acquire knowledge that I could share, admittedly, to impress at times. I recall a few go-arounds with my father in which I would impertinently and with late adolescent eye rolls say “I know,” to which he would respond “No, you don’t know everything and need to learn.” He would proceed to explain where he thought I had gone off course. Although my father was not formally educated beyond high school, he had street smarts having grown up in South Philly, been in the Navy and had life experience far beyond my years. He was 34 when I was born, and was nearly the age I am now when we had some of those interactions. We butted heads over politics and religion, not surprising since I was a budding left-of-center hippie tree-hugger and he was, shall we say, a bit more conservative in his beliefs. I do admit that as he aged, he became more open-minded and as an example, came to accept that not all long-haired guys were ne’er do wells, when he met two young men who worked for a friend of his who he came to like and respect and that his daughter actually did have a few things to teach him as well. I also came to honor how much he had taught me.
He would occasionally offer the Mark Twain quote: “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” It was never that extreme since mutual respect was a hallmark of our relationship. In the midst of that, there were messages that planted the seeds for the blooming co-dependent I became. He was a consummate worrywart, claiming that it was a sign of love. I would remind him that all the worry in the world wasn’t going to keep me safe. He would say things like “What hurts you hurts me,” which would lead me to stuff feelings so daddy wouldn’t feel bad.
Fast forward through relationship roller coaster rides, which included a marriage founded on love, but sometimes fraught with dysfunction, a business that was the best and worst thing that happened to our relationship, becoming a 40-year-old widowed single parent, with “Now what am I going to do with my life?” questions making my head spin. My husband used to say that I was “an emotional contortionist who would bend over backward to please people.” I became a consummate caregiver and cosmic concierge whose time was spent offering information, time, attention, advice to nearly any and everyone who would ask. My brain was pickable 24/7.
I had not yet learned the power of the combination of two letters that don’t require explanation… N-O. Never thought I could utter them without stuttering. On some level, I believed that unless I had an open-door policy, eventually no one would come knocking and I would be rendered lonely and isolated. I can laugh at that now, but back then, my “savior behavior” that had me believing that I needed to be spontaneously available to provide whatever was asked of me, as an insurance policy against abandonment. I shudder now when I gaze back over my shoulder at the choices I made to “sell my soul” for love. I settled for crumbs when I wanted to savor the whole cake. I tiptoed around the truth so as not to step on toes. I remained in relationships both before my marriage and since my husband died 15 years ago, far too long so as not to hurt anyone. Instead, I got hurt. Now I am healing as a result of my own sense of self love that needs to precede fully loving anyone else. I used to have a feeling of “Uh oh, what did I do wrong?” if someone expressed displeasure with me since I thought it was my job to make everyone happy. I would sometimes frantically symbolically spin plates, juggle bowling pins and jump through flaming hoops in vain attempt to do that. Disapproval translated to devastation.
It took a stay in a 5 1/2 day residential program back in 1993, and six years of attending CODA (Co-dependence Anonymous) meetings to jumpstart me into recovery from this insidious condition that has thwarted me from time to time. I am still mindful of times when I fall back into old patterns and inquire into my motivation for “helping.”
These days I am far stretchier. I’m not quite where I desire to be, but I’m nowhere near as timid as once I was. If I were as brave as I want to be, I would say what was on my mind (tactfully and appropriately) without hesitation and worry about pissing anyone off. I actually HAVE been doing that more often and the co-dependent doormat that I was has been jumping with joy giddy over my newfound courage. A few recent examples delight me when I think about them. Last week, someone approached me to do something that I am quite good at: spreading the word about her work. As a journalist since 1988, I have the wherewithal to offer promo and love being what I call a PR Goddess. People approach me several times a week to ask me to do so. I shared with her how I felt about her request and wonder of wonders, she understood and we negotiated a mutually beneficial arrangement. In the past, my heart would have been racing and my monkey mind would have been chattering in almost unintelligible manner that she wouldn’t approve of me or (heaven forbid!) think I had way too much chutzpah for my own good.
Yesterday, I was teaching a continuing education class for a group of therapists on the topic of co-dependence. Those of us who offer counseling to clients who seek our services, often face the condition ourselves. I have found the adage “We teach what we need to learn.” to be accurate in this case. I spent 5 1/2 hours giving the best of what I have learned both personally and professionally, what I call “edu-taining” the group of more than 50 professionals. Even though I was the one in front of the room, I was confident that we would all have much to teach each other. Between us, there was likely a few thousand years of counseling experience. I don’t get stage fright and really felt like I was on as I shared both didactic and experiential exercises with an overflowing toolkit of portable skills that they could put to use in their practice. Laughter and playful interaction were hallmarks of the day and camaraderie was built among people who worked for the same company but had never met until then.
At the end of the class, after packing up supplies, I read the evaluations. While the majority were glowing in their positivity… the little kid in me clapped wildly, a few expressed disappointment that what I offered was so basic that they could have learned it in an intro psych class. Some wanted more theory. My take is that theory can be read in books and these days can be accessed online at the tap of a keyboard. I endeavored to have them look within to see how the dynamics of co-dependence impacted their personal and professional lives. It is sometimes defined as not knowing where you start and someone else stops; a sense of unhealthy enmeshment with another person that can lead to choices that negatively impact relationships and contribute to destructive patterns and habits. The woman who would have cringed (well, I did a little) over what she would have perceived as criticism, took their feedback under advisement without allowing it to knock her on her tush as it would have a few years earlier. A sense of learning who I am, what my strengths and challenges are, how my own experiences become fodder for more self-expression are part and parcel of my own codependency recovery tool kit. This, in turn allows permission for others to expand their own sense of who it is that gazes back at them from their mirror.