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Declaring Independence from Co-Dependence: A How To Guide

For most Americans, the 4thof July is the time of year when we celebrate the freedom of – well, freedom itself! And what better time of year to begin your personal revolution – or perhaps re-commit to your personal revolution – than the anniversary of our nation’s Independence Day?

Today, I want to explore the concept of “dependence”, what the internal struggle for independence looks like in our daily lives, and how we can begin to reclaim our autonomy and establish a stronger sense of self.

Dependence: A Therapeutic Perspective

Our understanding of “dependence” is a multifaceted one. In most cases, we think of dependence as a representation of things we as humans must have in order to survive – food, water, shelter, and companionship. In the world of counseling and recovery, however, “dependence” and its cousin “codependence” describe a phenomenon wherein people ascribe a high amount of survival value to external objects or behaviors, while at the same time depreciating their own sense of self-efficacy and personal identity. People who struggle with dependence often have a difficult time trusting their own intuition, accurately self-evaluating their performance on life tasks, and validating their own needs and feelings. 

According to Darlene Lancer (JD, MFT), dependence and co-dependence can be defined as “a dysfunctional, one-sided relationship where one person relies on [an]other [or on something, such as substance, behavior, etc.] for meeting nearly all of their emotional and self-esteem needs”1. 

Not only is this a common behavior – it’s a normal response to our internal need for love, acceptance, comfort, safety, and belonging! As human beings, we are wired to search for a sense of meaning and purpose, and when we struggle to do so, we look for tools to either create a makeshift a sense of self, or “numb out” from the pain of feeling unfulfilled.

And yet, there comes a time in every life where the things we once leaned on for comfort become the very things that hold us back from reaching our full potential. In my practice, eating disorders and other addictive behaviors are an example of coping skills (albeit not healthy ones) that were adopted to ease pain and suffering, but instead grew to cause suffering of their own. 

 Steps for Creating your own Declaration of Independence!

1.    Begin by identifying the problem. Explicitly outline the ways in which your behaviors or relationships, while once useful to you, are now robbing your life of vitality and strength. (This step requires honesty with yourself – it really is true that the first step to solving a problem is admitting that there isa problem!)

2.    Clarify your Values. What would your life look like without your dependence? This can be a scary thing to consider if your object of dependence – an eating disorder, an addiction, a partner - has been part of your identity for a long time. In order to build a hopeful image of the future, it helps to know the core traits of what you consider a “meaningful life”. Ask yourself: “What do I want my life to be about? What kind of person do I want to be? What kind of legacy do I want to leave behind?” When you know what matters to you, you can shift your attention to positive self-motivators to keep you on track for recovery, rather than fear-based motivators.

3.    Surround Yourself with Unconditional Allies. Just as America could not have won their revolution without assistance from France, no one can fight a battle all on their own. A strong social support system is essential for helping you feel loved and empowered through this difficult time, and can help you maintain your motivation to recover when you’re feeling tired or hopeless.

When building your social support network, be sure that the love and support you                receive is unconditional. Recovery is hard, and relapse is to be expected. You     deserve to have people who are ready and willing to stick out all of the hard times     with you, not just the times you’re doing well.

Be sure that your values are not in conflict with the people supporting you. Some       support systems may have trouble supporting you if your values differ too much   from theirs, and they may ask you to compromise yourself. Be very careful in evaluating which friends are there to support YOUR values, and which friends will            only lend a hand if you follow their rules.

4.    Be Prepared to Lose Some Battles – and still Win the War! On the 4thof July, we focus mostly on the fact that we won the war… we don’t spend much time thinking about the years of struggle, confusion, heartache, and frustration that came with independence. The same can be said about declaring your own independence – Making the decision to free yourself from oppression is only the beginning of your journey. There will be days when you question whether you’ve made the right decision, or perhaps you’ll doubt if you can possibly finish this task you’ve set for yourself. Even some American colonists once doubted whether the States could survive without Britain, even after the war was won.  
Know that the struggle is part of the journey – there are no perfect steps to recovery! Arm yourself coping skills, a strong support system, and some radical self-compassion in preparation for those hard days. Remember that following through is hard to do, but that’s where all the magic happens. 

5.    Create a Bill of Rights! As human beings, we have certain inalienable rights – and among these rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. (Sound familiar?) Make a list for yourself that outlines your rights as you begin your recovery. For example, you have the right to establish boundaries to protect your physical and emotional well-being; you have the right to say no; you have the right to ask for help; you have the right to be loved and supported; you have the right to have and express your needs! One of the most common and painful human experiences is the conviction that we are unworthy, unlovable, or just not good enough. By reminding ourselves that we are inherently worth love, belonging, and respect, we gradually build up the courage we need to fight for these rights to be protected.

Extra tip: Keep reminders around you of your goals, your rights, and your values! A well-placed post-it note on your bathroom mirror, or perhaps a little index card in your glovebox or wallet, can help you keep your eye on the big picture as you go about your daily routine, and will provide little bursts of encouragement and motivation throughout your day!