Hi, my name is Jordan, and I am a chronic people-pleaser. This has been the case my entire life. So much of my identity is built upon wanting others to like me (or, even better, LOOOOOVE me). I became so codependent (on everyone), so focused on being who I thought everyone else wanted me to be, that for a long time, I didn’t even know myself.
I believe this started in my childhood around the time my parents started to have problems in their marriage. I remember once, hearing them shouting at each other in our garage, I quickly drew a happy family portrait with my crayons and presented it to them. I was trying to “fix” whatever was broken (even before I understood how a marriage could be broken).
My sister was what you would call the “problem child” in our house. She struggled with school and often cut class. She had a hard time holding down a job. For a lot of reasons- some fair and some really unfair- my dad (technically our step-dad) had issues with my sister. Which meant our mom had issues with my dad. There were other problems, too, but a lot of it centered around the struggles my sister dealt with. Before I was even old enough to realize what I was doing, I made it a point to be the easy kid. I performed well in school, I got a job at 16 and worked hard at it, I didn’t really ask my parents for anything. I tried not to be a “burden.” I saw that they already had a lot on their plate (especially my mom) and I did my best not to add to it.
This translated into pretty much every relationship that followed. My first boyfriend would become distant and cold if I ever brought up concerns about our relationship. On one occasion, he didn’t speak to me for 3 days. I didn’t think my requests were unfair or unwarranted, but I also didn’t want him to leave me, so I apologized excessively and smoothed everything over. I internalized any discomfort or pain that I felt, because I felt it wasn’t safe to share; if I shared it, I could potentially end up alone.
In my early 20’s, I moved to Arizona to start fresh. I soon learned that you don’t just leave all your baggage behind. My people-pleasing, codependent ways followed me. I was basically alone in a new state where I knew exactly two people. I didn’t know who I was or what I liked or what I wanted. All I knew was I was afraid of being alone. I wanted to badly to be loved and wanted. If others didn’t love me, I knew it was because I was unworthy of being loved. I was unlovable. It was my fault.
These feelings weren’t reserved solely for romantic relationships, either. I was completely codependent on my friends as well. I did whatever they wanted to do. I never started an argument and I avoided conflict at all costs. I am an introvert by nature, but I was so afraid of being left out that I was constantly out partying and drinking. I avoided my feelings by being constantly in contact with other people; I could NOT be alone. Sometimes my friends would become upset with me or need space, and when that happened, I would spiral into my depression, even resorting to self-harm. I didn’t share any of these sad or bad feelings with my friends because I didn’t want to be a burden. I wanted them to like me and I thought that if I wasn’t “easy,” then they wouldn’t want me around.
(This photo is from one of my many drunken nights out. Don’t get me wrong, not every night out was bad, and I have a lot of good memories. But when I look at this girl, I see someone so lost, someone who didn’t love herself, and who was using alcohol as a way to fill that void.)
Of course, there is a rock bottom in this story (involving way too much alcohol and an interrupted suicide attempt). Fortunately, there were professionals there to catch me. I wound up in a mental healthcare facility off the Las Vegas strip. It was fucking real and fucking terrifying. It was also what I needed to open my eyes. I realized, I don’t want to die. What am I doing?
It was in a group therapy session at this facility that I first heard the term codependency. It resonated deeply and I wanted to know more. Codependency has traditionally been used to describe relationships with addicts, but more recently the definition has evolved and expanded. Codependency is a sort of relationship addiction based on an excessive reliance on approval from others. A person puts so much focus on keeping their partner around and filling their needs that they ignore their own needs. As I read, I was like whoa. This is me.
So, I knew that in order to crawl my way out of rock bottom. I needed to make some changes. It helped that now I had an idea of where to start.
The first thing that had to go was drinking. It wasn’t just unhealthy for me, it was dangerous for me in my current mindset. This meant I had to miss out on going out with my friends multiple times a week, which was hard for me. At first I felt left out, and was certain I would be forgotten. I wasn’t actually too far off. Pretty quickly I realized that there wasn’t much to these friendships beyond drinking. Most of these people didn’t reach out to me to see how I was, or invite me to other activities like dinner or the movies. I mourned the loss of these “friendships.” But this showed me who my real people were. The ones who stood by my side and helped me through my transition, who genuinely cared about my well-being. These people are still my best friends today.
Maybe even more difficult than quitting drinking was learning how to set boundaries. I had to fucking learn to say no, and it went against everything in my body. I learned that I couldn’t go to every event, I couldn’t take every late-night phone call, I even had to lessen my load at the community college I was attending. I had to slow down. I had to take time for me. I had to spend time with me, learning to check in with myself and pay attention if I was beginning to feel overwhelmed. It was uncomfortable, spending time alone. It was hard to be alone with my thoughts instead of out numbing and ignoring. But it got easier and I’ve become in tune to what I need for my mental and emotional health. Now I can make a decision to do something based on what I truly want, not how I think others will perceive me.
Finally, and this is I think a constant work in progress, I had to learn who the hell I am. What my likes and dislikes are. What my fears are and what my hopes and dreams are. What kinds of personalities I enjoy and want to be around. I was 25 years old and I didn’t know these things!! I had worn a mask for so long, I didn’t know what my real reflection looked like. This takes practice and discovery and trying new things and again, boundaries. I learned to listen to and respect my own opinion. Now, I am finally in a place where I know who I am and what I stand for, and this has been my greatest gift to myself.
(Infographic by Sara Kuburic, @millennial.therapist)