Growing into a strong, confident, capable person takes time.
When you allow yourself to think about it, every one of us started out completely dependent upon the grownup(s) who cared for us. We were born with certain unconscious instincts and reflexes we used to influence or manipulate our caretaker to give us what we needed in order to survive. Before we learned to talk and express our needs verbally, we figured out that when we cried, our guardian might respond to our pitiful pleas for attention: “Change my diaper…I’m hungry…I’m tired” are some of the basic needs we depended upon others to perform. Without our ability to sway others into attending to our needs, we would have died.
Hopefully, we had parents who did what they could to understand what was required when we cried and who did their best to accommodate our needs. Because our manipulation worked so well, we may have figured out (unconsciously) that we could get our grownup to attend to us whenever we needed something. Hence, this was the beginning of us learning how to manipulate others
As an infant, this was a brilliant method to insure our survival. As babies, we had no ability to earn a living, drive a car, find shelter, or cook and feed ourselves; therefore, we were compelled to depend upon those around us who could provide these necessities for our comfort and survival. But, as we grew up and became more capable of doing things for ourselves, our dependence upon others became lessened. Or did it? For the most part, it is accurate that we became more proficient at caring for our physical needs, however, how well did we learn to take care of our emotional and social needs?
What prompts you to make the choices you select? Much of what we choose is based on our values and beliefs. Yet we also choose based on needs (of which we tend to be unaware) that may have never been met. There are spaces inside of each of us which feel empty although we have minimal awareness of their existence or even how to satisfy them. All we know is that “I feel used up…worn out…got nothing left to give…” This is an indication that we are missing something inside. Because we are now considered adults, we’ve learned that crying to get our needs met no longer works (most of the time). Looking for comfort and approval from others will generally end in disappointment, yet without awareness, we set others up to fill those gaps for us.
Here is an example of how this process can look:
I have a friend, Laurie, who is the greatest caretaker I know. All of her friends know to come to her when they need help. They know they can count on her and she will always say “yes” because disappointing anyone is her worst nightmare. Helping out others always seems to be her priority. Consequently, others ask for her assistance regularly, and she’s unwilling to say “no”; “I don’t want to let them down…” she would say when I commented that she looked exhausted. What she was really saying was that she has no idea how to feel good about herself unless someone tells her how special she is or invaluable her help has been to them. So she is depending upon others to reassure her of her value and then she feels fulfilled.
On one occasion, she agreed to pick her friend up from DIA, the airport in Denver, two hours from her home. She arrived a bit late as she encountered traffic. Instead of her friend expressing gratitude, she complained about her delay. “Do you know that she didn’t even say ‘thank you’…all she did was give me grief for being late…see if I ever do anything for her again…” my friend declared! What she was quietly saying inside her head was ‘poor me…I’m so nice and look at what she’s doing to me…’ My friend frequently felt unappreciated. “…look at all I do for others…I sure wish my friends would be more considerate on my time and my willingness to help…” she repeatedly would grumble. When asked why she continued to give so much of herself to others, she simply stated she was “loving too much…” Is there really such a concept? Generally, love brings joy and positive feelings, not depression and resentment. The only conclusion that I helped Laurie recognize was that what she was doing was not out of love but out of fear; that her motivation was to keep people from getting angry with her then withdrawing their love. “That is what I learned growing up…if I didn’t do just what my mother wanted she would ignore me until I complied...my father would scare me by yelling when he didn’t get what he wanted…” Laurie realized. Because of these patterns she faced growing up, Laurie learned to give to others reluctantly out of fear of losing their love as well as always saying ‘yes’ out of fear of others’ anger if she said ‘no’. Laurie would give of herself to get love and prevent herself from being abandoned. She couldn’t stand for anyone to be angry with her so she felt compelled to say ‘yes’ regardless of what was asked of her. That sounds very much like the role of a victim or a martyr; a rather unappealing characteristic.
This is how the pattern works: You’re feeling uncomfortable and you want to feel better. How to do that for yourself has you stumped. No one ever taught you how and you have yet to learn that for yourself. So, you do favors for others in an attempt to have them tell you how wonderful you are and that they could never have gotten by without you. Another way to feel competent and worthy is by others seeing you in the fancy car you drive, the amount of money you have, the big house you live in, your talented kids, etc. Because others admire you for your accomplishments, you feel much better about yourself. Another risky method to feel good is to help others out so you become their hero/savior. Usually, the person you assisted will express gratitude to you for your help. Now you feel jubilant and recharged. But for how long does that “fix” last? When you think about it, you have to repeat the process again and again and again until you become totally depleted. You have nothing left. That’s when the anger and resentment rears its ugly head; “I’ll never help out that ungrateful woman again…” generally is the next thought. So you’ve gone from being dependent upon others to feel good about yourself to being against them and what you experience is rage. This persistent habit is what is known as the cycle of codependency; you’re bouncing back and forth between doing for others or being against them.
The way out of the codependency trap takes effort and it’s worth it.
To halt bouncing back and forth between being for others or against others (dependency or counterdependency), it must begin with becoming acquainted with yourself. Start by asking yourself questions such as ‘who am I?’ ‘what do I want, dream of, value, enjoy, am enthusiastic about, etc.? This enables you to free yourself from the dysfunctional pattern and begin to define yourself rather than having other people determine who they want you to be. (See article “Who Am I? August 2017). Avoid responding to questions with “I don’t know” or “I don’t care” Always respond with something even if it’s “Let me think about it and I’ll get back to you” The more you practice checking in with yourself, the easier it becomes. Developing the ability to know your point of view then permits you to share yourself with others. No more need to manipulate, coerce or control others because you’re giving yourself all the support, praise and nurturing you require. You now can help others (as you did before) however, now your motive is authentic rather than manipulative. You offer assistance because your values tell you it is the right thing to do rather than because you need to feel important. We have no control over others behavior or words, therefore, knowing ourselves, and sharing ourselves allows us to feel whole and complete rather than needy and at the whim of others. This is about taking charge of your life so each of us has the ultimate choice in how we live.
Here is a conversation you might find yourself having quietly inside when you become comfortable with yourself: “I will continue to be a kind, helpful and generous person because that’s who I am. Tell me you love me or hate me, it’s okay. I no longer need your approval to feel validated. If you thank me, great. If you don’t, I still am pleased with myself because I’m living within what my values recognizes as doing the right thing. I am now just fine with myself.