By: Dr. Miranda George – Contributor
I went out for a walk with my dog, Lucky. The early January (in Texas) weather was cool, there was a slight breeze, and the sun was out warming my face. Everything was quiet except for the sound of Lucky’s claws tippy tapping on the cement as we walked forward. He was so happy to be out. A tree in a neighboring yard caught my eye. I noticed the varying shades of green, and how each leaf changed color when the wind blew. I sighed, my mind was silent save for one thought:
“God, this is excruciating.”
It had been two weeks since I realized I was struggling with codependency. I read every relevant article I could find, especially those by Leon Seltzer from Psychology Today. I made immediate life changes, I pumped up levels of self-care and self-love.
I am so proud to say that I discovered an effect of genuine love for the first time. It was weird and it was different from than anything I’ve ever felt before. I had let my dogs outside, they began to act like they had never been let outside before, running and wrestling. They made me laugh so hard. Out of nowhere I felt this strange feeling, like a piece of my heart was outside running around, wrestling with the other piece of my heart. I thought, “I love them so much.” Was I feeling real love for my dogs? I knew this was from a combination of reading the research and changing my actions and attitudes, I was taking care of myself, and I was taking good care of the pups.
The love thing happened again when I visited my brother and his family during New Year’s. I was sitting in front of my (then) seven-month-old nephew in one of those bouncy baby seats. He would bounce in that thing all day given the choice. At one point he looked at me and smiled a big toothless smile. I felt that strange feeling again. Like a piece of my heart is in that little chair, bouncing up-and-down. I could have cried.
The next morning I was woken up by my four-year-old nephew, “It’s morning time Auntie Miranda.” He hopped up on the bed and began to debrief the activities of his Hot Wheels toy cars that morning, how fast they were going, which car hit what car, what colors they were. I sighed and thought, “I love this kid so much. I could listen to him talk all day.” I felt a strong commitment to regularly be present in my nephews’ lives that day.
I sat at the dinner table to chat with my sister-in-law.
ME: Do you ever look at your kids and feel like crying? Like they’re little pieces of your heart walking and crawling around?
So, that’s love. I am feeling genuine love for the first time at the age of 36. I’m happy to finally know the feeling that accompanies the choice that love is. However, this was love directed toward innocent beings. My dogs and my nephews are so easy to love. Is this possible with adults, family and friends? I know the answer is yes but I don’t know that for myself.
The excruciatingly mindful walk that I mentioned earlier with my dog? That was just a few days later. I had to figure out what that was all about. For once, I wasn’t numbing. For once, no maladaptive daydreaming. For once, I was not imagining ways to control or manipulate anything in the future, rehearsing scenarios/possible conversations, or numbing with highlights/thoughts from the past. This is something people strive to have and there I was thinking “Ugh, this is what it’s like to have a clear mind?”
I figured once I moved to my new place everything would feel better, no need to dissect this, just be happy to have attained focus. Moving was the best thing I had ever chosen to do. I was elated once moved out and nested. This was home.
My life had improved significantly after the move but things got tricky a few weeks in. At first, self care was easy, my schedule had been amazing (open, free evenings to relax!), and I was scheduling time with my friends who I really cared about spending time with. I don’t know how I kept up with so many acquaintances before but I totally understand that now as a codependency thing (put out more feelers for higher chances of receiving validation).
A smidge of stress returned in mid January. I started a podcast with two friends about growing up as a first generation American child of Indian immigrant parents (The Jilted Indian Podcast with long time friend Anju and SIL writer Puja), a passion project. While trying to record podcasts, ton of atrocious things were happening in our country, and I found myself in a protest every other week. Last but not least, I was to present a clinic on musicians’ performance anxiety at the Texas Music Educators Association Convention in February. That was the real butt kicker.
I rewrote the speech for that clinic 7-8 times and I didn’t land on the final version until the day before. The reason why it took so long was because I wanted to understand codependency as much as I could before my clinic. Learning about this being a source of performance anxiety kind of threw my initial plans for the clinic into the trash. I went on a Google Scholar bender and read several books and articles in the span of the two weeks preceding.
