Land of the Free
“Maturity comes in three stages, dependence, independence and interdependence.” -Jenna Jameson
These stages of development are reflected in the physiological, physical and social development of humans. We start off completely dependent on our mothers. We then spend some number of years fiercely fighting for our independence until we reach a certain age where we admit we need help, and if we’re lucky, begin to see the bigger picture of connection with all things. We often hear that as we mature we should be less dependent, and more autonomous. But actually we need to learn how to be more deeply connected to others while maintaining our own sense of self.
As we seek this balance of other-reliance with self-reliance, we can veer off course in a couple of ways. Sometimes we will seek security through others-- waiting to be rescued. We will deny our power, our strength, our right to self-expression in exchange for the perceived safety offered by another. Then, in reaction to living like that for some time, our internal pendulum can swing in the other direction, and deny our need for others at all! We would rather do it ourselves rather than experience the vulnerability of depending on someone else. In both of these extremes you end up denying a part of yourself.
Don Miguel Ruiz, in The Four Agreements, points out that although everyone talks about living in a free country, we are not actually free. Freedom has to do with the human spirit - it is the freedom to be who we really are. We see this true freedom in very young children -- who fearlessly express how they feel and love without limits. They live in the moment, neither fearing the future or being ashamed of the past. This is our normal human condition-- to enjoy life, to play, to explore, to be happy, and to love. Over time we lose this freedom as a result of our conditioning and the unconscious agreements we make without even realizing we are signing on the dotted line. Most of the time we do things to please others, rather than living our lives to please ourselves and be ourselves. We lose sight of who we are and don’t even realize that we are not free. (Don Miguel Ruiz, The Four Agreements)
Modern society has prioritized independence to such an extent that we are left on our own to try to manage lives that are increasingly out of control. However, interdependence is at the core of all religious and spiritual teachings. “Yoga” literally means union. In Buddhism there is a recognition of our interdependence on every level-- socially, personally, and physically. In fact, one of the three things that Buddhists take “refuge” in is the “Sangha”--the community of like minded people on the path. Your Sangha also includes the trees, the birds, the meditation cushion, the yoga mat, the bell, even the air you breathe- all things that support you in your practice. Similarly, your “practice” is not just the time you spend on your yoga mat or your meditation cushion, but also the time we spend learning and growing in our relationships with others. Thich Nhat Hanh says in the west our Sangha becomes our Buddha. You see, iin our culture we see ourselves as isolated individuals, so a powerful way for us to realize our Buddha nature is through our relationships with others. As we devote ourselves to awakening through conscious relationships, we directly undo the conditioning that keeps us in the trance of separation. Whatever has been stuck within us finds its way to the surface in relationships, especially in our more intimate ones. In this way, relationships are like mirrors, helping us to see ourselves and others more clearly. All becomes revealed in relationships. (Thich Nhat Hanh, Teachings on Love)
Great teachers like the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu acknowledge the importance of connection by incorporating it into their daily practices. The Dalai Lama starts each day remembering the importance of kindness and compassion, and that everything is interrelated. He then sets his intention for the day: that this day should be meaningful… to help and serve others when possible… or at least not to harm others. He suggests making overtures of friendship while waiting for an elevator or standing in a subway. You can smile and say hello. Sometimes he is met with confusion, but most often with a relieved smile, as if he had broken a trance and were once again acknowledging our human bond. Archbishop Tutu, when he is worried or can’t sleep, thinks about people all around the world who are also worried and unable to sleep, and he prays for them. Remembering that he is not alone lessens his stress and eases his worried mind. When the Dalai Lama gets nervous before public speaking, he reminds himself that he is just a person, like all the people in the audience… realizing their sameness, rather than thinking he is something special, helps reduce his anxiety around speaking. (“The Book of Joy” by Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Carlton Abrams)
Desmond Tutu explains that in South Africa, there is a concept called “Ubuntu” -- A person is a person through other persons. We depend on the “other” in order for us to be fully who we are. So therefore, acts of caring and compassion to others are our innate nature because none of us came into the world alone. We learned to be a human being from other human beings. We belong to a delicate network. In some villages in South Africa, the common greeting reflects this. Instead of asking “How are you?” the question is “How are we?”
