How did you guys meet?
Whenever Loïc, my partner, and I get asked that question, we glance at each other and laugh: In the streets.
Right on cue, friends and acquaintances raise their brow, intrigued.
I had just arrived in western France to teach English after college. Some of us teachers went out for a drink downtown and were saying our goodbyes for the night.
As we stood in a big circle under a streetlamp, I heard a faint melody. My ears perked up; it was Bob Marley’s “Jamming”. Close by, a group of guys talked excitedly around a boom box.
Then, Loïc approaches me with a big smile, Hey, do you want to listen to some music with us?
I didn’t want the night to end just yet, so I said yes. And then we got swept away in conversation about photography and graffiti.
2 weeks later, we went out for a date. 7 months later, we got married. We’ve been together for a little over 11 years now.
After we finish telling the story of how we met, people usually look at us, étoiles dans les yeux, starry-eyed. They wonder at our chemistry, how we giggle like new lovers do.
What they don’t know is that our rom-com encounter quickly became a toxic relationship, mired in codependency. And that this hellish nightmare would take us on a long, windy voyage to radical self-acceptance.
What is codependency?
According to therapist Darlene Lancer, codependency happens when a person “can’t function from their innate self, and instead, organizes thinking and behavior around a substance, process (e.g. gambling, sex, shopping or working) or other person(s)”.
Codependency can show up in personal relationships, like with a friend, parent, partner or colleague, but not always. Hence, “substance” and “process” in the above definition.
For this article, I’m focusing on romantic relationships. Basically, it’s when you rely too much on your partner for validation. As a result, you people-please, neglect your needs and arrange your life around your partner.
Keeping the peace and caretaking become the priority, making you vulnerable to mistreatment and shame.
Signs of codependency
You might be codependent even if you have some of these signs. They don’t have to show up all the time or with everyone.
- Low self-esteem. Beating yourself up, feeling unworthy, worrying what others think of you.
- Perfectionism. Holding yourself or others to unrealistic standards and fearing failure.
- People-pleasing. Putting others’ needs before yours, caretaking with strings attached, having poor or no boundaries.
- Dysfunctional communication. Difficulty identifying and expressing your feelings, thoughts and needs.
- Control. Controlling your own feelings, telling others what to do, manipulating others (including people-pleasing).
- Painful emotions. Struggling with anxiety, fear, guilt, anger, hopelessness, depression or shame.
- Fear of abandonment. Identifying with relationships, fearing loneliness, difficulty leaving toxic relationships.
- Addiction. Soothing painful emotions with substances, activities or relationships.
Life coach Hailey Magee details more on signs here. Though, keep in mind that having one trait in a specific situation doesn’t make you codependent.
I highly recommend Lancer’s book Codependency for Dummies for deeper insight.
Avoid caretaking and accept painful emotions
I remember the first time I realized Loïc had an anger problem.
The steady patter of the shower resonated in the bathroom. I was calmly folding clothes on our bed when, all of a sudden, Loïc cursed and yelled.
He kept at it for a good minute or so, as if he were raging at someone.
What was all this commotion… some sort of joke?
To my great surprise, it wasn’t. Loïc explained that the shower curtain kept sticking to him, which annoyed him to no end.
I couldn’t believe my ears: Tout ça pour ça ? All that fuss for nothing.
Day in, day out, seemingly small things provoked explosive reactions. Reasoning with Loïc was like stepping before a dragon’s stream of fire. I soon feared his reactions and even believed that I contributed to them.
So, I stayed small to keep the peace: If I don’t help him, who will? In my mind, unconditional love meant sacrificing myself, stuffing down my feelings and ignoring my needs.
Believe it or not, Loïc felt exactly the same way about me!
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I too struggled with anger. Any perceived criticism or patriarchal comment made my blood boil. I was constantly on guard.
It turns out that under our anger, Loïc and I stored mountains of grief, fear and depression from various childhood hardships—and it was all pouring out in one go.
Our respective boats were sinking. And instead of healing our own emotional wounds, we were bailing out the water of the other person’s boat.
Despite our good intentions, the pressure was too much.
Our rage consumed us for years.
Until we finally hit rock bottom.
Heal your inner child
Lancer writes that “recognizing your codependent patterns and sources is a major step in your recovery, but real change involves healing underlying shame and grieving losses from your childhood”.
