Thursday, April 18, 2013

Codependency & The Feminist Fairytale

I was sitting glumly on the curb across the street from Has Beans coffee shop when a friend came up to talk to me. I said I was sad about our mutual friend asking me to go away from her (I don't remember why). My feelings had been hurt. His response? "Oh yeah, I am codependent like that sometimes too." This was how I learned that being codependent means being selfish or needy, feeling hurt when I shouldn't feel that way.

A few years later, when I learned about universal human needs, I rejected the notion of codependency, believing it was a negative way of naming interdependence, which means humans naturally meet needs through relationships. Codependency is just a word that comes out of our individualistic culture, I thought. It's just a pathological rejection of collectivism.

Time passed, and I read a new definition of codependency, something along the lines of "a codependent is someone who, when unsatisfied in a relationship, tries to give more of themselves to the other person to fix things, instead of asking for consideration and care." This resonated. I could see myself doing this at times. I would go into the classic cycle of emptiness, giving to fill the emptiness, and resentment, followed by an explosion of demanding for my needs to be met. OK, I thought, I'll speak up for my needs sooner in relationships, instead of waiting so long. And I have tried to do this more and more in the past few years.

But that word codependency still lurked around my life, popping up here and there. A psych teacher I had recommended the book Codependent No More, which I eventually happened upon in the used section of Lyon's Books, and purchased on a whim. I have recently blogged about this book, about how I have found it to be vague and lecturing. It's subtitle, though, is How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself. That's a totally different definition than all the others I'd heard! Am I controlling? Do I not know how to care for myself? My boyfriend thinks so. He even used that book's subtitle in an argument with me. I'm uncomfortable with this definition though. It is very distant, conceptually, from the language of human needs. I hear it as I'm a bad person. And I don't like that, in fact I really dislike it.

This semester, I'm taking Psychology of Women and Gender through Butte College. My teacher, Katy Luallen (highly recommend her), assigned us All That is Bitter & Sweet by Ashley Judd. In this book, Ashley shares her discovery of codependency, and going into treatment for it. She learned that codependency includes "anyone who tries to control the behavior of others (or themselves) as a coping mechanism to medicate loneliness, that hole in the soul left behind in the aftermath of abuse--which does not have to be radical, dramatic, big-time abuse." (Later she defines childhood abuse as "anything less than nurturance.") I resonated with this a lot. I have that hole in my soul from receiving less than nurturance as a child--being passed from one relative or guardian to another, each with their personal cocktail of neuroses.

I like this definition because it gets at the cause, not just the symptom. The hole in the soul. That is the source of the difficulties. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to heal that hole in the soul. My psych teacher says that if a child doesn't attach to their parents, the only way to cure them of "Attachment Disorder" is to have a relationship similar to parent/child as an adult for an extended period of time, with lots of mirroring and care.

This is the fairy tale relationship that I, and I'm sure many others like me, dream of: the happily ever after, where our beloved shows up perfectly for us in every moment, and never wavers in their devotion. Like a parent "should" be to a child. In class, someone commented that most people in our culture exhibit symptoms of codependency as Judd names them:

1. difficulty experiencing appropriate levels of self-esteem
2. difficulty setting functional boundaries
3. difficulty owning and expressing their own reality
4. difficulty taking care of their adult needs and wants
5. difficulty experiencing their reality moderately

No wonder, then, that the codependent's ideal is iterated over and over again in our Disney movies and after-school cartoons. We are a culture of codependents. We all, or almost all, share these symptoms.

One cultural "backlash" to this situation, that actually reinforces this ideal, is to tell people, especially women, that we can be perfectly happy without a partner. Girl power! the message goes. If he don't treat you right, leave him, say the million memes on Facebook. It's better to be single than to be with someone who isn't perfect. I have read these messages, printed on backgrounds of flowers and mountains or girls with sarcastic expressions on their faces. I have read these messages, and felt ashamed of myself for choosing to be in an imperfect relationship. Maybe I should just be single, and learn to be OK with it.

I recently received support from my empathy buddy on this topic, and I had a wonderful moment of clarity. While these messages stimulate guilt in me for not being "strong" enough to wait for the fairy tale Prince Charming, and be on my own until then, the idea of a single happily-ever-after is also a fairy tale. I call it the Feminist Fairy tale. It's a reactionary response to codependency, an overcompensation. This idea that women could rid ourselves of ever having to feel loneliness, could be completely satisfied through friends and a job, without partnership or intimacy--maybe some people have experienced this, I have even experienced this for periods of time, but it isn't something that lasts. The loneliness always comes back. I believe partnership is a universal drive, whether it's slightly pathological (seeking a parent/child type of love) or not.

I'm letting go of both fairy tales. I'll probably never find Prince Charming, although I accept the part of me that wants that. Nor will I probably ever fill that hole in my soul, once and for all, so that I can be totally happy without any kind of intimate connection and bonding. It feels good to just acknowledge that, accept it. Maybe that's why people get up in front of AA or CODA (Codependents Anonymous) and say, I'm an alcoholic. I'm a codependent. I am imperfect. I don't fit into these molds, these fairy tales, that society has given me. And that's OK. I love and accept myself anyway. I am doing the best I can with what I have.

