The definition of co-dependence is, “The sense of not being a complete person without someone else to make one feel whole.”
Society and the decade an individual grows up in has had an impact upon what the “sense of self” means and its exploration. In the late nineteenth century when children were forced to enter and clean chimneys, or work down the mines, the concept of even having a “sense of self” would have been redundant. Male dominated societies during the early twentieth century would have influenced a woman’s perception of her “self” and she would be defined in terms of her role – to serve her husband without identifying any personal needs. Indeed, the church reinforces the notion that we should love others before ourselves, and to embark upon discovering what the “sense of self” means can seem selfish and reinforce the idea that it’s somehow distasteful to embark upon a personal journey to learn who you are and what you want and need in life. Since the 1960’s “liberations” we see a rebound in attitudes where many demand to be heard to the exclusion of others in their pursuit of understanding “the self,” and such self-absorption may cloud the understanding of the dynamics of being co-dependent to the detriment of those who truly try to liberate themselves from trying to survive living in such a negative relationship.
“Being co-dependent” is an unsavory label, but anyone who has been tagged with it knows that it’s more than just a label; it’s a way of living one’s life as a hostage. Those who don’t know the label, or ignore it, live in painful ignorance, performing a “drama dance” that hurts themselves and their partners, but for those who recognize that they are ensnared by “being codependent” the label is profoundly debilitating and yet can also be enlightening. For once a person recognizes that they are in a co-dependent relationship the only healthy thing to do is to find a way out, or if they believe that it’s worth it, work through the symbiotic relationship so that each partner becomes a person in their own right. To be in a healthy relationship means to give 50/50, equally, yet in times of trouble the input maybe 60/40 or even 70/30 for a short amount of time to give ones partner added support, but the goal is always to return to the 50/50 median.
So to understand why anyone would succumb to being in such an unhealthy relationship we firstly need to ask ourselves how and why this can happen. The most salient question to ask is, “What is it about me that makes me choose to be with someone who has problems and who hurts me either physically or emotionally, or who doesn’t let me be myself?”
What does it mean “to be myself?” Adolescence is a time of trying on many different “hats” to see what fits the best so that the adolescent can begin to know who they are. The sense of self is often defined by careers or parenthood as individual’s progress through their twenties and thirties. Yet those roles have little to do with who anyone is, and it is usually later in life that individuals really understand what makes up the self.
The very essence of being co-dependent is that a person doesn’t feel whole without someone else to fill in the gaps in their personality. The “gaps” are defined as: a chronic sense of emptiness, lack of self-esteem, believing that one has no self-worth, a chronic fear of being alone and an overwhelming need to be in control of the main person in your life. This desperation is fueled by fear, as the person’s own happiness and stability depends solely upon on the object of their dependence, their significant other.
Before we look at co-dependency through analogies, we’ll briefly look at how it can occur. All babies start life with their genes and the home life their parents provide, and as we all know, there is no rule book for parenting, so some parents do better than others. All parents make mistakes because parenting isn’t an exact science, but most do their best, and hope for the best. During early childhood parents impart verbal and non-verbal psychological “messages” that give the child either positive or negative attributes about the self that the child assimilates. This is how the sense of self develops, and is the reason why a child develops low or high self-esteem. These “messages” either give the child “permission” to succeed and to believe in themselves, or negative “messages” let the child know that they are not good enough and are not worthy of anything good happening to them. The assimilation of these “messages” can be unconscious and therefore hard to challenge. As children grow up they make a decision about themselves and the life they can expect. They then subconsciously makes choices in life that will prove their early decisions about the self and what they can expect out of life, and their perception is reinforced. This is what keeps co-dependent people stuck in the same lost, abusive positions in life. For example, if a woman believes that all men are “rubbish” because her father left her, then she is likely to subconsciously choose a male partner who will let her down. She can then legitimately tell herself that her perception of life was right. “See, I told you all men are rubbish.” This is the root of what maintains co-dependency and individuals have to challenge their self-beliefs so that they can develop and free themselves from this tragic situation that no one deserves.
There have been many books and articles written about co-dependence, from twelve-step protocols to self-affirmations, but I want to help you to understand more fully what co-dependence is in picture-form so that you will find it easier to understand and break free from it. The following is adapted from my book, “I Only Said I Had No Choice,” and I’ve taken a complex psychological dynamic and made it assessable for teenagers and adults alike through an everyday analogy.
To be truly intimate with another human being you have to be whole and complete. Being truly intimate isn’t just about sex, it refers to trusting your partner enough to be vulnerable, to share your inner most thoughts without them being used against you in psychological game-playing. The way to free yourself of co-dependence is to understand your own personal dynamics and personality, and be prepared to fix the parts of yourself that may be pathological. My book presents co-dependence in the form of an everyday object and explores what it means, which then allows this complex issue to be accessible to everyone. “Life is like a pizza and you are the chef!”
The following is adapted from my book where Shane and his peers are staying at a therapeutic community to deal with his problems arising from his mother’s codependence with his new step-father.
