Perhaps I am not the best person to be writing on relationships today. My own ‘life’ partnership ended last week. Actually, it ended in the summer, it just spent the fall and winter decaying and last week turned to dust. No, I’m probably not the best person to be writing on relationships; not if you would like to hear something about how the knowledge and wisdom I have about relationships and self-awareness means that I never have problems in my romantic partnership or how, because I no longer struggle with food and weight issues, everything is always hunky dory in my world.
Don’t we all carry those fantasies somewhere within: That everything will be great if I could only get a grip on my food and my weight? I certainly did. I absolutely believed that the only thing standing between me and absolute bliss was my weight. Well…..not quite. You see, my weight and my binging behaviour were only the outer manifestations of my inner turmoil.
Back when I used to binge to cope I felt incredibly afraid and lonely, bad, wrong, impossibly screwed up and believed that everyone who saw me, saw that. With these beliefs in my head 24/7 it was exhausting to leave the relative safety and privacy of my house and so of course, upon arriving home, I needed to do something to decompress; to detach from the pain, sadness and fear that was always threatening to break through and overwhelm me. So, out came the food. Something to do; something to distract myself with; something to soothe myself with; and then, later, as I came to, something to focus on, beat myself up with and to make dire resolutions to do differently tomorrow. So completely absorbed was I in my use of food and subsequent self-loathing that I never had the time or the clarity to look beneath it and question why I did it. I was certain that I binged because I was weak and bad and wrong etc. and that if only I stopped doing it I would cease to be so disgusting and bad and wrong. I never realized that that was a circuitous argument – the cause of something cannot also be its outcome – and therefore I must have been missing a key element: ie. What was it that started that cycle of feeling bad about myself and wanting to numb out with food in the first place?
Even though it’s so damn clear when you see it laid out like that, it took me a long time to realize that the problem wasn’t food but my fears and feelings of shame and “badness.” And, those feelings didn’t arise from my weight or food but from the stories I carried about myself that I received from key people in my life – mostly my dad – some from my mom – some from peers – but mostly, they originated from my dad and his harmful treatment of me as a child.
From him I learned to see myself as bad, wrong, stupid, ugly; an object to be used and discarded as he saw fit. I learned from him that whatever was wrong in his world was somehow my fault and that if he wasn’t happy it must be because I had done or said something to make him that way. Yes, my father was a terrific bully and a terrific shirker of his own accountability and he took no responsibility for his own feelings and actions. In other words, my dad was the consummate co-dependent and as my own personal trainer, with me his apt pupil, desperate for his approval and the love and safety I thought it would bring, I became a master myself.
Co-dependency is really just a mindset. At its root is the story that we are responsible for other’s needs and feelings and therefore, if anyone is at all unhappy with anything, it’s our fault. Co-dependency has its own set of behaviours too, a prime example of which is not asking for what we need because someone else might be offended or not get what they want. At all costs the co-dependent strives to make the other person happy because, from their co-dependent mindset, their worth is determined by whether others like, value or approve of them.
In truth, in order to be genuinely happy, our worth must come from within. It certainly helps if it is supplemented by the love and caring of dear friends and family and that special someone, but it must originate from within our selves. Somewhere in the core of our being we must know that we are worthy of dignity and respect and that we are truly only responsible for ourselves. We must know the difference between caring and concern for the needs of others (which is beautiful and a necessity for healthy relationships) and taking complete responsibility for “making” others happy, which is co-dependency and harmful to us and to the relationship.
Once we are able to discern this difference it is much easier to be happy ourselves because we can let people have their feelings. We can even let them be angry or disappointed in us and it isn’t the end of the world or even, necessarily, of the relationship.
My relationship didn’t succeed. It takes two to tango and I know I made my own hearty contributions to the demise of my romance, starting with choosing someone who just wasn’t a natural fit for me as much as I admired many things about him.
In that relationship I saw what I hope were the last vestiges of my co-dependency so clearly. It seemed that my contribution to each of the major issues/disagreements we had as a couple stemmed from my need for this man’s approval. I said and did things to try to impress him or, I humbly and regretfully submit, at times, to make him a little jealous and to perceive me as a better catch.