One of the great teachers on the importance of connection is Brene Brown. She posits that separation is the essential cause of anxiety and connection is the great healer. She defines connection as “the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard and valued.” She refers to the “Myth of Self-Sufficiency.” Somehow we’ve come to equate success with not needing anyone. This is reflected in the fact that so many of us are uncomfortable asking for and receiving help! Our reluctance to get help, necessarily implies a judgement of those we are helping. Until we can receive with an open heart, we are never really giving with an open heart. (Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection)
We are wired for connection. It’s in our biology. From the time we are born we need connection to thrive emotionally, physically, spiritually, and intellectually. Daniel Goleman in his book “Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationship” confirms through neuroscience that we are hardwired for connection and that our relationships directly affect the way our brain develops and performs. Our relationships shape our biology, as does our lack of relationships! Scientists at Columbia University discovered that people who disproportionately use the first- person pronouns (I, me, mine) have a significantly greater risk of having a heart attack. Self-centeredness causes isolation, which leads to more worry and stress. These days, we also have to be careful mistaking electronic communication with real connection. We’re spending more time on screens, but sociologist Lynn Smith-Lovin reports that the number of close friends people have has lowered from three to two. 1 in 10 people said they had no close friendships at all. (Brene Brown, Daring Greatly)
Loneliness and being alone are not synonymous. We are often alone without feeling lonely and feel lonely when we are not alone, like in a crowd of strangers or a party of people we do not know. We can feel joy when we are alone, but not when we are lonely. Much depends on your attitude. If you are filled with negative judgement and anger, then you will feel separate from other people. You will feel lonely. But if you have an open heart and are filled with trust and friendship, even if you are physically alone, you will never feel lonely. (“Book of Joy” , Dalai Lama) This is good news. It means we do not have to wait for others to cure our loneliness! No matter where we are or who we are with, by opening our hearts we can feel connected.
On the other end of the spectrum, what happens when we are too dependent on others? “Codependence” is when we let our serenity be affected by the words and actions of others, and consequently attempt to control them. (Codependent No More, Melody Beattie) When we are codependent, our well being hinges on other people’s moods and behaviors, on whether they offer or withhold their love. Codependents therefore develop an uncanny ability to manage and control, in an attempt to gain acceptance. We can learn these tendencies in childhood, from our culture and what it tells us about caretaking and being a woman, from our religion or in a relationship with someone who has an addiction or mental health issue. In our past, by worrying and controlling we may have temporarily kept things from getting worse, which created a false idea that these techniques actually work!
Some qualities of codependents (many more can be found in “Codependent No More” by Melody Beattie and online):
-think and feel responsible for other people
-anticipate other people’s needs
-say yes when they mean no
-don’t know what they want or need
-are attracted to needy people
-feel guilty about spending money on themselves or doing fun things for themselves
-take things personally
-often have been victims of sexual, physical or emotional abuse, neglect, abandonment or addiction in themselves or others
-afraid of making mistakes
-expect themselves and others to do everything perfectly
-make great employees because they don’t complain, do more than their share, strive to please people and do their work perfectly.
-wish other people would like and love them
-try to prove they’re good enough for other people
-afraid to let other people know who they are and allow things to happen naturally
-think they know best how things should turn out and how people should behave
-stay busy so don’t have to think about things
-don’t feel happy, content or peaceful with themselves
-look for happiness outside themselves
-often seek love from people incapable of loving them in return
-settle for too little, expectations too low
-get stuck in relationships because don’t feel emotionally secure or centered
-poor communicators - ask for things indirectly
-gauge words carefully to achieve a desired effect
-have a difficult time expressing their emotions honestly, openly and appropriately
-apologize for bothering people
-afraid of their own and other people’s anger
-think people will go away if anger enters the picture
-caretakers in the bedroom, have sex when they don’t want to
-extremely responsible or extremely irresponsible
If you recognize many of these traits in yourself, do not fear! Those who have gone before us have formed support groups and a library of wisdom on how to recover. First, call yourself to the present moment-- relinquish regrets over the past and fears about the future. Then we can turn our attention to our reactions as we interact with others. When we react without thinking, we forfeit our personal power, by allowing others to determine when we will be happy and, when we will be upset, and what we will say, do, think and feel. However, if we pause before reacting we will retain our ability to choose. In the pause we will find an opportunity to lighten up. Things can take on gargantuan proportions in our minds, but with some perspective we can loosen our grip and allow things to happen rather than forcing them. We don’t have to take ourselves, events and other people quite so seriously. Perhaps we can learn not to take things personally as we realize that other people’s behavior is not a reflection of our self-worth.
So what happens in this “pause”? First, we can learn to recognize the signals that mean we should take a pause-- if we start to feel anxious, afraid, indignant, outraged, rejected, victimized, ashamed, worried or confused. These emotions are signals that we need to pause and work through our feelings. Maybe separate yourself physically from whatever you are reacting to and take steps to make yourself comfortable. Say or do as little as possible until you have felt your feelings and restored your level of serenity. Many co-dependents have lost touch with their emotions. They have been conditioned in past relationships (through violent outbursts or withdrawal of love and affection) to believe that feelings make them vulnerable. We are often completely tuned in to what other people are feeling, but unable to tune into our own feelings.