‘Miss Cassie, the life skills teacher says in class to a group of teenagers, “Life is like a pizza and you are the chef, the one who decides what kind of pizza he wants to make, just as you are the one that decides what kind of life you will have. You have to make it fit the pan and the pan represents the world. We have to fit into the world but that’s okay, our pizzas will all be different because as the chef we get to put the toppings we want on them. If we see the pizza as a human life, then how tasty, satisfying and nourishing your life will be will depend upon the amount of effort you put into making it. How your life turns out, how satisfying and how good it becomes, is going to depend on how much care you take and what you choose to do with it, just like your pizza.”
Miss Cassie stands up and walks around the table putting something in front of each of us. There are pots of onion, a clove of garlic, a red pepper, a tin of stuffed green olives, and there’s a big bag of pizza dough, a chunk of cheese, tomatoes, shrimp, sausage, pepperoni, a tin of anchovies, a bag of mushrooms, two bundles of green onions, and a pot of salt and pepper. Then she places three lumps of dough in front of her. She lifts one piece up.
“Okay, so I’m the chef, the one with free will, the one that will decide on how my pizza is going to be made. The piece you hold is your life,” she says again. “What are you going to do with it? Are you going to treat it right? Are you going to take care of it or drop it on the floor so that it gets dirt in it and makes you sick? Are you going to treat it with care and roll it out to make the right shape, or if you can’t be bothered are you going to take so little care that it’s going to be a mess? Or are you just going to squash it and see how it turns out?”
She takes a rolling pin and before our eyes she rolls lightly and turns her dough as she rolls it, making a perfect round shape, then she moves to the next lump of dough and rolls the pin unevenly and carelessly, so that it’s lumpy and shaped like a lopsided cloud. Then she makes us all jump as she slams the heel of her hand down on to the third lump of dough, bashing it this way and that until it’s squashed flat.
“Look at these three pizza bases, these three lives,” Miss Cassie says. “We are the chefs, or the master of our lives. The chef that made this pizza cares about his life,” she points to the first perfect shape, “but this person does’t care too much about making his life as good as it could be,” she points to the lopsided shape. “And this person has deliberately not bothered to try and make his life good; in fact, it looks like this person has deliberately tried to destroy it when it could have been great.” She looks sad but says, “The next thing to do is to prepare for what you’re going to put on your pizzas, what you’re going to put in your lives.”
We prepare all the ingredients and place them in the numerous bowls on the table and then she makes us write on sticky notes what we want most in our lives and tells us to stick the paper to a bowl of pizza toppings. Then she says, “Remember, you’re the chef, you get to choose what’s going on your pizza, just as you get to choose what you do in your life.” I guess the sticky labels stuck to the bowls of food represent what we want to put on our pizza of life. I write, “I want my mom back,” and the others chip in with, “going to college; joining the marines; making a family; being happy; having a good job, traveling, being a rock star.”
Miss Cassie talks again and she’s not smiling. It’s as if she is on a mission and has something serious to say, so I listen.
“So, think of your life as a pizza; whether your life is satisfying or nourishing will depend upon the amount of effort you put into making your pizza, your life. You get to choose what you put on your pizza, what will be satisfying to you, what you choose to have in your life. You choose. You can keep the people who have hurt you in your life (they’re the sour pickles that are past their sell-by date and the anchovies) or you can choose the people that make you feel good. But you choose.”‘
This extract of my book illustrates how individuals are essentially in charge of their lives and how they turn out. It challenges a person’s belief in an external locus of control where “bad things always happen to me” and illustrates that every human being can be autonomous and have an internal locus of control, meaning that the individual is in control of what happens in their life due to the choices they make. Taking control of what you want in your life (the toppings you choose to put on your pizza to make it nourishing and satisfying) is the first healing step to combat co-dependence. It is not being selfish; it means learning about who you are so that you can know your true self, which will then allow you to be “intimate” with another human being and never be in a pathological co-dependent relationship again.
The next excerpt from “I Only Said I Had No Choice” shows so clearly in pictorial form just how “ravaging” co-dependency can be to the sense of self, and anyone who has suffered this type of relationship will immediately understand these complex dynamics, and be able to extract themselves so that they will be free of the fear, powerlessness and entrapment that a co-dependent relationship brings.
“We’re in the Group Room and Miss Tina [therapist] smiles at us.
“Miss Cassie tells me that you all made pizza last night and that you compared it to your lives. I like that idea, especially the idea that you are in charge of what you do in your lives and whether you make them good or bad. Did you feel pride when you finished making your pizzas?”
Most of the kids say yes.
“What happens if you don’t feel pride in your pizza, if you’ve messed it up and it doesn’t taste good or nourish you? You still need to eat; everyone needs to eat to gain sustenance to survive. Will you try and eat from someone else’s pizza? How many of you have heard of the term ‘co-dependence’?”
“I have,” Josie says. “My mom says that her sister and her husband are co-dependent… they’re a mess. Everything’s always a drama; they’re always splitting up and making up again. Is that what you mean?”
Miss Tina smiles and walks towards the flip chart, turning the page. She draws a three-piece jigsaw.
“This represents a whole person,” she says, “Mr. John Doe,” and then she draws another next to it. “And this represents Mrs. Jane Doe. Now, instead of these two people being separate and whole in their own right, they each behave as an incomplete person.”
