As codependents, we lose ourselves in relationships, unaware that losing our Self is the greatest despair. When the relationship inevitably ends, it’s devastating, because we are lost. We lack autonomy because that task wasn’t completed by adulthood. Avoidance of intimacy, and the vulnerability that occurs when we open up, is a way to maintain control and autonomy. We fear that closeness makes us more dependent on our partner and exposed to being judged and hurt. This fear hearkens back to a traumatic or dysfunctional childhood when being vulnerable and dependent was unsafe. The more we’re threatened by closeness and autonomy, the greater is the conflict in the relationship.
Darlene Lancer, JD, LMFT is a marriage and family therapist. She is a relationship expert and author of “Codependency for Dummies” and “Conquering Codependency and Shame: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You,” as well as five ebooks. She has worked extensively in the field of addiction and codependency. Her work is informed by training in Self-Psychology, Voice-Dialogue, Dream Analysis, Jungian Therapy, Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, Somatic Work, EFT, and Hypnosis. She has also previously supervised other therapists as an AAMFT Approved Supervisor and practiced law as an entertainment attorney.
How We Lose Ourselves
We lose ourselves gradually in small imperceptible ways. It can start with romance when it’s normal to want to please our loved ones and spend much of our time together. However, emotionally mature adults don’t drop their activities, give up their lives (they have a life), or overlook the improper behavior of their partner, despite strong physical attraction.
Stages of Codependency
Many codependents do fine on their own, but once in a relationship, the stages of codependency take hold. The desire to please can lead to obsession, denial about our partner’s behavior, and doubt about our own perceptions. Boundaries become blurred so that we don’t say “no” or set limits on what we’re willing to do or what we’ll accept from our partner. Not only that, confusion arises between what our partner feels and our own feelings. We feel responsible for them, too. If he’s sad, then I’m sad, too. If she’s angry, it must be my fault.
Disease of a “Lost Self.”
This is why codependency is a disease of a “lost self.” (See Codependency for Dummies.) Because our identity is referenced externally, we prioritize our relationships above our self, not occasionally, which would be normal, but repeatedly. In important relationships, we dread losing our connection with others or their approval. With our partner, we sacrifice ourselves over and over in small and big ways―from insignificant concessions to giving up a career, cutting off a relative, or condoning or participating in unethical behavior that before would have seemed unimaginable. We’re not consciously aware of the price we pay: Our Self!
Over time, we build up guilt, anger, and resentment that’s often silent. We blame ourselves. Our self-esteem and self-respect, if we had any coming into the relationship, are whittled away. We become anxious and depressed, more obsessive and/or compulsive. We slowly give up choice and freedom until we feel trapped and hopeless, while our depression and despair grow. Eventually, we can become a shell of our former selves.
Symptoms of codependency are exacerbated when we’re in an authoritarian relationship, where decisions revolve around the needs and authority of one person. When our partner is insistent, it feels as if we have to choose between ourselves and our relationship. We become invisible, no longer a separate person with independent needs and wants, assuming we knew what they were. To please our partner and not make waves, we give them up and collude in sacrificing our Self. You end up walking on eggshells and living in fear that can traumatize your nervous system, with symptoms continuing after you leave. It’s essential to get outside support and seek counseling.
Healthy relationships are interdependent. There is give and take, respect for each other’s needs and feelings, and are able to settle the conflict through authentic communication. Decisions and problem-solving are collaborative. Assertiveness is key. Boundaries are expressed directly, without hinting, manipulation, or assuming our partner will read our mind. Neither security nor autonomy is threatened by closeness. We can be more intimate and vulnerable when our autonomy and boundaries are intact and respected.
Both partners feel secure. They want to maintain their relationship and allow for each other’s separateness and independence. Thus the relationship supports our independence and gives us more courage to explore our talents and growth.
In recovery, we recover our lost self. Unaware of their codependency, people want to change their partner, not realizing that change begins within. Often our partner changes in response to our new behavior, but either way, we will feel better and stronger for it. Reading about codependency is a good beginning, but greater change occurs through therapy and attending Twelve-Step meetings, such as Al-Anon, CoDA, Nar-Anon, Gam-Anon, or Sex and Love
In recovery, you will gain hope as the focus shifts from the other person to yourself. Raise Your Self-esteem, learn How to Be Assertive to express feelings, wants, and needs, and set boundaries. You’ll develop positive habits of self-care. Psychotherapy often includes healing PTSD, childhood trauma, and internalized or toxic shame. (See Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You.) Eventually, you gain the capacity for both autonomy and intimacy. You experience your own power and self-love.
Codependency doesn’t automatically disappear if you leave a codependent relationship. After a while, changes in thinking and behavior become natural, and the tools and skills learned become new healthy habits. Perfectionism is a symptom of codependency. There is no such thing as perfect recovery. Recurring symptoms merely present ongoing learning opportunities!