I would feel this twinge – I call it the niggle – just before I would say things to support my responses as if my inner self was saying, “Hey, Michelle, you don’t need to do this you know – In fact, it may not produce the desired result.” But my mouth was already open and I was off and running. Old habits die hard!
Now, before you go perceiving me as completely bereft of scruples, these incidents were few and far between, they were not a main staple of my relationship and I owned up to them as soon as I became, or was made, aware that I had done that.
But even if it were just a one time thing, the significant piece for me in all this wasn’t that I did those things, it was why I was doing them. Why did I feel such a strong need to “impress” someone, to “make” them love and desire me when in every other area of my life I felt/feel confident, secure, worthy and able to validate and approve of myself?
Back to dad. While I know I have come a long, long way in shedding my old co-dependent mindset, my desperate need for his approval was still alive in me somewhere. As a result, I felt an overwhelming need for this man’s approval and the perceived security and validation I thought the relationship would bring. Somehow, deep within, I believed that if this man would approve of me and not reject me, it meant that I was finally acceptable; It would, I thought, heal the old festering wounds of my father’s rejection. That need drove me, on more than one occasion, to behave in a way that came not from my confident, secure, adult self, but from that scared, lonely child, desperate for love and safety. Sadly, it was those moments that were my contribution to the greatest strife in my relationship. Those times when that little girl in me was acting out some old pattern in her frantic attempt to feel secure in her primary relationship with a man were the worst, most disconnected times in my relationship.
I feel in my heart that if we had been a solid fit, I would have navigated these times with greater peace and ease and compassion. But, again, the significant piece for me wasn’t how he responded or even whether we worked out or not, the key piece for me was the gift of seeing that within me there was still a little part that felt certain that at any moment I would be rejected and abandoned by the man I loved and that I felt a desperate need to prevent that at all costs, even at the cost of my own integrity. Not my finest moment surely but among my most real and poignant and therefore among my greatest learning.
Historically, when I used to use food to cope, this situation would have certainly triggered me to eat like crazy, feel totally crappy about my body and like a complete loser. I would lose myself completely to this relationship and my sense of self would have become this man’s perception of me. Thus I would be feeling even more insecure and desperate and need food to cope with the anxiety of the situation even more.
Now, in the present, the truth is I feel sad, I feel a degree of emptiness because of the space that has been left with the absence of my partner – that special someone. But the truth also is that I feel hopeful and happy, too. I do not feel the slightest urge to turn against myself by using food to cope or stifle my feelings. I feel loved. I feel confident that I did my best and that I am worthy and deserving of forgiveness and compassion and love, first and foremost, from myself.
I do not need to turn against myself simply because someone else doesn’t ‘get’ me. I do not need to disapprove of myself or withhold self-love and affection simply because someone else is. This is how I know my co-dependency is healing. I no longer abandon myself and jump on the anti-Michelle band wagon when someone is frustrated or annoyed or disappointed in me. I can even see their point and validate their frustration. Yet, at the same time I can still be empathic and compassionate towards myself.
So while I might not yet be a master of true interdependence, I’m certainly no longer a master of co-dependence and thus life is much more peaceful and relaxed over all – even in times of turmoil and great change and loss.
Life is definitely easier, happier, lighter, freer, more purposeful and alive for me now that I no longer use food to cope and now, for the most part, that I have put my co-dependency to bed. Even though I am far from perfect and still have work to do and growth to experience, it is much easier to be me and to be in the world now than it was before. I realize that life is for learning. Every experience reveals something about ourselves, our strengths and our wounds, and those challenges give us an opportunity to grow and heal. It’s up to us to seize those opportunities and challenge ourselves to be the best we can be. Forgiveness and compassion for oneself and others are key components of growth and change. You really can’t have one without the other.
So today, whether you’re single or in the partnership of your dreams, I invite you to challenge yourself to meet yourself with compassion and understanding above all else. Offer that same compassion and empathy to your partner, friends, family, and even the guy who cut you off in traffic. We’re all really just doing our best.
That doesn’t mean we have to stay put in connections that are harmful and stifling but it does mean that we can detach from that person with love, respect and dignity from the person that we fell in love with and wish them well on their journey at the same time as we embrace ourselves and offer ourselves love and warmth and gratitude for all that we are.
Happy Valentine’s Day!