Updated: Aug 21, 2021
My senior year of college I remember writing in my journal that I was scared to be alone. I never wanted to be at home by myself in the evenings after I got off of work or was done with school. I would spend almost everyday doing something with someone to distract myself from the deep inner discomfort of spending time alone. I have played sports pretty much my whole life and have been a part of multiple extracurricular activities. I identified all of my success through external validation and competition among others. When I wasn't engaged in an activity then I would find some event or group of people to be around. I never stopped, I was always doing something, keeping myself busy.
During that time, I had been single for a little over a year and it was eating at me. I was still holding onto the loss of a serious relationship that I had been in. I didn't know how to define myself unless I was a part of something or with someone else. I have spent a good majority of my life trying to please others and defining my worth by the people that I spent time with. I have based my beliefs, perspectives and truth on what I thought others would want for me. I have felt an underlying frustration, beome drained and depressed, and held resentment in so many of relationships because I felt like the only way my identity existed was through the responses that other people had. I have judged my family, my friends, my partners, my coworkers and strangers for living their life in opposition of what I thought would be best for them.
I have denied myself autonomy, authenticity, greater well-being, self-love and health because of my attemps to gain approval, love, and validation through my relationships. I have allowed others to make decisions for me and determine my state of being because I could not set boundaries out of a fear of the other person's response. I have tried to numb the feelings of overwhelm, distress, frustration and anger with sex, drugs, alcohol and love. I have tried to play it "safe" in romantic relationships and been with people who do not align with my core values because it felt like I had control in the relationship.
I would get upset with my current partner for prioritizing homework and physical activity over spending time with me. I would get sad when my partner stated that they wanted to stay home and get to bed early rather than going out. I would get upset when my partner wanted to stay home and cook something healthy and less expensive than going out to eat with friends or family. I would get angry when my partner would say he was going to bed when we had guests over. How could he just go to bed when people were still there, what would they think? I would run thoughts over in my head calling him "selfish" or "controlling" because he was remaining firm in his boundaries and authenticity. I didn't feel like I could make decisions that would be in dissonance with others. I wanted the path of least resistance, even if that meant denying my own truth.
Since the start of the pandemic, I was laid off of work for a few months and truly it was a blessing in disguise. The more time that I spent in solitude, the more I started to recognize my own energy and take responsibility for the choices in my life. I dove head first into healthy meal planning and preparation, I was making my own nut milks, dressings, nut butters, dips, etc. I also began meditating regularly, gardening, working out, and journaling. All of these things were something that I had enjoyed prior to the pandemic, but I hadn't dedicated them to a routine or consistently performed them on a regular basis. Often, I would engage in these activities based off of the people I was hanging out with. That way I could gain some sort of approval or validation from commiting to the practice, someone else had witnessed it! All of the joy, worthiness and validation that I gained from those practices was MY OWN commitment to them, not performing for others to get a reaction out of them. What I gained from that time in solitude was that I have control over my time and how I spend it, just because I have free time doesn't mean that it needs to be taken up with fulfilling other's needs. I serve others best when I serve myself.
Spending more time by myself gave me the opportunity to look into the way in which I react to the environment around me. I could see my own viewpoint on things more clearly now that is was not jaded by other's opinions, perspectives, and beliefs. I never knew the bliss that one could recieve when you get in touch with your own authentic emotions, perspective and beliefs. I learned it was important for me to do the things that made me feel well and realized that it looks different for everyone. I began noticing when I would pull away from connection or begin to have negative emotions out of the fear that those I care about are doing something different than me. I could see the judgements and reservations I held towards others.
I do not believe for one moment that I am the only person who has experienced this. In fact, I believe that this is a trauma response and epidemic in our society. We are the children of parent's who had codependent tendencies who were the children of parent's who had codependent tendencies. No wonder we are a worn down, anxious and depressed generation of people. We have the weight of the world on our shoulders and we are trying our best to do what we can to gain love and acceptance. I didn't realize that this behavior was so prevalent in my life and often judged others for the same behaviors. This type of behavior is called Codependency.
I love Dr. Nicole LePera's definition of codependency: "the chronic neglect of Self in order to gain approval, love, validation or self-identity through another person."
