Discovering Your True Self — Who You Really Are
Codependents often wonder what is normal. They feel insecure and wonder how others perceive them. Many tell me they don’t really know themselves. They’ve become people-pleasers, editing what they say and adapting their behavior to the feelings and needs of others. Some sacrifice themselves — their values, needs, wants, and feelings — to someone they care about. For other codependents their behavior revolves around their addiction, whether it’s to a drug, a process, such as sex or gambling, or to pursuing prestige or power in order to feel secure. They usually do so to the detriment of themselves and loved ones, and eventually their achievements feel meaningless.
Either type of codependent suffers from self-alienation — an alienation from their true self. This is the emptiness we feel when a relationship ends, success is achieved, or during withdrawal from an addiction. Hence, codependency is called a disease of a “lost self.”
Denial of Codependency and the Real Self
Ideally, our true self emerges in the normal course of becoming an individual, called “individuation,” so that we’re able to identify our own feelings, thoughts, needs, wants, perceptions, and actions, as separate from our family and others. A dysfunctional family disrupts individuation to varying degrees. Because codependency is transgenerational, in childhood a “false” codependent self is formed.
Most codependents are in denial of this situation because for so long they’ve organized their thinking and behavior around something or someone external to themselves. Some codependents can’t identify their values or opinions on matters. They’re very suggestible and can be easily persuaded to do things they later regret. In a conflict, they can’t hold onto their views once they’re challenged. This makes relationships a minefield, especially with a partner who uses projection as a defense, or who blames them for his or her behavior. You may think that you’re being abused, but when you’re blamed, which abusers typically do, you become confused and doubt your own perceptions. You might end up apologizing for inciting an abuser’s rage.
In recovery, we must rediscover who we are. What should have been a natural, unconscious, developmental process, now as an adult requires a conscious inward reorientation. Effort is necessary, because the tendency is to go into denial and externalize our self. Denial exists on several levels, from total repression to minimization.
Many codependents are highly attuned to others feelings but are in denial of their own. They may know that they’re “upset” but are unable to name what they feel. They may name a feeling, but rationalize or minimize it, or it’s only intellectual and not embodied. Often this is due to unconscious, internalized shame from childhood. In relationships, codependents feel responsible for other people’s feelings. They often empathize more with their partner than with themselves.
They also deny their needs, particularly emotional needs. In relationships, they sacrifice their needs to accommodate others. They may go without intimacy, respect, affection, or appreciation for months or years, not even realizing what they’re missing. Usually, it’s not a conscious choice because they don’t realize what their needs are or that they matter.
They also deny their needs when they’re single. They may take care of themselves physically and appear to be the paragon of beauty or physical prowess, but neglect relational and emotional needs.