She erases two jigsaw pieces from Mr. John Doe and one from Mrs. Jane Doe and I get it; if a person is made up of three jigsaw pieces, then even though they’re not whole people in their own right they can appear to be one person by fitting their pieces together.
“Co-dependence means that you don’t feel whole as a person in your own right and need to have someone, anyone, in your life to make you feel whole.” She points to the pieces of the jigsaw on the flip chart. “See how the pieces of an incomplete person fit to make what appears to be a whole person, but neither person is whole in their own right? They’ve lost part of themselves in the need to fit into the other person’s jigsaw.
“Everyone wants to have a partner in life, it’s natural. Human beings are social creatures and aren’t meant to be alone, but it’s not okay to be in a relationship with someone who needs you to make them feel whole. This is where I really like the pizza analogy. Remember, Miss Cassie told you that your pizza was your life. Think about how it would feel to stand there admiring your pizza, and the care you took to make it as good as it is, when someone that you like stands next to you. You see what a fine pizza they’ve made and you both want to share each other’s pizzas. That’s fine, that’s how healthy relationships are made.
“But imagine how it would feel if you stood there admiring your beautiful pizza when someone stands next to you whose pizza is a mess and not at all nourishing, and who hasn’t taken any care with it. To feel full, or whole, that person will want to eat your pizza because his won’t sustain him, but sharing with that person will not make you feel nourished, and eventually you won’t feel full or satisfied; he will, but you won’t.
“Now, think about how it would feel if two people who were looking at each other’s pizzas both had a messed up one that neither had taken any care over. Both will be hungry, knowing that their own pizza isn’t going to nourish them or fill them up, so they grab at each other’s pizzas, desperate to feel full or whole, but it can never happen because neither has enough for the other; they don’t have enough for themselves. Eventually they’ll feel that their pizza is being ravaged and because they are starving they will withdraw or cause fights in order to not have to share anything. That’s co-dependence, and it’s a very bad type of relationship to get into. It happens when people are desperate to be in a relationship, any relationship, and anyone will do, just so that they’re not alone.”
This pictorial version of co-dependence shows the desperation that occurs for both people in a co-dependent relationship – neither are having fun or are satisfied emotionally. The reason that people end up in co-dependent relationships is that they are frightened of being truly intimate or to make themselves vulnerable in front of another human being, and they are terrified of being alone. So rather than “endure” their fear and pain, they engage in drama which keeps the relationship “alive and dynamic” but effectively disallows any form of true intimacy to occur. The next extract of my book shows the drama that is generated from those in a co-dependent relationship in order to avoid true intimacy in the belief that they are keeping themselves safe from an unsafe partner.
Josie [a peer] says, “My aunt and uncle fight all the time. He accuses her of having an affair, and she accuses him as well. My mom says they’re both having affairs.”
Miss Tina [therapist] frowns. “That’s one of the problems with people in co-dependent relationships – neither feels as if they’re getting enough from the other person. They never feel full; they feel empty most of the time so they go in search of someone else’s pizza as well, to try and make themselves feel full, or whole, but they can never feel full in that type of relationship.
“Fixing it means that they have to make their pizza better, more fulfilling and more nutritious, and by that I mean that they have to work on themselves to make themselves feel whole as human beings. Then, and only then, will they be able to stand there, whole and ready, to be in a real relationship with someone who is equally as whole with a tasty, fulfilling and nutritious pizza to offer!”
So how can this analogy help? Work on yourself, and make your life as full as it can be, and only then will you be ready to share your life with someone else as an equal. Miss Tina [therapist] summarises freedom from co-dependency succinctly.
“Let your pizza be as good as it can be and share it with respect; don’t mess your own up so much that you have to seek someone else’s and force them to share theirs because you can’t survive with your own. Don’t mess up yours so much that you need theirs to make you feel whole and nurtured. Make your life as good as it can be. Make good choices as to who and what you have in it, it’s yours for the whole of your lifetime and you have to live with it. Choose people and things that will satisfy and nurture you to make you and your life as full as it can be. Take care of your pizza, your life, and take pride in it. Choose what you want on your pizza, make your life how you want it to be, take control of it, and only share parts of yourself with those who value their own pizza, their life, in the same way you value yours. If you do these things, then you can share equally with someone and not become co-dependent.”
This article is intended to be a lifeline to all those who suffer with co-pendency, which truly is a debilitating condition that no one would willingly enter into, or endure. The way to free yourself from the painful, negative self-reinforcing sense of self is to engage in the above pictorial narrative that explains co-dependence simply. Don’t expect the extraction from a co-dependent relationship to be easy, it won’t be, but stand firm and believe in yourself. No one deserves to be in a relationship that hurts. Make your life fulfilling and nurturing for yourself, and as you break away from everything you’ve been taught, endure the anxiety of being alone while you figure out who you are and what you want in life. It won’t be easy but it will be liberating. Nothing bad will happen to you, and the relief of being away from the negative dynamics you’re used to far outweigh the pain, anguish and drama of being in a co-dependent relationship, or even the fear of starting out alone.
I wish you well.