Codependency is a result of growing up in enmeshed families. Enmeshment is a term that describes the lack of/unclear boundaries, control, and an inability to regulate emotions effectively. The result of this could be that a parent bases their worth on the achievements of their children, rely on their chidren for emotional support or overly control their child's thoughts, emotions, or interests. Additionally, it is common for the emotion's of one family member to be felt by all family members.
One of the ways in which I found that enmeshment showed up in my life was the inability to regulate my emotions. If I felt a certain way, then on an unconscious level, I would try and get others to feel the same way. Just the other day, I was upset about my GoPro not sliding onto the helmet properly and feared that it would slip off mid bike ride. The more that I tried and failed the more frustrated I got. When my partner replied that they had it on there before, I shot back with a firey response. I thought to myself, "can't he see that I am struggling?" Instead of communicating that I wasn't upset at him and needed help with getting the Go Pro on there, I decided to quickly and agressively keep trying to slip it on the helmet. I was now in a place of so much anger that I could hardly look or even speak to him as he tried to help me get it on there. When he couldn't get it on there either I was even more aggravated. As he replied, "is it really that big of a deal to get upset about?" I almost lost my shit. I thought, "why is he trying to change how I feel? Just let me be frustrated, this isn't even my fault." I felt like I couldn't stand there a moment longer, I hated that he was fine and this wasn't bothering him. I just wanted it fixed so I could leave and go on a bike ride, but now I had let my frustration bother my partner, so my wait was extended as I battled my ego (that beast inside my brain trying to dodge the inquisition my partner had formulated to try and validate experiencing frustration). I became aware of the ways in which I was trying to avoid any responsibility for my actions and apologized for my behavior. It hurt, it was painful to see the way in which I had allowed my emotions to overcome me. It was EVEN MORE painful to take responsibility for my inability to regulate my emotions and communicate effectively. My thoughts wanted me to even the playing field and ruminate on all the times I had felt the way that I was making my partner feel in that moment. I finally swallowed my pride and admitted that I was in the wrong. As soon as I did I felt a huge release, so why all the resistance?
Most often, enmeshment occurs between a child and parent and may include the following signs:
Lack of appropriate privacy between parent and child
A child being “best friends” with a parent
A parent confiding secrets to a child
A parent telling one child that they are the favorite
One child receiving special privileges from a parent
A parent being overly involved in their child’s activities or achievements
***Enmeshment can be problematic because it can prevent people from developing a sense of self, engaging in peer relationships, and learning to self-regulate emotions. Children of enmeshed families may also experience diminished distress tolerance and find it difficult to assert themselves later in life. Children affected by enmeshment may feel like they have to take care of the parent, rather than the other way around. People from enmeshed families may also feel guilty if they spend time away from their family members, and they may face pressure to remain physically close to home and to engage in typical family activities regularly instead of pursuing their own interests.
While enmeshment in families can increase one's sense of belonging, it can also have a harmful impact. Members of enmeshed families often fail to adequately develop an individual sense of identity and self-esteem. They may avoid taking healthy risks and trying new things, both of which are typically believed to be important aspects of the developmental process. Some individuals affected by enmeshment may feel controlled, which might lead to resistance of parental influence or complete withdrawal. Others may feel overy responsible for the emotions of others and guilty when they tend to, or even acknowledge, their own needs.
Research shows that enmeshment often leads to difficulty regulating one's own emotions, but enmeshment can also negatively affect future relationships. Those who have grown up in enmeshed families may have difficulty developing appropriate and balanced friendships with peers and trusting people outside of their immediate family. They may guard themselves in intimate relationships, fearing that engaging in a relationship will be overly draining, which may result in a lack of intimacy. Alternatively, they may find themselves seeking out relationships in which they are responsible for caring for a partner, repeating what was learned in childhood.***
*** Reference: https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/psychpedia/enmeshment
When I became aware of enmeshment and codependency I was able to understand why I had developed some of the emotional reactios and habits that I did. From there, the more aware that I became of the subconscious patterns that were playing out in my life, the more control that I felt I had in changing them. I am not perfect, I am still healing wounded aspects of myself, and I definitely still struggle with emotional regulation from time to time. But, I do believe there is a brighter future out there for all of us and I think that we are at the cornerstone of a paradigm shift in the way that we approach trauma, healing, and relationships. Are you ready to take responsibility for your emotions and the way you show up in your life?
Comment below if you would be interested in learning about tools to navigate through codependent tendencies and ways to heal your relationship to Self so that you can show up more fully for others.