Please note that I am not a mental health professional – just someone with a hell of a lot of lived experience – and this advice should never act as a substitute for professional medical advice.
My Struggles With Codependency
I’ve never talked about this publicly before – maybe because it’s just so highly stigmatized in our society – but I have struggled throughout my life with entering into codependent relationships.
Codependency has been defined a lot of different ways (and often in ways that further stigmatize people with mental health struggles).
I prefer to define it as a relationship in which a partner becomes a substitute for healthier coping strategies. By being an individual’s sole source of support and caregiving, they interfere with their partner’s ability to be self-reliant and adaptive in the face of stress.
It creates a dysfunctional dynamic in which one partner is seen as “rescuing” the other partner. Love between those partners ultimately becomes defined on the basis of either providing or receiving assistance/support. Psychology Today has a great article about it if you want more information.
My therapist once described it very simply as “putting all your eggs in one basket.”
When I was sixteen and struggling with bipolar disorder and anxiety, I put every egg I had into one basket – a tumultuous relationship with a boy I went to high school with.
My (untreated, undiagnosed) mental illness was running rampant in my life. I was experiencing extreme highs and lows, dissociation, panic attacks, self-harm, and suicidality.
And descending from the heavens, in my mind, was this guy who loved me despite it all and carried me through.
I not only perceived him as being the one who saved me from myself, but I saw him as loving me when I was inherently unlovable. This created a dysfunctional dynamic in which I relied on him to help me adapt to my illness, rather than seeking out adequate treatment, expanding my support networks, developing new coping strategies, and creating a practice of self-care.
If I was depressed, anxious, upset, you name it – I was calling him with the expectation that, no matter where he was or what he was doing, he would talk me through it. I became so dependent on him that I didn’t know how to survive without him.
Similarly, he also struggled with depression, and sometimes these roles would shift. I would become his one and only support. I would drop everything to be there for him. I would sacrifice my own sanity just to give him something or someone to lean on.
At some point or another, I realized that I had lost touch with nearly every friend I had because I was so invested in this one relationship. And worse yet – when I realized this, it hardly seemed to matter.
And thus our unsustainable, chaotic relationship became both our saving grace and the very thing that drove us mad. Because without adequate coping strategies and resilience, the burden was placed on our relationship.
Towards the end of our relationship – an end that we both could see coming from a mile away – he told me that he had considered, many times, breaking up with me, but felt that he couldn’t.
When asked why, he simply said, “I couldn’t break up with you. You would go off the deep end.”
That was my wake up call. I ended the relationship immediately, never looking back, and I made a promise to myself: Never again did I want to be in a relationship in which my partner felt manipulated, unintentionally or otherwise, into staying with me out of fear that I could not survive without them.
I’m not ashamed to say that codependency is something that I struggled with and, at times, still do. It makes perfect sense that, in the face of trauma and difficulty, I adapted the only way I knew how. It’s completely understandable; I have a lot of compassion for myself in this way.
But now that I know better, I work diligently to ensure that my relationships are healthy, and that I’m able to take care of myself instead of using my relationships to avoid confronting my mental illnesses.
By no means should we shame ourselves for the coping strategies we created when we didn’t know better – every one of us, especially those of us with trauma, has created maladaptive ways of dealing with stress.
But we owe it to ourselves and the folks that we love to work on it, especially because codependency can do real harm to both ourselves and our partners (and some of these relationships can become abusive – a real risk that we must be honest with ourselves about and be accountable for).
For me, my healing process began with self-care.
How Self-Care Helped Me Shift Away From Codependency
A practice of self-care can be absolutely radical for folks who struggle with codependency as their coping strategy. The idea that we can rely on ourselves to deal with stress and trauma runs completely counter to everything we’ve learned to do over the years.
In my community, we talk about a “radical practice of self-care.” It’s the idea that an intentional effort to nurture and affirm ourselves can be immensely helpful for our mental health, transformative in a world that tells us that putting ourselves first is a selfish act, and psychologically necessary as we endure the injustices of this world.
It’s pretty fucking awesome if you ask me.
But too often, we don’t acknowledge that for some of us, self-care is not only radical – it’s actually tremendously difficult and even painful if our only coping strategy involves, quite literally, the opposite of self-care.
For folks who struggle with codependency, I want to acknowledge and validate that this shit is hard for us. Self-care goes against everything we know.
So let me say it loud and clear: I get it. Codependency comes from a place of hurt and fear. Carrying that around day in and day out is not easy. And so I validate that, completely.
It’s not just about learning to take care of ourselves. It’s not just about reading a good book when we’re sad, or taking a walk to clear our heads. For us, dealing with stress is never that simple.
