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I shared a sweet meal with a friend last week. As we caught each other up, she mentioned a page on Instagram that had inspired her.
This morning I got the chance to look up @the.holistic.psychologist on Instagram and watch one of Dr. Nicole LePera’s IGTV posts, which focuses on breaking down co-dependency. I was pretty familiar with the definition of co-dependency and I had some idea of how it presents in life, but the way that Dr. LePera explained it and the examples she used helped me gain an even deeper understanding.
I recognized that many of the co-dependent tendencies she described rang true to the way I have operated in the past, and the way I sometimes currently operate. With my personal history, combined with society’s expectation that black women should take care of others, it came as no surprise that I could relate.
Co-dependency is an enmeshment of boundaries. When someone experiences co-dependency, they often have problems maintaining their emotional well-being when those around them feel unhappy or do not behave in a way that the person hopes. Rather than simply letting others figure out their own issues, people struggling with co-dependency might consistently find themselves pushing to get others to do what they want. Someone who has a co-dependent relationship has higher stakes in seeing others do what they think is best, because their internal peace relies on it. So, naturally, they try to ensure that things around them happen the way they hope. Indecisiveness before small and large choices alike can also be a sign of co-dependent tendencies.
A number of early experiences and observations can lead a person to develop co-dependent tendencies. A child watching adults model co-dependent behaviors and attitudes might naturally perceive this as how things should be. Learning that one’s own joy is less important than pleasing a parent or caregiver can also train a person to live life constantly thinking about the role they play in others’ lives – and solely deriving our satisfaction from pleasing others.
In a world where it feels like so many problems come from some people caring too little, pushing back against co-dependence may seem confusing. One might ask: what role does moving away from co-dependence have in improving the world at large?
If we don’t have some control over our internal well-being, we can easily become debilitated. The world around us has endless circumstances that most of us don’t like. If our ability to be hopeful or happy relies solely on these circumstances remaining the way we prefer, we can easily become stuck in gloom.
The Baha’i teachings say:
Let not the happenings of the world sadden you. I swear by God! The sea of joy yearneth to attain your presence, for every good thing hath been created for you, and will, according to the needs of the times, be revealed unto you. – Baha’u’llah, quoted by Shoghi Effendi in The Advent of Divine Justice
Similarly, if our perception of our identity and our worth comes solely from others, we can easily fall into the trap of not respecting our own personhood. Once we lose respect for ourselves, we put ourselves at risk of unhappiness:
… man’s supreme honor and real happiness lie in self-respect, in high resolves and noble purposes, in integrity and moral quality, in immaculacy of mind. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Secret of Divine Civilization
The risk is not only limited to our own internal emotional world. Dr. LePera shared that our ability to embrace the good qualities in ourselves connects to our ability to recognize the good in others. The Baha’i writings say that in order to love one another as best as we can, we should focus on the good we see in others rather than dwelling on their faults:
If a man has ten good qualities and one bad one, to look at the ten and forget the one; and if a man has ten bad qualities and one good one, to look at the one and forget the ten. – Abdu’l-Baha, quoted by J.E. Esslemont in Baha’u’llah and the New Era
When we look at the good we see in others, we look for divinity, or the attributes of God, reflected within them. If we don’t do this, it becomes too hard to find any relationship that allows us to maintain a loving attitude:
Love the creatures for the sake of God and not for themselves. You will never become angry or impatient if you love them for the sake of God. Humanity is not perfect. There are imperfections in every human being, and you will always become unhappy if you look toward the people themselves. But if you look toward God, you will love them and be kind to them, for the world of God is the world of perfection and complete mercy. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace
As we apply this same thinking to the love we have for ourselves, it becomes clear that only loving ourselves when others validate us is not complete love. Veering away from co-dependency requires that we learn to love ourselves unconditionally.