Please share in the comments below how this blog affected you. Are you inspired, confused, in disagreement? I am curious regardless! I look forward to reading your responses.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

On Detachment

Last night I was reading a self-help book that isn't based on NVC principles, and I felt myself rise to a very subtle challenge: staying centered while digesting an author's (usually abstract) imperatives.

Most personal growth coaches speak in the language of imperatives: Do this. Don't do that. You've been acting this way, now act that way. Melody Beattie, in Codependent No More, instructs her readers in the art of self-care: "Giving ourselves what we need is not difficult....The formula is simple: In any given situation, detach and ask: "What do I need to do to take care of myself?"

I am annoyed with this abstract phrasing, but before I go into the 'why' of this further, I also want to note that obviously I'm finding enough value in this book to choose to read it. I'll come back to that later.

Beattie uses this word detach throughout her book, with no definition or description of how to actually enact this behavior anywhere. In the chapter on detachment, I found myself thinking that she danced around the word the whole time, giving me as a reader only a blurry, peripheral glimpse of what she means by the term. As someone with 10 years of my life dedicated to holistic wellness and growth, I can relate her abstract concepts to more tangible things, but if I couldn't, I think it would be useless to me. Her paragraphs start, "Detachment is based on the premise..." and "Detachment involves..." rather than a simple, clear, definition. Most painful of all for me was this section:

"How do we detach? How do we extricate our emotions, body, and spirit from the agony of entanglement? As best we can. And probably, a bit clumsily at first."

When I first read this section, I thought, Yay! Finally! She's talking about the how...the tangible guidance I was seeking. Instead she describes a very different type of how than I'd hoped for. Of course readers will be clumsy with this lack of substantive instructions.

I don't mean to single out Beattie and bash on her, but she is a prime example of something that seems to run rampant in the self-help industry: abstract instructions, flung at a reader who is already having difficulty with life, and now they have this new imperative that they don't even know how to do. This seems to me to be a recipe for disaster. I have this vision of a bunch of neurotic, broken people running around trying to live by a code written in a foreign language.

I once heard Miki Kashtan say that if someone has never experienced something before, they are not going to be able to have that experience just by hearing about it. Many self-help books seem to me to commit the logical fallacy of 'begging the question' or answering a question with the question itself. If this model was transposed to other disciplines, it would sound like a music student asking their teacher how to play the piano, and getting only this response: "As best you can." This is not the job of the instructor. The instructor's job is to show the specific steps. The "picture" as Miki Kashtan would say.

Sadly, I have for years fallen prey to this trap that I have never heard anyone articulate: reading an abstract imperative such as "detach," and then stressing out because I don't know how to do it. Feeling guilty for not being able to accomplish it. But this is patently absurd. It is not my fault if I don't know how to do something I haven't been clearly taught how to do. Again, this is like blaming a child for not knowing how to do a math problem if their teacher were to only place their homework in front of them, without a lesson. Sure, some people can teach themselves music and math and emotional maturity, but not everyone.

I see that I am repeating myself, which makes sense, considering the NVC principle that people repeat themselves until they feel understood. I am longing for shared reality around this. My basic point is that when we as individuals have powerful experiences, or learn how to do something, and want to share it, we must figure out how to put that in language we would have understood before we had the understanding we have now, in order for others to benefit from our insight. Ironically, I am not sure if I am doing this myself at this moment. But I hope so.

So, about last night, reading the book. I noticed myself starting to go into shame or guilt for not knowing quite how to follow Beattie's instructions, or if I even wanted to do so. Then, I had a moment of grace, where I came back to myself and resided in the present moment, present with my feelings about the topics she was describing, even allowing myself to disagree or feel frustrated, instead of wishing for approval from this distant author. The irony of this is that I imagine this might fall under her definition of detachment, but I don't think I would have figured that out from reading her book. I think I was capable of having that experience because of many years of practicing NVC style empathy and EFT, both of which teach radical self-awareness and acceptance.

So, the above paragraph was my experience, and now I will try to offer a tangible and clear practice for having a similar experience of your own if you so desire. Take out a self-help book you own and turn to whatever page you are on, or turn to one randomly. Read a few paragraphs. See if your mind is struggling to integrate the concepts or skills you are reading about. Next, tune into your body and notice what sensations and emotions are coursing through you. Are you tense, hopeful, scared, sad, angry, relieved, excited? Sit with these emotions for a while, maybe even journal about them. Journal about what you find inspiring about this book as well as where you disagree with the author.

For a variation, try this practice with this very blog. Go back over a paragraph or two and do the same practice. See what comes up. I would love for you to share your feelings, inspirations, and disagreements on the comments below. What I want more than agreement is to help people connect with themselves.

PS As I said earlier, part of me does like this book. I can sometimes appreciate its abstractions. They help me escape from myself when I'm overwhelmed. I like how they are open to interpretation, when I grow weary of the specific instructions of my main NVC practice. I also like the journaling prompts, because their abstract nature gives a lot of room for interpretation as well, instead of the specific exercises from NVC. It's kind of like TV. It helps me shut down emotionally when I need a break from the intensity of my experience.