Self-Care for Loved Ones: The Antidote to Codependency
In my many years of working with the loved ones of people struggling with addiction, one of the most common mistakes I see them making is that they don’t take care of themselves. Many have been taking care of others – especially the addicts in their lives – for such a long time, that self-care never even enters their mind.
But healthy, respectful self-care is perhaps the most important job for a loved one. Let me explain why…
How Can I Look After Myself When Someone Else is Suffering?
My basic definition for codependency is when we put other peoples’ needs ahead of our own, on a fairly consistent basis.
Contrary to what I was taught – especially as a female child in a dysfunctional, addicted family – I have learned that being codependent in this way is simply not a healthy stance. Even though it took me a while to shift the unhealthy patterns in my relationships, life became so much easier once I did that.
If someone in our lives is suffering, what is the best thing we can do? Is it really better to take care of them and run ourselves ragged?
The faulty core belief at play here is that the other person (usually the addict) is not capable of looking after him/herself. Haven’t they proven this time and time again? They get themselves into trouble all the time, don’t they? And what will happen to them if I don’t jump in and save the day?
When we come from that faulty belief and feel that addicts (or other people) are not able to look after themselves, we don’t even give them the opportunity to learn how to take care of their own problems and sort out their own lives.
If you, as their loved one, jump in to their rescue and save the day for them, a few things will inevitably happen:
- The addicts will grow increasingly dependent upon you in a variety of ways
- The addicts will not believe in their own resiliency or ability to deal with challenges on their own
- Their never-ending problems will just get bigger and bigger
- You will become depleted, often to the point where you become physically ill and emotionally resentful
Are we having fun yet?
A very wise spiritual teacher of mine explains: “We cannot get sick enough to make somebody else get well.” And no matter how hard we try to make someone get well, it is futile because none of us can control anybody but ourselves.
Neglecting Our Own Self-Care Provides Negative Role-Modeling
Think of it this way – it’s really all about self-respect. When we let addicts – or anyone else – know that we don’t respect ourselves enough to take good care of ourselves, they begin to think that they don’t have to respect us very much either. We really do teach other people how to treat us, whether we’re aware of that or not.
For most people who caretake others to the exclusion of their own self-care, this dynamic often started in childhood when they were validated for being people-pleasers. It can be a tough role to give up in your relationships – but I am a living example that it IS possible. All we have to do is stop needing to feel needed.
“But how,” I can hear you asking, “do I do that? I’ve been taking care of other people my whole life – how do I stop now?” That is a great question, with an even better answer!
What we need to do to accomplish this feat is to start caring more about how we feel, thereby teaching others to do the same for themselves. We need to be willing to let other people off the hook – no one is here to provide our happiness. That is an inside job and only we can do this for ourselves. Once we can take that job description back and give it to ourselves, we can get past any codependent dynamics that are still present in our relationships – and it’s so worth doing, for a great many reasons.
The Addicts in Our Lives Learn How to Manipulate Us
It’s important to understand that others often learn from our example and take their cues from us. If we jump into action every time our addicts want us to, they come to believe that our only job is to be there for them – and at the odd times that we’re not, they often become highly manipulative to show us who’s really the boss in this relationship.
Allowing this to happen is never a loving act toward the addicts we love, nor is it respectful toward ourselves.
Letting addicts get away with manipulating us is an enabling stance on our part – and it results in their failure to thrive, almost without exception. If we want their all-important self-respect to flourish, then we must help them learn how to negotiate their lives. When we enable addicts, then they don’t carry out their activities of daily living very well – for example, many don’t look after their own hygiene well or prepare healthy food for themselves. They begin to believe that they really are unemployable, because they keep quitting or getting fired from the many jobs they’ve only half-heartedly tried. In time, their lives often become very narrow – and focused entirely upon their addiction.
How can it be loving of us to encourage that kind of life? And really, why should they work (or go to school, or volunteer somewhere) when all their needs are being met for them? Where is their incentive? If we always do what we’ve always done, we’ll always get what we’ve always gotten. Or, put another way: If nothing changes, nothing changes.
When I hear about loved ones enabling the addicts they love instead of taking care of themselves in healthy ways, I’m reminded of a song by The Band from the late 1960s. The song is called “Up on Cripple Creek” and here’s part of the lyric:
“Up on Cripple Creek she sends me,
If I spring a leak, she mends me.
I don’t have to speak, she defends me –
A drunkard’s dream if I ever did see one.”
If you are providing this “drunkard’s dream” for your addict, be aware that you are not meeting their needs. You may be meeting their wants, but this kind of enabling is definitely NOT what they need – especially from those who love them.
If you are codependent with an addict, you are not meeting your own needs either – at least, not your healthy self-respectful needs. And, simply put, that teaches your addict how to treat you. It also leads to a very low level of self-care on both your part and your addict’s part.
Let’s Try an Experiment
If you’re resonating with what I’m saying here, you may want to try an experiment. Get a piece of paper and write down your “Top 10 Ways of Enabling My Addict.” (And if you can get 11 or even a full dozen, write them down too.) Then circle the numbers of the ones you could stop doing this week, then square those you could stop doing next week. (Maybe you could put triangles around the numbers of the ones you could stop the week after that.)
Then write down 5-10 things you enjoy doing for yourself – whether you’ve done them lately or not. In the same way, circle the numbers of the ones you could do this week – even if it’s only one or two things. Then do them! And in the following week, do a couple more, and a few more in the week after that.
It’s been said that it takes about 21 days to change a habit. What if you tried what I’m suggesting today, and see where you are three weeks from now? Self-care may start feeling so good to you that it becomes non-negotiable in your life.
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