By Michelle Pate, MA, MBA
It has been said that when a codependent dies, someone else’s life flashes before their eyes. I think that’s enough to snap anyone out of their self-sacrificing ways. But patterns can run deep and they are almost always invisible to us because we have been doing them for so long.
I started investigating codependent issues in my mid-twenties after someone suggested I read Pia Mellody’s book, Facing Codependence: What It Is, Where It Comes from, How It Sabotages Our Lives. As I went through the book and workbook, I was completely mortified to recognize myself all over the pages. Since I was still someone who took responsibility for other people’s behavior, I was so embarrassed at the things I was writing about the toxic people in my life. I tore out the pages and threw them away. I didn’t want anyone to think I was a bad person for writing bad things about another (even though it was true!). At that point in life, being a person with good intentions, it was impossible for me to realize so many others did not think the same way. I blamed myself for *making* them treat me that way.
Since the age of 13 years old, I was trained to give up my own identity to take care of others. Unfortunately, those others were ones who could never be made happy. This set me up to be a classic *rescuer* who tried to save all my perceived victims from their perpetrators in life. I was always astounded that the victims would eventually turn on me after I spent months trying to help them. They actually told me I was doing all the same things to them that their perpetrators were doing! WT…??? I also dealt with perpetrators who played victim and cried to a kind, empathetic, caring person who listened to all their troubles. But in the end, they turned on me as well and screamed at me what a horrible, awful, nasty person I was. Yes, after all those hours I wasted spent listening to them. Its enough to make a person want to become a hermit. Oh wait, been there, done that. Several times.
This pattern has haunted me several times in my life, but I have learned to take the lesson as one I am unconsciously recreating in order to resolve my issue. Over time, it does get better if we truly listen to our thoughts and question our habits. One event in my late 20s, had me lying in bed with the flu, a tweaked back, and a painful period all at the same time. A friend called up and went right into her complaint of the day. I was in no shape to help her and kindly told her so. The diatribe I received from her was painful. She hung up on me and would not speak to me for several weeks. Another friend called me and when I told him what I had just dealt with, he said, “Sounds like you need a new support network.” I realized for the first time that I had no one in my life who would listen to ME.
There are definitely payoffs for living this kind of existence. First, we get to be the best in our group of people. We get to think we are the kindest, most generous and empathetic person around. It is an ego boost to have people come to us because we let them vent when no one else will listen. But usually, when we are sick and hurting, those people will turn their backs on us and refuse to help us. When we question why we would have these kinds of people in our lives, the ugly truth is we feel superior because we are at the top of the pile of needy people. We don’t have to deal with our own unresolved fears of having attention put on us by people who have it more together than us. We don’t ever have to feel inadequate. But we also don’t ever get to grow.
Another part many of us have is the feeling of guilt and anxiety at the thought of letting someone down. At one point in life, just thinking about someone getting angry, hurt or disappointed at me would give me a churning stomach. The anxiety would keep me up at night. I would have practice conversations with these people in my car. All trying to muster up the strength to talk them down from their upset. I never even thought that maybe they were in the wrong for acting this way.
When you deal with your own anxiety, remind yourself that your brain is actually trying to protect you by initiating the fight-or-fight response. In ancient times, when people needed to outrun predators, they experienced fight-or-flight as the way to keep them safe. Our brains are still hardwired this way, causing us to sometimes respond as if we are in the presence of a predator when we are actually not life or death danger at all. We desensitize our own response by reminding ourselves that we are, indeed, safe.
After many years of personal growth and reflection, I finally desensitized my own anxiety to allow another to be angry at me without taking responsibility for their feelings. Its not a one stop decision. We are faced with anger in many different forms with every new person we meet. Many of us who are empathetic feel the other person’s emotions as if they were our own. There is an important reason why we need to know when we are experiencing our own anxiety or another’s. Our reaction can be so automatic we don’t realize that the other is getting away with manipulating us and not taking responsibility for their own feelings. If they know they can get something out of us, they may unconsciously (or even consciously) use anger, disappointment, and hurt as a way of getting what they want. And how are we to know the difference if all we feel is our own anxiety in a situation? When we desensitize our own anxiety, we start seeing the truth in the situation and make better choices to conserve our own energy and time.
If someone is angry, I don’t have to react but hold them with light and love, and they are eventually forced to deal with their own issue. Instead of avoiding their anger or getting defensive, I can listen to them and ask them to keep talking. I can reflect back to them what I hear them saying. When I listen, I am always astounded to realize that they see ME as the perpetrator. And here I am busting my butt to be good to them? After a while, I can matter-of-factly say “oh, so I’M the bad guy here. Interesting.” and I don’t take it on. Soon enough, they calm down and start to see things more rationally. And hopefully, I have helped unravel another bit of the tangled rope for them - and for myself.
