As codependents we lose ourselves in relationships, unaware that losing our Self is the greatest despair. When the relationship inevitably ends, it’s devastating, because we are lost. We lack autonomy because that task wasn’t completed by adulthood. Avoidance of intimacy, and the vulnerability that occurs when we open up, is a way to maintain control and autonomy. We fear that closeness makes us more dependent on our partner and exposed to being judged and hurt. This fear hearkens back to a traumatic or dysfunctional childhood when being vulnerable and dependent was unsafe. The more we’re threatened by closeness and autonomy, the greater is the conflict in the relationship.
Darlene Lancer, JD, LMFT is a marriage and family therapist. She is a relationship expert and author of “Codependency for Dummies” and “Conquering Codependency and Shame: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You,” as well as five ebooks. She has worked extensively in the field of addiction and codependency. Her work is informed by training in Self-Psychology, Voice-Dialogue, Dream Analysis, Jungian Therapy, Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, Somatic Work, EFT, and Hypnosis. She has also previously supervised other therapists as an AAMFT Approved Supervisor and practiced law as an entertainment attorney.
How We Lose Ourselves
We lose ourselves gradually in small imperceptible ways. It can start with romance, when it’s normal to want to please our loved one and spend much of our time together. However, emotionally mature adults don’t drop their activities, give up their lives (they have a life), or overlook improper behavior of their partner, despite strong physical attraction.
Stages of Codependency
Many codependents do fine on their own, but once in a relationship, the stages of codependency take hold. The desire to please can lead to obsession, denial about our partner’s behavior, and doubt about our own perceptions. Boundaries become blurred so that we don’t say “no” or set limits on what we’re willing to do or what we’ll accept from our partner. Not only that, confusion arises between what our partner feels and our own feelings. We feel responsible for them, too. If he’s sad, then I’m sad, too. If she’s angry, it must be my fault.
Disease of a “Lost Self.”
This is why codependency is a disease of a “lost Self.” (See Codependency for Dummies.) Because our identity is referenced externally, we prioritize our relationships above our self, not occasionally, which would be normal, but repeatedly. In important relationships, we dread losing our connection with others or their approval. With our partner, we sacrifice ourselves over and over in small and big ways―from insignificant concessions to giving up a career, cutting off a relative, or condoning or participating in unethical behavior that before would have seemed unimaginable. We’re not consciously aware of the price we pay: Our Self!
Over time, we build up guilt, anger, and resentment that’s often silent. We blame ourselves. Our self-esteem and self-respect, if we had any coming into the relationship, are whittled away. We become anxious and depressed, more obsessive and/or compulsive. We slowly give up choice and freedom until we feel trapped and hopeless, while our depression and despair grow. Eventually, we can become a shell of our former self.