If you grew up in a dysfunctional family, you learned to censor yourself to please others. It didn’t feel safe to express your vulnerability, emotions and true self. You learned to be responsible and in control at an early age.
To feel whole and enjoy relationships as adults, psychologist Carl Jung encouraged us to heal and accept our inner child.
Grieve over your losses, including disappointments like the lack of a happy childhood, feeling isolated and being abandoned.
Which activities light you up? Do you like to garden, dance, play with a pet or cook? Doing activities you love boosts your enthusiasm, creativity and joie de vivre.
Also, pay attention to your inner child’s needs and desires.
Avoid working too hard. Set and honor your boundaries. Imagine criticizing your own child… she’d become anxious, cranky or depressed, wouldn’t she?
Instead, give your inner child unconditional love.
Invite her to talk about her feelings.
Show her you’re there for her.
Heal from shame
Shame is the feeling that you’re inadequate, bad, “broken” or unworthy. It’s an emotion like any other. But when we identify with it, it wreaks havoc in our lives.
Emotional or physical abuse could leave you believing that you’re weak or responsible for the abuse. As a child, you felt powerless before your parents, who were cold, rigid or unpredictable. It was easier to bend over backwards to please them and avoid criticism.
Psychologists Hal and Sidra Stone say that our inner critic is composed of other peoples’ judgments. Like those of your parents, caretakers, family members, teachers or coaches.
Believe it or not, the inner critic’s goal is to protect you from pain and shame. But in some people, the inner critic becomes a bully and sabotages their lives.
To tame your inner critic, pay attention to your thoughts as you go about your day. Which negative thoughts do you hear? What’s going on at the time? Notice how your body feels.
Contemplate the inner critic’s voice. Its tone, volume and words may remind you of how someone spoke to you in the past.
This exercise helps you distinguish your voice from theirs—an important step to take back the reins.
You can even befriend your inner critic by setting boundaries (e.g. no name-calling) and understanding its worries (like a good friend would do!).
It may sound strange, but you’d be surprised by the inner critic’s good intentions—and how it can become your ally, if you let it.
In addition to accepting your pain, you can further heal from codependency by taking pleasure in various activities. Similar to doing whatever lights up your inner child, the goal is to relax and have fun. This helps release feel-good hormones that ease anxiety and depression.
One of the simplest ways to relax?
Progressive Muscle Relaxation: Sit or lie down, then while inhaling, contract a body part (like your feet) for 5 to 10 seconds. Exhale and release the tension. Repeat for all body parts.
I’d recommend doing this exercise often, whether or not you feel anxious, because it’ll help you stay calm and grounded.
Lancer suggests spending “an entire day unplanned, but follow your body’s impulses and senses—ignore your ‘should’s’”:
- listen to your favorite music
- lie in the grass and watch clouds
- arrange flowers
- visit an art museum
- use scented oils, soap, incense or perfume
If you’re used to overachieving to gain love and approval, it can be hard to stop and do nothing.
But leisure refreshes our mind, body and spirit. Studies show that it’s an effective healing method.
One thing that Loïc and I love to do is watch comedies together. Laughter reduces stress, increases resilience and eases pain.
Since codependency can engulf your time and energy, it’s helpful to get out and connect with other people. Take a calligraphy class, join a sports club or volunteer at a local museum. This will give you encouragement and a sense of belonging.
“When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy.” ― Rumi
Be gentle—healing from codependency takes time
I’m immensely grateful that Loïc and I were willing to overcome our fears, grieve and heal together.
Though there were many times I didn’t think we’d make it.
And there are days when our old, codependent habits sneak up on us.
That’s when I remind myself that it can take years to replace deeply ingrained habits. You just have to keep progressing and staying aware.
We’ve come a long way.
Today, we rejoice in a loving relationship—with ourselves and each other.
10 years ago, I would’ve never imagined that it’d be possible.
I wish you the courage to heal, love and empower yourself.
Please seek professional care or support groups if you’re struggling with codependency.
About the author
Annie Moussu is a mindfulness-based life coach who helps women let go of perfectionism, self-doubt and people-pleasing. Sign up for her newsletter to get blog articles twice a month.
Further reading to heal from codependency: