I’m wired to panic when I sense loneliness about to set in. It's based on a very straightforward logical fallacy, that past behaviour always predicts future behaviour, but emotionally speaking, this reasoning seems to make perfect sense. As such, I’ve generally clung to some sort of safety net when I could sense loneliness creeping in, ranging from activities like 3D printing, substances like alcohol or sugar, and relationships. This is the root of my codependency.
Melody Beattie, author of “Codependent No More,” offers several definitions of codependency, of which I will highlight two:
Codependency is “an emotional, psychological, and behavioral condition that develops as a result of an individual’s prolonged exposure to, and practice of, a set of oppressive rules—rules which prevent the open expression of feeling as well as the direct discussion of personal and interpersonal problems.”
A codependent person is one who has let another person’s behavior affect him or her, and who is obsessed with controlling that person’s behavior.
From the first definition, I can see codependency stemming from working my way back to an engineering job after so many years away. From the second definition, I can see it coming from growing up in a dysfunctional home with an innate feeling of powerlessness. Drawing on both, I can see myself being the force that has created codependency in the people around me. It’s also not quite a mental illness or personality disorder. Nobody really knows what it is exactly, but regardless, it’s still a problem that needs to be dealt with. It also has a fuzzy definition because it’s normal and healthy to have empathy for people you love when they are going through a tough time.
There’s a direct link between codependency and controlling people. The reasoning is that your life is tightly linked with that of someone you’re close with, and as they lose control, which the book attributes mostly to addictions (or more recently referred to as Substance Use Disorders), you also lose control. Like a domino effect. Therefore, you begin to exert greater influence over their lives in order to manage the portion that affects yours. Backseat driving. Instead of taking the healthy approach of protecting yourself, practising self-care, and living your own life in spite of the circumstances of another person, you fixate on “helping” them by problem-solving many of their little issues. This control ultimately enables and continues their behaviour, and the cycle repeats. According to Beattie, one of the first steps to addressing codependency is detachment. A later chapter is called "Remove the Victim." Sound like any bloggers you know? 😐
For me, remaining in this cycle of losing control and taking too much control stems from a fear of being alone.
The feeling of loneliness is a funny thing. You can feel lonely when you’re not alone. It's such a widespread experience, built into the very fabric and infrastructure of our daily experiences in the West that we don't notice it all the time. Low-density, single family homes. Car ownership and road development prioritized over public transportation. Social media and advertising. Lonely people make for ideal customers, who need to soothe their wounds with shopping, eating, drinking — consooming.
Interestingly, loneliness itself is not the negative end-result, but it’s the bouquet of problems that come along with it. What then is the danger of loneliness? It appears to be exposure to elevated stress hormones, especially when compounded over a long time. Genuine connection with others brings down our stress. Surely there are benefits to flying solo, but when you’re with your best buds, don’t you do more laughing, learning, sharing, problem-solving, goofing around?
The trigger for my loneliness alarm has been far too cautious. I spend a ton of time alone without incident, so my codependency seems to be activated more by a fear response. I would guess that the problem is the approach, not the actual loneliness itself. Suppose you’re at a party with a trusted person that you know and love. After mixing and mingling with the other guests, you decide to check in with your special person, and to save time, you walk in a straight line, facing them head-on, staring into their eyes as you approached. That would seem aggressive and confrontational, and they might feel prompted to ask, with fearful or wary eyes, “Is everything alright?” Alternatively, you could approach from the side, head turning this way and that, eyes wandering around the corners of the room, shoulders slumped, hands in pockets. Your demeanour would not seem as dangerous and worrisome. Thus, the speed at which you approached your friend would not be the problem, but the approach. Similarly, solitude is not the core issue in my codependency, but when I fear that I’ll feel lonely, my codependency kicks in. Needs more observation and study to get to the root.
I think one of the confusing parts of codependency is when the alarm is more distressing than the negative outcome it’s trying to prevent. It's like an emotional fire drill, when the alarm is painfully loud but there are many reliable sources telling you there is no danger at all. Our previous condo building had a few false fire alarms over the years, and you had to evacuate every time, even when it was 3 AM, when there was no smoke or fire visible, and when you knew that the alarm company was trying to fix this exact issue. It doesn’t always seem to quiet the nervous system when I tell my body that I have close friends who care about me, that my social calendar has events in the near future to see said friends, and that I’ve very recently survived several hours of being alone.
Healing from codependency will probably still require a lot of alone time. I thought I could gradually fix my codependency problem, but it’s gotten to a desperate point, requiring desperate measures. What is the cure? Approaching the problem with curiosity and distancing myself from the overall situation, I’d guess that I should be embracing the alarms and testing the hypotheses. If I step into the loneliness head-on, will I actually be in danger?
Addressing loneliness is also a fickle thing. If you try too hard, others might sense it, which can push them away. As much as I try (way too hard) to cultivate my relationships, it’s too often driven by fear and desperation than genuine desire for connection. If you underestimate its seriousness, it doesn't always just go away on its own. The feeling also manages to find its way into unexpected places in your psyche. It's easy to become desperate to set up a way of systematically reducing lonely moments before assessing its effectiveness or sustainability, like rushing into a relationship or using soothing and numbing agents to focus on just the stress. You can have close friends, who know everything about you, but still withhold your true self from them.
It takes courage to be yourself. Authenticity requires vulnerability and trust. Those all sound like easy character traits to build and maintain in an unsafe world, ya? You have to step into the problem with a whole heart. Can’t rush into it with desperation and fear aka Jon-style. You also can’t (or maybe shouldn’t) ignore it or sweep the feelings under a rug. Choose to work on it seriously. Trial and error. Talk to a therapist. Deep breaths.
Codependency is when you let another person have more control over your life than they should, so you try to control theirs in response. Melody Beattie observed codependency coming from relationships with people who have Substance Use Disorder, but I’m sure there are others. Mine comes from a learned helplessness in close relationships and when pushing hard for upward mobility in my career, as well as a disproportionate fear of being alone. Going to trip my internal alarms and see what happens on the other side. Wish me luck!