Codependency: A Cancer to the Spirit of Life

By Ken Wells - 07/22/2022


Series Three: Blog Forty-Six

Last night I dreamt that I was busy caring for everyone around me. Busyness was swirling all around me, just the way I liked it. I had written a second book and had just completed 35 miles during my early morning run. No one knew about either of these personal undertakings.  I was surrounded by people who had many needs and I was adept to meeting every one of them. This was vintage me. 

In my dream, I was conversing and engaging all of these people who I knew very well because I had spent so much time solving their problems and caring for them. They all decided to divide up and go get something to eat at a restaurant to socialize and celebrate. I was caring for them and helping them organize car rides etc to different restaurants and watched as they all drove off to go get food. In my busyness to make sure everyone had a ride I failed to arrange one for myself. I was left behind. Everyone assumed that I had a ride and waved. Some even called out as they drove by saying “See you at the restaurant” assuming I would be there.

I tried to reach out to my brother who was there in my dream and who I had spent so much time worrying and caring for. I was sure he would come back and get me. But, I couldn’t figure out how to use the device I had. I tried to text him. But, it wouldn’t transmit. I tried and tried!  I desperately wanted to be with everyone and not be alone.

I took care of everyone else but did not know how to take care of myself! I was frustrated and tired from all the giving and hard work I had put in trying to be more for others to keep from being less.  When everyone was present I felt so appreciated and valued because of the care I was giving everyone around me. Now, they were gone and I desperately needed to be with them. It felt so unsatisfying, unfulfilling and lonely.

In my loneliness, I envisioned everyone having wonderful and fun conversations while I was by myself. As time passed, I gave up thinking I could figure out a way to get a ride. It would be too late. By now, they would be eating dessert. So I settled in with my forlorn lonesomeness. When they returned I felt so physically hungry and exhausted from all that I had done but no one noticed.  However, I kept all of that secret as others casually engaged me for conversation. Everyone assumed that I had a nice dinner and good connection with others.  I kept secret my longing for closeness and need for food after running so far, writing so much and caring so deeply for others. My brother brought home his blueberry cobbler ala mode.  He raved about how good it was. I didn’t want anyone to know I had missed out. The physical hunger, craving for connection and being cared for was so palpable. But it was too scary to admit my needs and ask for help. So I smiled and kept caring for others as if no one had left in the first place. Then I woke up.

My dream is a reality for millions of people whose primary way of getting notice is through taking care of the needs of others. My mother was this way to the extreme. She would stay awake till all nine of us kids got home each night. Many nights it would be 1am. She would be up at 5am the next day, making breakfast, packing lunches and doing laundry in the basement which included hanging the clothes outside on the line or downstairs in the basement when weather was inclement. When we were in school she worked to gather clothing and food for the Fryman’s who had 22 children and then she would clean the church building for the next meeting. Her day was one of service from early am till past midnight every day. When it was time for her to be appreciated she was embarrassed and very uncomfortable. No one had ever taught her how to take care of herself by receiving a compliment and bathing in it.

Codependency is a cancer to the spirit of life. It’s the empty space in your soul that grows when you don’t know how to properly hygiene your own spirit with self-care. A group of professionals gathered in Scottsdale in 1989 and determined that codependency is that painful pattern of dependency on others for approval in an attempt to find safety, self-worth and identity.

It’s age old. It showed up in biblical times. The apostle Peter was so wanting the approval of Jesus, his master, that the storyline says that when Jesus was arrested Peter drew his sword and cut off the ear of one of the soldiers, thinking this would be a way of pleasing his master. The behavior predates the Bible and unfolds throughout the history of time. It has been described many different ways and will continue to be identified with numerous labels.

You lose your identity when you think you have to do more to keep from being less in order to be noticed and not invisible.  Seeking adulation and approval through acts of kindness is a codependent behavior that leaves you unfulfilled. Like an elusive butterfly, you never quite catch the feeling you most desire. You resemble the little kid who can’t get enough sugar.  Innocently and maliciously you flirt with others through behaviors that will give you the message that you are special.

When your identity is driven by outside acts of kindness or other behavior you lose sight of who you are and what you are about. Many people live their lives never really knowing who they are and what they are about. They are driven by outside validation to prop them up and give them approval of their sense of being. There is a great fear of being invisible. Mother Teresa once said that “being unwanted and uncared for, forgotten by everybody, is a much greater hunger, a much greater poverty, than the person who has nothing to eat.”  Everybody wants to matter to somebody.

This is the motivation toward becoming a human doing. Early in life, people learn that who they are is defined by what they do. Some of the greatest contributions to the world come from people who are essentially human doings. Many contributors who recognize this dynamic have even written books or blogs about it. They articulately describe and define the difference from “human doing” from “human being”.  Some do workshops and podcasts describing the importance of practicing “human being” versus “human doing”.  Some of us who are therapists are at our very best helping others intervene from acting as a “doing” and practicing “being”. While helpful to others, we struggle with our own lost identity.   It is one thing to help others with this challenge and another to separate out what we do from who we are.

Often I ask myself, who am I if I no longer practice being a therapist? It sounds like a simple answer until you contemplate giving up whatever you do. Many people fear being invisible if they give up their occupation or whatever they are really good at. They don’t know how to be emotionally vulnerable so they depend upon their ability to care for others. They weld their identity to their ability to care for others. It is horrifying to let go of their identity to care for others in order to recognize the good of their own being.

Codependency is a lack of relationship to yourself. Therefore, you do not know who you are except how you interact with others. It is a lack of identity. Terry Kellogg says that this lack of relationship to self is a child’s reaction to a dysfunctional family. When children live with people who are not dependable, the child never learns to depend on others or self in healthy ways. They depend on fixes, externals and inappropriate people. To find their worth, they allow others to depend upon them, or they become isolated and present as independent. (Kellogg, Broken Toys/Broken Dreams, Introduction, XIX).

I have watched people in every field struggle with letting go of what they have done for many years in order to celebrate their being. Certainly, I have known this struggle personally.  My experience is that most people don’t let go of their false identity. Even when they retire they identify themselves by what they once got paid to do. Addicts want to control their identity. Yet, their obsession to control results in replacing one addiction for another. They short circuit their own self-empowerment. Yet, freedom at the end of the road is only real if you let go of what you do to experience the greater depths of who you are. When what you do controls who you are, you have created a prison that prevents the release of your inner being. What remains incarcerated is your inner brilliance and the freedom to be you. Don’t allow the cancer codependency to eat away at the spirit of your life.

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