The maladaptive daydreams returned. Sometimes I would go shopping when unnecessary (spending addiction), I stress ate like I was going to win an award for it, at the bar was stocked and depleting. I couldn’t clear my mind and I felt messed up. I tried to schedule an appointment with my therapist but I had a rehearsal for a solo performance that prevented me from having any free time for that.
My therapist called the return of the maladaptive daydreams and the other numbing devices “a bump” in the road, saying it was natural to have this happen when making major life changes.
Why? It seemed that I was doing all of the right things to move past this codependency shit. Why was this still a problem? Well, there was pain to numb.
“Having become nothing less than addicted to pleasing others—and people pleasing really is kind of relationship addiction—for them to “abstain” from such habitual approval-striving requires a great deal of patience, restraint, fortitude, and discipline…there will be a strong deep seated resistance to changing it. And this opposition will hold regardless of how much, consciously, the individual truly desires to change it.”
-Dr. Leon Seltzer
Addiction? This is an addiction? I have an addiction?
I didn’t accept this. I couldn’t. Back to the books. I was going to book read, research, and strategize my way out of this…
“The way they think and behave brings them relief and they are not about to give that up. These kinds of thoughts require a large amount of denial of the truth and of reality. Because of ‘euphoric recall,’ they easily remember the good times and forget the bad times. This is called “nicotine nostalgia” for smokers or “cool happenings” for codependents and serves as an additional stimulus to continue.”*
“Compulsion is an irresistible urge to behave in a certain way, especially against one’s conscious wishes. “Approval seeking by association with ‘the right people’ at any cost to oneself is a common compulsive behavior for codependents. One becomes a hanger-on because the reward and relief is considered such a driving force.”*
“The body can become physically dependent on mood-altering chemicals. This is well-known as addiction to chemicals or chemical dependency. But the body can also become physically dependent on certain behaviors. So compulsions to use substances and/or behavior become the armament of the codependent.”*
“Shame doesn’t initiate codependency; it results from having the disease of codependency.”*
“Compulsive behavior is often so subconscious that we hardly realize we are indulging in it. Like so many other aspects of our lives, we are unaware of the here and now for extended periods of time. We cannot refrain or modify a compulsive behavior if we are unaware of it.”*
“When you feel pulled in more than one direction trying to meet the needs of several people, your fear of disapproval (the flipside of the need for approval) can freeze you up, leaving you in a quandary: Whom should you please? How should you choose? What if you end up pleasing no one?”**
“As a veteran people-pleaser, despite your persistent efforts to make everyone else happy, you will rarely if ever feel satisfied with the job you are doing. You continually expand the circle of others whose needs you try to meet. The pressure this produces and the inevitable drain on your energy create profound feelings of guilt and inadequacy that you will attempt to repress by trying harder to please even more.”**
“In fact it is the avoidance of disapproval—more than the attainment of approval—that moves people-pleasing behaviors from compulsive habits to bona fide addiction.”**
“You are addicted to the praise and absence of criticism or rejection that you receive for some but not all of your people-pleasing efforts. For this reason, you find yourself compelled to please more and more people, acquiescing to more and more requests and needs in order to increase the frequency of your rewards.”**
“The need for approval stems from childhood when parents doled out the praise you learned to crave as well as the criticism, disapproval, and rejection you learned to avoid through the development of People-Pleasing Habits.”**
“Approval indicates that, at least for the time being, the child is safe from abandonment.
Disapproval, on the other hand, becomes downright dangerous. If these parents disapprove, they disavow the child’s worthiness and security. While approval signals love and safety, even a hint of disapproval threatens abandonment, danger, and fear.”**
“As adults, they are finely tuned to the slightest hints of disapproval from others. The emotional baggage of their childhood still makes grown-up approval addicts respond to criticism [or the possibility of it] with intense anxiety.”**
Every quote was a sucker punch. In addition to these two books I glazed over plus the several books and articles I read previously (including Brene Brown and Julia Cameron), and I was unhappy to find that my eyes glazed over whole portions of text where trauma and codependency were mentioned. No strategies offered, only the suggestion for seeing a mental health professional and attending a support group. I went back to the Seltzer articles and realized my eyes passed over the word “addiction” without my processing it, because I really thought that wasn’t my problem.