Self-care for people with codependent patterns is also about unlearning these maladaptive behaviors that, for many of us, have developed over the course of years and even decades.
These coping mechanisms can be so ingrained that it makes us behave and react in ways that we find difficult and even impossible to control. For us, the stakes with self-care are much, much higher.
If this is your struggle, I’m here to say that I totally know those feelings. And I want this conversation to be a safe space in which I can encourage you to take baby steps towards shifting away from codependency and, instead, developing a practice of self-care that can work for you.
Self-care has helped to empower me to take control over my own mental health, my own happiness, and begin to find new tools to call upon when I’m encountering a stressor in my life. It’s helped to bring more balance into both my own life and into my relationships.
And best of all, it’s helped me to feel confident that I can survive on my own. My well-being no longer depends on whether or not someone is there to support me or rescue me. I have been able to let go of the fear that everything will fall apart if my partner isn’t there.
That peace of mind – the assurance that I will be okay – is the reason why I believe that we need conversations like this. No one should have to live with the absolute terror that their world will fall apart unless that certain someone is there to take care of them.
You can take care of you. And while friends, partners, family, and community can be a part of that care, they aren’t the only tool that you have. It’s empowering to know that you are in the driver’s seat of your own healing.
My Self-Care Tips For Folks Struggling With Codependency
This is, of course, just the beginning of a larger conversation. But I want to offer some quick tips that you can walk away with, right now, to begin your practice of self-care.
1. Seek out a therapist.
I realize that this isn’t accessible to everyone, but if it’s possible, a counselor or therapist can be absolutely invaluable in helping you to cultivate resilience as you unlearn codependency.
2. Bookmark this self-care guide and USE IT.
If you get nothing else from the article but this link, I’ll still be happy.
I love this guide because it feels conversational. It’s exactly like having a friend or partner there to walk you through what you need to do to be well, except it requires no one but yourself to actually use.
It’s basically an interactive quiz that gives you advice on how to react to stress. By using it often, you gradually learn healthy ways to respond when you are struggling with a trigger or episode.
As far as I know, the only time it involves another person is if you indicate that you are lonely, in which it encourages you to reach out. All the other advice can be put into motion on your own. This is great for those of us who are working towards being more self-reliant.
I keep it in my bookmark tabs so I see it every time I open my browser. And I use it. Often. Like, literally every time I’m upset.
3. Create a Self-Care First Aid Kit
I encourage anyone, codependent or otherwise, to get an old box or container of some kind and put together a “feel good” kit for those inevitable shit days.
Some suggestions on what you could include: A bottle of your favorite scented lotion or bath product to lather up with, a favorite upbeat album to dance to, a favorite movie with a bag of microwavable popcorn, a stuffed animal to cuddle with when it gets rough, a book that makes you laugh when you read it, a box of tissues for when you’re crying, a super soft pair of socks that make you feel cozy, a candle or incense you could light, a crisis hotline number if you feel you might hurt yourself (even if you don’t think you’ll need it, please include it), and a list of phone numbers for three friends or family members that you can call (not including the partner or individual you have a dependent relationship with).
You don’t have to go out and buy these things – they can be items you already have on hand or you can ask if any friends have items they might donate. The idea is that if you keep these things in one place, they’ll be easy to access and you’ll be more likely to use them.
4. Seek Out More Resources On Self-Care
I personally believe that you can never have too many articles, print-offs, and videos on self-care. The more ideas and suggestions, the better!
I wrote another guide that talks about self-care for folks with anxiety, which included my favorite video on self-care by my lovely friend Melissa Fabello (seriously, watch the video, it’s required). Everyday Feminism has another great self-care guide if you’re looking for more general guidance.
If you struggle with mental illness or with your mental health in general, print off this list of affirmations. I wrote them just for you and I want you to read them. Often.
Lastly, there are entire communities online dedicated to radical self-care. Some are specific to fat folks, queer folks, people of color (fun fact: radical self-care originated from women activists of color), etc etc.
My favorite place to find these communities happens to be on Tumblr, but you can find them on many of your favorite platforms. Don’t be afraid to investigate and find a community that works for you!
5. Realize That Unlearning This Takes Time
Be gentle with yourself. For many, codependency emerged as a survival strategy in the face of neglect, trauma, or illness. It is important to be compassionate with yourself and honor the journey you are on, however slow the pace may be.
It is a tremendous thing to be self-aware in the face of codependent behaviors, and to choose another path. That is an incredibly brave thing to do.
I believe in you and I’m proud of you. Please know that healing from the trauma that comes with codependency is not only possible – but it’s something that you are absolutely worthy and deserving of.