If they are truly disappointed, I can always make it up to them at another time. Often they forget about their disappointment and I realize I am still beating myself up. Our children need to taught how to be authentic about their feelings. If they know they can jerk us around with their pouting and whining, we do them a disservice when they become adults and are pulling that same stuff with others. If they are genuinely hurt, I can be gracious and apologize for hurting them, and tell them I still need to take care of me but still want to connect with them at another time we both decide. But ultimately, everyone is responsible for handling their own anger, disappointment, and hurt and we can’t keep ourselves hostage trying to placate their emotions. It keeps them emotionally immature to caretake of them in this way. We are basically rescuing them from learning the natural consequences of behaving this way.
I heard of one coach who recommends trying to make one person angry each day for a month. That would put deep anxiety in a lot of nice people. But think how much strength and wisdom you would have at the end of that month in dealing with other’s emotions. You might actually start to feel amusement at other people’s anger rather than utter dread. They start to resemble 5 year olds having a temper tantrum. That is such a better perspective than dreading the all important scary parent’s wrath. You gain much personal power in growing up your own anxiety about other people’s upsets.
I realize so many of us love to be generous - so many of us love to give and are uncomfortable with receiving. Why would I think so little of myself to only give and not receive? Why would I not give myself good things? As a friend of mine said last night, “I think I don’t appreciate myself enough so I need it from other people.” And I think we deny all the ways we anger, disappoint and hurt ourselves in the process. A lot of us do that, but why?
Cheryl Richardson speaks to this in her book The Art of Extreme Self Care
- We don’t want to disappoint others because we know how bad it feels.
- We don’t have language to let someone down with grace and love.
- Our fear of conflict and desire to keep the peace keeps us from telling the truth.
- We want people to like us and we feel uncomfortable when they don’t.
To break out of self-sacrifice and deprivation and start to appropriately take care of ourselves, we must learn how to manage the anxiety that comes when others are disappointed, angry and hurt by us. This poses a tough challenge for a sensitive, caring person. You are changing the rules of the game, and others won’t like it. You have trained those in your life to expect your over-generosity and they will raise a fuss when you start putting your needs first. Expect more demands or a bigger guilt trip.
If you get drained by these people, you need to start looking at them as ”energy vampires”. With a vampire, you would do certain things to protect yourself. With energy vampires you say no, set limits and put up boundaries to protect your time, energy and emotional needs.
With more self-care, you will start to see that you are betraying yourself by making critical life decisions based purely on what others want. Once you start to take care of yourself, you cannot give in. That causes others to doubt your word. Be honest, direct and resolved to take care of yourself. Don’t over explain, defend yourself, or invite debate about how you feel. The fewer words, the better. Get support from others if you feel you are losing your resolve.
Cheryl Richardson also outlines action steps to take when someone asks you to do something and you aren’t sure you want to do it.
1. Buy some time. Tell them you have to get back to them on your answer. Let them know you might not be able to do it based on another commitment, but you will let them know by a specific time.
2. Do a gut check. Ask yourself how much you really want to do what they are asking. Think about what you need first. Don’t think about their anger or upset. Would satisfying the request bring you happiness, fulfillment or pleasure? Are you doing it to show love or strengthen a connection, or do you feel guilty or obligated?
3. Tell the truth directly with grace and love. When you can craft a caring and respectful response, your courage to take care of yourself will soar. Your “no” can be thoughtful and considerate and leave the other person cared for even though you don’t participate. Be honest about how you feel. Don’t overexplain yourself. Express regrets if you have them, be direct, be clear.
You can graciously decline requests and you don’t have to explain why. Tell them you are honored they asked, but you cannot help them and genuinely wish them the best. And being honest about your commitment to your self-care is almost always something people can understand and respect. You cannot measure your success by the response you get. Like my former friend who flipped out when I was sick and couldn’t be there for her, realize they have their own unresolved issues that you are NOT responsible for fixing. Let them go on their way. They have their own life path to pursue and you don’t have to participate. They are capable and they will figure it out for themselves.
After you say no, check in with yourself inside AFTER your anxiety goes away. Do you feel relieved? Do you know in your heart that you made the right decision? Are you pleased with the way you handled it? Are you glad you did it?
If your answers are “yes”, you have done the right thing for everyone.
It is utterly important for your well-being to make yourself your own favorite person. In the end, you are all you have. You want your own life flashing in front of your eyes when you take your last breath. It is your life you are living, not someone else’s.
Find things about yourself that you love and nurture them. Look at yourself in the mirror and fall in love with your eyes, your face, your body, your essence, and your faults. Give yourself good things. Take yourself to a nice dinner in a fancy restaurant. If you love and appreciate yourself in that way; TREAT YOURSELF WELL, you be able to distinguish between those who mistreat you, and those you can trust to invite into your inner circle.