What is codependency?
I’m a few years late, but I finally started doing some research on codependency and what it actually means. It’s definitely become somewhat of a buzzword, but I think it describes a very real phenomenon. The slightly less ‘pop psychology’ term for codependency is enmeshment, or a lack of differentiation. In simple terms, your sense of self is bound up in someone else. You are an overlapping venn diagram. When the other person experiences a failure or makes a mistake, you feel implicated. When they are hurt, you feel responsible for healing them. Codependency can be quite subtle, but telltale signs are feelings of clinginess, neediness, constant insecurity, and an inability to set boundaries (either positive or negative ones).
But isn’t that the point of being in an intimate relationship??? I know, it took me a while to start believing that codependency could be a negative thing to begin with. Especially because I grew up steeped in biblical language such as “two becoming one” and of course the wonderfully delicate topic of biblical submission (which I will not get into…for now).
If you are curious about codependency and its healthier alternative, interdependency, here’s a great video by a licensed marriage & family therapist.
A void in one’s sense of self
One of my lightbulb moments in understanding what drives codependent behavior is that it stems from a void in one’s sense of self. In my mind, it helps to think of this ‘sense of self’ in three stages:
- Knowing myself: my values, interests, goals, and needs
- Respecting myself and the values, interests, goals, and needs that I have
- Committing to pursue those interests & goals, staying true to my values, and fulfilling my needs
It was dumbfounding and a little embarrassing to realize that even in my mid-twenties, I was still stuck at stage 1. I didn’t know what my hobbies were. I didn’t have goals (I just made them up for job interviews). I absorbed the values of the people around me or perhaps worse, people on the internets.
It seems logical to me that when a person doesn’t know, respect, or commit to their sense of self, they will naturally turn to their relationships – especially intimate relationships – to feel fulfilled, happy, and even just okay. There is no shame in codependent behavior. It is an adaptive behavior that becomes maladaptive. However, I think it’s important to address the root cause of codependency rather than just trying to force non-codependent behaviors. It doesn’t make any sense to tell someone to start saying ‘no’ to what they don’t want and ‘yes’ to what they do if they don’t even know what they want to begin with.
Body image and self-worth
Alright, so there’s a lot of stuff written on the internet and in books and podcasts about codependency and I don’t need to belabor it. What I’ve been getting curious about in my own life, however, is how body image relates to our sense of self, and therefore, our relationships with others.
But first: did you know that 90% of American women are dissatisfied with their bodies? (source). That is heartbreaking.
For better or for worse, our body image – how we perceive our flesh and its shape and texture – is a big part of our sense of self. When I was single, I remember having loud voices in my head that said, “Your body is unloveable. No one will ever love you because no one will ever love your body.” Yikes. Sadly, I don’t think these thoughts are that uncommon. And of course, beginning to dismantle such ugly lies that were etched so deeply in my psyche was a lot more complex than just reading some article or blog post.
However, I think a big turning point for me was to realize that the next step after body hatred is not usually body love. Instead, body image is a spectrum:
Source: Courage to Nourish
It was encouraging to know that it’s okay (and very normal) to I feel like I will never love or feel confident in my body. BUT, disliking my body’s appearance and respecting my body are not mutually exclusive. You might have to figure out what body respect means to you, but for me it means certain non-negotiables like: I don’t skip meals, I don’t cut out food groups, I am intentional about putting an end to critical body thoughts, I am intentional about putting an end to body checking or comparisons, I take care of my personal hygiene (including teeth), I don’t exercise if it doesn’t feel good, etc.
I might still wish my body were different. But practicing body respect is an enormous step towards liberation, even if it the process feels wobbly or slow.
Body respect & codependency
To put it all together, how we feel about our bodies is a part of our sense of self, and our sense of self affects the way we show up in our intimate relationships.
Demi Lovato opens up about her eating disorder and how it is related to her loneliness on her documentary here. As a side note, I am a HUGE Demi fan, and feel weirdly connected to her (we are the same age~). Anyway, the whole documentary is worth watching, but I am always impressed by how honest she is – both with herself and publicly – about her struggles with food and body image. Recognizing where you are on the body image spectrum can be really difficult. Taking the next step in the direction of health and wholeness can be utterly overwhelming. Is it worth it, though? 100%, I say. If you struggle with this is any way, I hope that you find this to be true for yourself too ❤