Was this an addiction? Am I an addict? Is it true that I’m not going to be able to book read my way out of this? Was I now a part of this club of people who need special help?
It was hard to admit…yes.
Painfully, yes. I have finally realized I can’t do this on my own. I can’t research and write my way out of this. I needed other people, other people like me.
An inability to find pleasure in regular things is normal in early recovery; the medical term for this is “anhedionia.” It passes as our intensity-addicted brains rewire themselves into clean and sober living.”***
This. This is why that walk was excruciating. I began to look into this term more specifically and fell into a neuroscience rabbit hole.**** In poor summary, I was experiencing the absence of chemicals that I usually get a rush of in pursuit of validation or conditional love seeking. It made sense that anytime I was taking really good care of myself, I would never get a “rush” out of anything I do, probably due to the healthy detachment that self care provides.
It was time to surrender. I needed help. My anxiety, a pathological fear of disapproval ran rough shod, cultivated by multi-type maltreatment and conditional love seeking in developmental years. Once my parents set my conditional love seeking in stone, classical trumpet playing took over, an instrument and idiom with which I received vaildation more frequently, hence my unyielding dedication. Hence my unhinging upon my first disaster and my hustle to make up for any potential disaster that followed [read:survival]. Holy cow, everything made so much sense.
I began to draw boundaries. I decided to stop dating and I disabled my online profile, and right in the middle of talking to a really cute programmer nerd. Sigh. I was pretty sure he wouldn’t understand my current dilemma, so I disappeared. I began to admit to a few close friends that I thought I had an addiction and that I was going to find a support group. All of them were so kind to me and receptive of the information. A few of them, I discovered, had been in 12 step groups themselves or they had family members in one. They gave me amazing advice. My therapist was supportive as well. It took me a while to find a home base, hard to do as an agnostic, but I found one specifically for codependents, called CODA.
I attended several meetings and listened to others share. There were people with a very levels of problems. I thought it might be a place where everyone shoves their god concept down my throat but that wasn’t the case, at least not with my particular group. It was basically sharing for an hour. Empathy for an hour, because everyone in that room feels what you feel. It made sense why this works why people come back again and again.
I share in every meeting, not hard for me (case in point, this article). At times someone will say something relevant and meaningful to me and then other times someone will say something completely unrelated to what we are all there for. I get so annoyed and feel like it is a waste of time to listen to this person. Sometimes I want to leave immediately after sharing. This is hilarious, because by not wanting to listen I was entertaining controlling and codependent behavior, and in a CODA meeting. How meta…or appropriate. I have a long road ahead of me.
After only one month of attending meetings, I can tell things have changed. I have attained more of a healthy detachment with the goals I make for myself, a healthy detachment with my students and their progress, and a healthy detachment in my friendships and family relationships. I’m more self-compassionate than ever. New technique has presented itself to me in both trumpet playing and singing (though I am conscious to not exploit these things in a codependent way, hard to do). I sat with one of my best friends at brunch last weekend and felt the same love for him (as my friend) that I did for my nephews and my dogs. I can do this. This love thing is possible. There is more recovery ahead but this little bit of progress gives me tremendous hope.
It is worth it. No. Wait…I am worth it. I deserve a life of love and healthy detachment. I’m going to keep going to meetings, seeing my therapist, and reading every book and article under the sun about this. I’ll do whatever I need to do to continue to achieve interdependence, until I can experience unconditional love between myself and my family and friends, until I can truly be courageous in everything I do.
*Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse and Joseph Cruse, M.D., Understanding Codependency: The Science Behind It and How to Break the Cycle
**Harriet Braiker, PhD, The Disease to Please: Curing the People Pleasing Syndrome
***Joe C. Beyond Belief: Agnostic Musings for 12 Step Life
****keywords (if you would like to jump in the rabbit hole with me): anhedonia, pre frontal cortex, nucleus accumbens, serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine. [have fun!]
Leon Seltzer, “Codependent or Simply Dependent: What’s the Big Difference?” (psychologytoday.com)
Brene Brown, Daring Greatly
Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way
Dr. Miranda George blogs about shame and music performance as well as teaches and inspires young musicians for a living.