The pause creates space so that our feelings don’t dictate or control our behaviors. But if we don’t feel our feelings and deal with them, they will control us. Feelings point us in the direction of where we need to go, and help motivate us to move in that direction. They give us clues about what we actually want and who we actually are. If we ignore our feelings, they won’t go away. Repressed feelings can lead to headaches, stomach disorders, backaches, compulsive behaviors and sleep disorders. If we shut off the negative feelings, we can’t feel the positive ones either. (Melody Beattie, “Codependent No More”)
Another part of recovery from codependency is acceptance. This does not mean we resign ourselves to our circumstances. Rather, it means seeing the moment as it really is -- accepting reality -- and acceptance works best when it is paired with the belief that this moment is as it is for a reason. Contained in each moment is something to learn-- an opportunity for growth. Tell yourself the truth about what happened, even if it has something to do with you. You are not responsible for making other people “see the light” or for “setting them straight”. You are responsible for helping yourself see the light and for setting yourself straight.
Once we have paused and clearly see the moment as it is, we can practice releasing control. Codependents try to control in the name of love because we are “only trying to help” or because we think we know best how things should go or because we are afraid how things will play out if we don’t step up! So we try to make other people do what we want them to or plot and plan what steps we can make to force life’s events to unfold in the way we think is best. First, we must recognize control is an illusion. It doesn’t work. We cannot change people and we cannot control the outcome. The only thing we can control is our self - our actions and our reactions.
When we are too enmeshed with another person, we must go through the process of detachment. Contrary to popular belief, this doesn’t mean shutting off our emotions or ceasing to care! How can we “detach with love?” The key is that we don’t detach from the person we care about, but from the agony of involvement. We cannot begin to work on ourselves-- to live our own lives, feel our own feelings and solve our own problems-- until we have detached from the people we obsess about. We do this by emotionally and sometimes physically disengaging ourselves from unhealthy overinvolvement in another person’s life. It is said that overinvolvement overworks us and underworks them. “Enabling” is a destructive form of helping that prevents someone from feeling the consequences of their own choices and actions. We rob them of the opportunity to walk on their own path and learn their own lessons. Then we may even get resentful if the poor person we’ve helped doesn’t show the right amount of gratitude, turning ourselves into a victim. Rescuing people often comes from low-self worth. We don’t feel loveable so we settle for being needed, and rescuing people is easier than dealing with the discomfort and awkwardness of facing other people’s unresolved problems. With this as our motivation, our seemingly selfless acts become inherently selfish. (Melody Beattie, “Codependent No More”)
How do we know when we need to detach? Melody Beattie says it is when detaching seems the least likely or most impossible thing to do. When we can’t stop thinking and worrying about someone or something. When we feel that tense urgency it is our signal that something is off. So, we re-visit the progression mentioned at the start--- dependence, independence, and interdependence. If we struggle with codependency, we may need to work on independence for a while before we can settle into a healthy state of interdependence. In the process of learning acceptance and how to detach, we must take care of ourselves on our road to personal freedom. “Undependence” is the desirable balance wherein we acknowledge and meet our needs for people and love, yet we don't become overly or harmfully dependent on them. (Penelope Russianoff) We can reach “undependence” by learning to honor our needs, wants and feelings. We can figure out how our past informs what we are doing now, grieve and let it go. Remember all the things we have endured and survived and use that to build confidence in ourselves and our ability to take care of ourselves. We can examine the ways we are emotionally and financially dependent on others and start taking care of ourselves, and we can learn to recognize the difference between relationships that do work and those that don’t work.
The quickest way to be sane and happy is to tend to our own affairs. In Twelve Step programs they have many helpful analogies for this bit of advice. You can imagine that you have a hula hoop around you and you should only concern yourself with what is inside your hula hoop. Or make sure “your side of the street” is clean, rather than worrying about the other side of the street. One of my favorites is “What others think of you is none of your business.” So it becomes our practice to learn to love and at the same time to live our own lives, without forfeiting our sense of self. Then we can cultivate our interdependence-- our felt-oneness with all beings -- until everything and everyone becomes our Sangha.
* (For further reading, check out “Book of Joy” by Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Carlton Abrams, “The Gifts of Imperfection” and “Daring Greatly” by Brene Brown, “Codependent No More” by Melody Beattie, “The Four Agreements” by Don Miguel Ruiz, “Teachings on Love” by Thich Nhat Hanh - Much of the content of this essay was taken from or inspired by these insightful works.)