The Dance of Codependency

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Decades ago, I was stunned when a therapist pointed out that I was behaving in a codependent manner. This came as a revelation to me. I hadn’t realized how easily I took more than my fair share of responsibility for how others felt. In particular, I was very adept at taking on blame. In all fairness, the blame was being projected onto me rather strongly. The therapist’s comment was in reference to the dance that was playing out in my relationships. As with most patterns of behavior, we start out with basic steps until we are gliding across the floor like a professional.

When it comes to dealing with emotionally charged situations, it can be easy to react reflexively. It’s like being on auto pilot. There is a strong likelihood that the other person(s) is also reacting without being consciously aware of why. The dynamic becomes codependent when one person assumes responsibility (whether being asked to or not) for another’s way of being.

Relationships – especially intimate ones – can foster all kinds of dependent and codependent exchanges. We all probably exhibit a bit of both from time to time. I think it’s important to ask: What are the mutually non-beneficial patterns that prevail? Too often, enabling can be justified under the guise of support when the true goal may be to protect ourselves from pain.

It can be easy for defensiveness to prevail in challenging situations that trigger fear. For me, one of the strongest prompts for my vulnerabilities is when another is projecting his or her fear onto me via defensive behavior.

As Maya Angelou says: When we know better, we do better. Unfortunately… or not, it has been my experience that it can take a lot of repetition and subsequent consequences before we really know better and then do better.

When it comes to personal growth, I am not one to give up easily. So, many many years later, I find myself doing better. However, even though I have learned – usually the hard way – that my tendency towards codependency doesn’t serve anyone’s well-being, especially my own, I still struggle with more subtle aspects of it.

As I examine my reactions, I frequently utilize the concepts of a Native American Medicine Wheel. I observe myself as I move through each position of the wheel. For example, someone is behaving in a defensive and aggressive manner with me. What does that trigger? Spiritually, I feel inadequate as I judge myself for not being able to simply observe with compassion. Emotionally, I question my worth and wonder if I deserve to be treated with disrespect? (No!) Physically, my empathic abilities make it challenging to maintain boundaries and not feel assaulted energetically. Consequently, I question what is the wisest action to take? Mentally, my mind swings through the range of fight or flee responses. Part of me just prays I can ride it out until they calm down in hopes it will go away. That can lead me to judge myself for not taking action. Oy, and the ride goes round and round. It’s like a twisted fun factory.

Instead of taking the ride, I hope to simply get off of the merry go round. I am choosing a path that moves towards self-confidence. I am attempting to nurture trust and faith in my abilities to treat myself with loving kindness and respect. I am relaxing into accepting that I am not responsible for how another feels. I am reminding myself that my value is not tied to how another sees me. And, even though I may have compassion and empathy in the face of being a target, doesn’t mean that there is a clear cut choice and action to take.

As I move forward, I can let myself off the hook even if I take the bait. Ultimately, the more I allow myself to break free, the more freedom I can grant another. Hopefully, as I expand trust in myself, my support for the same capacity in others grows. Maybe budding confidence will be mutual, maybe not. That’s ok. I know that navigating the path to self-confidence requires self-reliance and letting go of codependent behaviors.


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