How codependence gave me a fake personality
There are certain things you are more or less expected to know by the time you’re 48 (um, and a half). Such as: What do I find relaxing? What kinds of things do I do for fun? What kinds of people do I want as friends? What would I most like to do as my work or career? What makes me mad? What turns me on? What inspires me?
For those of us with certain kinds of backgrounds or in any kind of recovery, this self-knowledge can be long-delayed. Here’s why:
“Codependency usually starts with the repression of feelings, needs, observations, and thoughts that is typical in dysfunctional families. You learn to numb your hurt, distrust your parents, and become self-sufficient. You hide behind a false or phony personality and/or develop compulsive behaviors to cope.” — Darlene Lancer, Codependency for Dummies
“When we discover that being who we are does not get us what we need, we may learn to be who we aren’t.” — Tian Dayton, The ACOA Trauma Syndrome
When I started my recovery process, I was in acute pain from a pattern of getting enmeshed with people who I unwittingly (and sometimes wittingly) thought would fix my abandoned-child issues. I “hit bottom,” as they say, and knew that I could not enact that pattern one more time without putting my life and sanity at risk.
Maybe I’ll write more about that another day. For now, it’s background. It’s what got me into recovery. And the relief I experienced once I started the extremely painful process of dismantling my false self was exhilerating. So exhilerating, in fact, that after about six months I thought I was pretty much done.
I have boundaries now! I thought. I understand my patterns and that I can stop re-enacting them! I said. I am not looking for the next person to come along and make me feel okay about myself! I declared.
There was some truth in that early optimism. I made a lot of progress quickly beacuse I’d done tons of ground work already and had an intellectual, if not an emotional, understanding of what was going on with me. I had self-awareness to spare. If you’d asked any of my friends at the time, they’d say, Yes, Sara really knows herself!
And I did, if you don’t count the humungous blind spot called denial. Once that cleared up, growth happened fast, like one of those time-lapse videos of a plant going from seed to flower in thirty seconds.
So giddy was I about being able to feel and manage my own emotions and sense of being a self worthy of love, I had no idea that the next part of the process would be much longer and more confusing. No idea that I’d now be living with this less acute but constant low-grade realization that…
…I don’t know who I am.
I mean, I do. I do. I know a lot at the ground level stuff.
The problem goes back to those quotes that the top of this piece. When you are an active codependent person deep in your co-d habits, that false self gets really well developed. And my false self — that person I learned to be to get what I needed — has been out there for the last thirty or so years, living it up with my name and face, making decisions, forming relationships, choosing jobs, writing about stuff, claiming faith, and developing lists of likes and dislikes that now are all under review.
- Do I still want to be a writer? I don’t even know!
- Am I actually a cheerful, kindhearted person? You tell me! (Actually, I suspect I might be a jerk. Or at least, I’ve stopped making it my number one job to make sure anyone I encounter in any context never feels bad.)
- Do I believe in God? Ask me later!
- Have I invested in social groups that are healthy for me or that I want to still be in? Yes and no!
- Am I cis-het lady? All signs point to probably, but I mean, let’s not rush to judgment!
I can have some really solid days of knowing who I am. Then there are the other days, for example if I look through an old journal or old correspondence and am both impressed and horrified to see how good I was at learning to be who I wasn’t to get what I thought I needed. At becoming a person most likely to get that deep-seated need for approval met by whoever was in my life at the time. Manipulating them into seeing me a certain way.
I’m not the only one struggling or suffering in this process. My false self made a lot of friends. You don’t tell people, “Hey you know what, it’s not you. It’s just that my false self was the one you were friends with and, well, she’s dead. Adios!” You kind of hope they figure it out but sometimes there’s a conversation, and it’s no fun. I get it. It’s like when one of your favorite restaurants changes owners and it looks the same and is called the same thing but it’s just not the same and how can you not feel betrayed?
I should say here that the majority of the false vs true stuff is about my internal experience. I completely believe that those who have known me for ten, twenty, thirty years are not experiencing anything close to whiplash as I gestate. Which probably makes my distancing from some of them even harder to understand.
Basically, my false self sewed a bunch of stuff that I am still reaping. This stuff, usually in the form of people, pops up sometimes and my shit gets stirred and I do my best, or not, and try to let go.
I can deal with all that. It’s part of being a human with a life and a past. What I find more difficult is creating a new way of living for my true self, and answering those questions of the who, what, why, and where of my life.
Post co-depdendence, there are moments of truly feeling like the whole equation of what I have thought of as “me” has been erased, and I’m left to decipher the faint lines left behind in hopes of determining the true or false of what I see.
I feel pretty empty a lot of the time during this part of the process. The initial rush of emotional sobriety is long gone and I’m left with this: now that I’m not living my life to win the approval and affection of friends, strangers, and countrymen to cover over the gaping wound of abandonment, what am I living for?
The person who can answer that is me, and I’m still figuring out who that is.