Healing from codependency is a process that takes practicing new behaviors. In this month’s article, Part II of “Codependency: It May Not Be What You Think,” I’m sharing some of the ways you can begin to move down the scale of codependency. All healing starts with awareness and is accomplished by a change in behavior. Some suggestions of behavior change that have helped me to reduce my own codependency are learning how to successfully detach; stop enabling; respond rather than react; focus on you; and engage in your own recovery.
Detachment was perhaps one of the most difficult behavior changes for me, mostly because I didn’t really understand what it meant. I thought detachment was this harsh and angry withdrawal. It’s not! As a matter of fact, that type of hostile detachment has the potential to make matters worse. Conversely, it’s not being a doormat and having to accept anything and everything your loved one throws your way. It’s also not a severing of your relationship with your loved one, although this may be necessary in some circumstances. What detachment really means is that I’m detaching from the agony of the involvement with my loved ones’ issue and doing so in love and with compassion. Detachment is based on the premise that each person is responsible for themselves. We stop taking on the responsibility of the other person and their problem. Instead, we focus on our own responsibilities.
When my son was in active addiction I could no longer stand by and watch him slowly killing himself. I could not participate or be involved in his life, until he was willing to take responsibility for his addiction. His behavior was not only making him sick, but it was making me sick too. Then I began to practice staying in my own lane. Al-Anon uses the metaphor of a hula-hoop to illustrate staying focused on our own responsibilities. I prefer the car analogy. In this depiction, I’m in my car driving in my own lane, while my son is in his car driving in his lane. What I used to do is constantly lean over into his car, push his hands off the wheel, and start driving his car for him, without him even asking. Unfortunately, in this scenario, the likelihood that we will both crash is greatly increased. The goal is for me to stay in my own lane and focus on driving my own car, while allowing my son to be responsible for driving his own car and keeping my hands off his wheel! This, of course, is much easier said than done. My habits were ingrained, and it took a tremendous amount of practice in order to change my behavior.
I’ll never forget when I first realized the damage I had been doing to my son with my enabling. I was attending an Al-Anon meeting and had shared about my current struggle with my son and his addiction, bemoaning all the things I was paying for, and doing for him, to help him fulfill his responsibilities. Aside from enabling him by making it easier for him to continue using drugs, this behavior, my behavior, was something that had started way before his addiction issue. Then, another woman shared how she had done the same thing with her son until she realized the message she was conveying to her son every time she did something for him that he was capable of doing for himself. The message her son was getting, as a result of her actions, was that she didn’t believe he was capable of doing it himself. And although this may have been true, she wasn’t even giving him the opportunity to try. She talked about the lesson and gift in allowing her son to figure things out on his own, allowing him to be angry with her, and even allowing her son to fail in order to grow. After the meeting, that woman and I debated back and forth about what it meant to enable and rescue my loved one from the consequences of his behavior. She further explained how I was hurting my son by doing everything for him. Especially those things that he was capable of doing himself. Suddenly, I realized that I had spent years robbing my son of his ability to gain self-esteem.
Admittedly, there is a grey area when it comes to enabling, rescuing, and what it means to offer true help. My rule of thumb has been this: if my loved one is actively using and not willing to accept help to recover, then I do not offer any kind of assistance (financial or otherwise). I lovingly and compassionately detach and make it clear that I am here, ready, willing and able to help them recover as soon as they are ready. Once my loved one is committed to pursuing recovery, I will do anything within my power to help them achieve success. This is where it can become murky and, quite honestly, where I’ve made the most mistakes. I had to learn that if I help to clean-up the mess my loved one created (financial, legal or otherwise), which I did over and over again, I’m rescuing them and preventing them from experiencing the consequences and full impact of their behavior.
Respond, rather than React
Fortunately, learning to respond rather than react is a skill that you can learn. A good place to start is with mindfulness, or another meditation practice, that will help you become aware of your thoughts and feelings. This will help develop the ability to sit with uncomfortable thoughts, perceptions and emotions. When we react, we forfeit our personal power to think, feel and behave in our own best interest. Sometimes our reactions will actually provoke our loved one to react in certain ways and have the potential to make matters worse. We help our loved one to justify certain behaviors. Practicing brief periods of meditation on a daily basis will help you acquire the power of the pause.
Focus on You
Healing from codependency is all about learning to take responsibility for self and a change in behavior that focuses on selfcompassion and self-care. The following are some suggestions on how you can start to focus on you and your own recovery:
1. Challenge Your Beliefs and Assumptions
Observe your beliefs and be willing to question them. Often our opinions and behaviors are so habitual that we don’t even stop to see if they reflect what we really feel or what we truly believe. Evaluating your perceptions of yourself, others, and the world, is key for your personal growth and evolution into your true, authentic self.
2. Start Making Decisions for YOU
Start to focus on your own needs. How would you like to spend your day? What do you want to do? Start to consider your personal passions and hobbies. You’ve probably been neglecting these by focusing all your time on your loved one and their issue.
3. Practice Self-Compassion
Give yourself permission to acknowledge and feel your feelings. Don’t “should” on yourself. Instead of thinking, “I shouldn’t feel this way” or ignoring your feelings, be a good, kind and loving parent to yourself. Learn to be gentle and kind to yourself.
Engage in Your Own Recovery
“Everyone in the family is in recovery!” This is my mantra with family members. Substance use disorders impact everyone in the family. The truth is that recovery will be much more successful if everyone in the family is working toward their own growth and change.
When you begin to integrate these practices, you’ll start to experience the benefits of putting the oxygen mask on yourself first in order to be your strongest and best self. And being your strongest and best self will be the absolute best way you can support your loved ones.
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Dr. KJ Foster is Founder of Fostering Resilience, LLC, Co-Founder of the Center for Sobriety, Spirituality & Healing and Family Program Director at the Beachcomber Family Center for Addiction Recovery. She is a Mental Health Expert, Educator, Entrepreneur, Public Speaker, YouTube Creator, and Author of The Warrior’s Guide to Successful Sobriety, available at www.drkjfoster.org