Shortly after the birth of my daughter I had a series of very uncomfortable, heartbreaking realizations about my own mother. Being the information-obsessed Gemini that I am, I read every book, article, and blog post I could about maternal narcissism in an attempt to rationalize and analyze and intellectualize my way out of all of the feelings (as is my way). I was in the initial “shock” stage of grief. Shocked that my experience was an experience. Shocked that it was not unique. So not unique that there were professionals who’d dedicated their entire career to researching and helping people like me.
As much as I identified with the intimate descriptions provided in these texts, I kept getting stuck on the word “codependent.” I was more than stuck, I was downright insulted. It felt like my whole life I’d been struggling to establish independence and autonomy — how could I be codependent? Then one day, someone explained codependence to me in a way which I will never forget. It went something like this:
Imagine you have this house — your dream house. The house and everything in it fills you with joy, and you work diligently to keep it clean and organized. You are comfortable there. One day, your mom/partner/friend is coming for a visit. You see them coming down the road, straining under the weight of a ginormous sack, quadruple their size. You walk out on the porch to meet them. “Come help me with this thing, it’s heavy!” they shout. You suggest they just put it down. They refuse. As they get closer you catch a whiff of what approaches. It smells awful. Putrid. Nauseating. You start to panic. Are they bringing that to your house? They reach the porch with their giant bag of trash and again ask for your assistance in bringing it inside. “Why don’t you leave that outside? It doesn’t need to come in,” you plead. They balk at your insistence. “No, it comes in. I want it with me. I feel better when it’s with me.” You nervously insist. “But I just cleaned, and it seems like it will make a really big mess.” They aren’t having it. “It comes in with me. I need it. It will be fine.” With a sigh of defeat, you open the door and they haul their trash inside. You hurry about, opening windows, lighting scented candles and incense, but the stink rapidly seeps through the house. Before you know it, they’re unpacking some of the bag, tossing rotten garbage over their shoulder as they dig for who knows what. Their garbage spreads throughout your precious house, yet they remain oblivious to the mess they’re making. And when it’s time to go they pick up their bag — a little lighter now — and head out without offering to help clean up, leaving you in a house that smells, that feels somehow less your own, less comfortable.
That is codependence. Metaphorically, the house represents your emotional wellbeing, your life. And their bag of trash could be anything — addiction, trauma, mental illness. When you’re codependent you allow the person you’re enabling to run roughshod over your feelings, needs, and desires. They come first. Someone with healthy boundaries would firmly and lovingly say, “Hey, so glad you’re here, looking forward to our visit, but the bag stays outside.” And if that inspires anger or vitriol from the stinky bag-wielding visitor, they are welcome to leave. But the codependent is more afraid of what might happen if they say no, so they let the visitor do what they want to do and figure they’ll manage around it.
When you are raised to do this, to put the needs and feelings of others before your own, it makes for tricky adulting. It makes all relationships — friendships, lovers, work — more difficult. In part because you will continue to attract people who equate a lack of boundaries as loyalty and love, and in part because you remain so disconnected from your own feelings and needs that true happiness and contentment is always just beyond your grasp.
It’s no way to live. And so I stopped.
Over the last several years I’ve gotten very good at telling people to leave their garbage outside. So good in fact, that I haven’t spoken to my own mother for almost two years. I’m still working on some of the finer points of boundary setting — 30 years of emotional conditioning can’t be undone overnight — but in general, I no longer struggle to differentiate between what belongs to others and what belongs to me. If I catch a whiff that someone is the bring-a-stinky-bag-up-in-your-house type, I steer clear. But for me, and many others I know, the tricky piece is that in addition to my codependent upbringing, I’m a highly sensitive person. An empath. This means I often put myself in someone else’s shoes without trying. It is a gift and a curse, and has silently been wreaking havoc on my relationships in a very insidious way.
A few months ago I found myself standing on a street corner with a guy I had a brief fling with. It had ended badly, in a hailstorm of gossip and hurt feelings, and this was the first time we’d talked since the night the shit hit the fan. We had just left dinner — which had been pleasant enough though I’d been distracted the entire time, wondering if and when he’d say something about what had happened. He did not, but I needed to address it, and so as we walked to my car, I broached the subject. His energy shifted — he bristled, closed up. But then, stopped at the corner, he offered an apology and an explanation and somewhere in the middle of him talking I noticed that I wasn’t in my body. I was listening to what he was saying with a flustered urgency, fully compassionate to the position he’d been in and the way he is and why his feelings were his feelings. And while I was so focused on empathizing with him, I left my own inner child unsupervised. The next day, when friends asked how I felt about the conversation, I had nothing to say but “I don’t know.” I had no idea how I felt. I was paying so much attention to him that I missed myself.
This is the problem with compassion. When we let our understanding of another take up so much space that we don’t leave space for ourselves.
Compassion and empathy, listening and understanding, is a crucial part of intimate relationships. But it becomes a defense mechanism when, in understanding the other’s point of view, we ignore our own. Or minimize our bad feelings because we understand why the other person acted out. We let them bring their garbage in our house, because we’re lonely or because we’d rather have to clean up the mess of their wake than admit how angry or sad we are. We let our compassion distract us from tending to our own broken hearts.
Once I realized this I started to recognize it everywhere. I started to notice how my “evolved” girlfriends, the ones who meditate and do yoga and go to therapy and are profoundly self aware, would skim the surface of outrage or upset after their partner or colleague did or said something undeniably hurtful or unfair. They’d give a little voice to their frustration, their disappointment, their sadness, but then start justifying and empathizing, trying to convince themselves it was okay by trying to convince me. They gave voice to the other’s feelings, respect to their person with intimate acknowledgement of their fears and insecurities and intentions, but gave no voice to their own. They used compassion to rationalize, analyze, and intellectualize their way out of their bad feelings. But what you resist persists and so the same situations would play out over and over.
Also, no way to live.
These days, when I catch myself over-empathizing, I make sure to refocus on how I’m feeling, what I’m thinking, and what I need. I let the compassion be a tool to keep me open, receptive, and kind, but if I’m not feeling good, I make my priority honoring that. Because it matters. How I feel matters. And if I don’t have compassion for myself first, then what I’m offering the other isn’t really compassion either — it’s my own bag of garbage, and an expectation that they can hold it for me, for just a little while.