Many people in recovery struggle in their relationships. Our acting out kept us from nurturing many relationships, and damaged – or even destroyed – others. But there’s more to this story. It’s also possible that what brought us to addictive behaviors in the first place was that our relationships weren’t what they needed to be. We felt alienated from people. We felt insecure around people. Maybe we weren’t sure how to relate honestly with people when we had conflict.
There’s an interesting chapter in Charlotte Kasl’s book “Women, Sex, and Addiction,” which talks about codependence and how it often goes hand in hand with addiction. Codependence is a word with many different definitions, but generally it refers to an over-dependence on maintaining a relationship, or keeping someone happy, even at the expense of our own well-being.
If we are going to recover – from addiction and/or from destructive relationships – we need to live in truth. We need to stop doing things just to please someone else. We need to let ourselves know what we really know, say what we need to say, and do what we need to do. If we aren’t willing to live in truth in this way, our emotional and spiritual well-being is compromised.
But how do we live in truth? Here is a list of principles and practices:
1. To live in truth listen to your heart as well as others’
If we were insecure as kids, if we were told we were dumb, if our opinion or input never seemed to matter, chances are we developed a mindset of not valuing what we think, feel, and know. We grow to distrust ourselves, and look to someone else to validate us. We deny what we think, what we see, and what we experience if it contradicts what other people tell us.
To overcome this, we need to remember that we may not always be right, but neither are we always wrong. We need to remember that no one else knows exactly all that we know, and our insights are important. We need to start recognizing – and valuing – ourselves and our opinions.
To do this we take time out periodically to stop, slow ourselves down, and ask ourselves some questions:
- What do I feel?
- What do I know?
- What do I want?
Obviously, there are times in everyone’s life when the answers to these questions are not clear. Sometimes we’re not sure. But if we rarely know the answers to these questions, or if we never even stop to consider the questions, it means that we are out of touch with ourselves. In that state, it’s hard to relate in a meaningful way to others, because we aren’t bringing a perspective of our own to share.
2. To live in truth, give no advice
For many of us, our sense of well-being is tied to, even dependent upon, another person. We care so much for that person, and so little for ourselves, that we over-focus on them. Our mind is constantly humming with plans to help that person, plans to change that person, how that person’s life could be better. The natural consequence is that we want to offer suggestions to that person about how they could improve.
Resist this urge.
Advice – particularly unsolicited advice – is rarely well received, and hardly ever acted upon. Before we give someone else advice, no matter how helpful or well-intentioned, we should ask ourselves:
“What do I need to do for me?”
“What do I want them to do that I really need to do for myself?”
It’s hard for advice-giving and real intimacy to coexist. Advice-giving puts one person in the position of authority. “This is how things really are, and this is what you need to do.” Instead of being in it together, one person is knowledgeable and dominant, the other is ignorant and subservient.
3. To live in truth, ask for no advice
One of the ways codependent people keep themselves small and others big is to ask for advice. It’s one thing to talk about questions and decisions with friends, in an effort to get a broader perspective. But by asking people what they think we should do changes the dynamic in an unhealthy way.
Also, it’s one thing to seek out a professional or expert in a given area, again as a way of gathering helpful information. But stop short of asking “What should I do?” Good therapists, pastors, and life coaches will not take that bait. If you ask “what should I do?” and the therapist tells you, now you are no longer responsible. If you proceed with their recommendation, you’re just doing what you’re told. If it doesn’t work out well, then you can blame the therapist for giving you bad advice.
That’s not helpful! It’s your life, and you are responsible to live it and choose wisely.
The next time you are tempted to ask someone for advice, stop yourself. Pray about the decision. Look within, asking “What do I really know to be true?” “What do I really want?”
As Christians we believe that the Holy Spirit dwells within us. When we are spiritually mature and emotionally congruent, we are in touch with divine guidance in such as way as to experience something as a deep, inner knowing. We can’t always explain it, but “we know that we know” it. Having this inner knowing is very empowering.
If we pray and search within for a sense of knowing what we need or what to do … and nothing comes to mind … then what? Go for a walk, go to bed and sleep on it. Trust that the answer — or at least as much as we need to know of the answer — will become clear.
This can be hard for some of us who feel the need for certainty and clarity in all situations. Life is not like that. There are times things are not clear, and we simply must take the step we believe is wisest … the one that is the “next right thing.” Don’t be tempted at this point to seek the false sense of certainty that comes from trading your sense of self for the advice of others.
4. To live in truth don’t try to fix other peoples’ feelings
Colossians 3:13 tells us to “bear with one another,” and this can be really hard to do. “Bearing with one another” means that we care for and support one another in the good and bad times. It can be hard to bear with someone when they are dealing with intense emotions.
I work with a lot of men who really struggle to do this with their wives. When their wife is really angry, or really sad, they don’t know how to handle it. I suspect that it’s also hard for many wives to do too. I certainly know that it’s hard as a parent to do this with our kids.
What do you do when someone you love – spouse, friend, child – is upset? I mean really upset. Really angry, or really sad?
Many of us get very uncomfortable in that situation. Think about the logic of this progression: If we don’t feel okay and secure about ourselves – then we will tend to over-rely on some other person(s) to help us feel okay about ourselves and about life. So then, if that person who is our rock and source of security is really struggling, if that person is really sad, or (God forbid) if that person is mad at us … we have a hard time dealing with it.
If we’re not in touch with our emotions, chances are we’re afraid of our emotions. And if we’re afraid of our emotions, we’ll be afraid of other peoples’ emotions too. So what we often do is – instead of listening to them, instead of just being with them in their sorrow – we try to snap them out of it. We try to smooth things over. As Charlotte Kasl says, we “quash other peoples’ anger and expressions of strong feelings because we are afraid of our own.”
There’s an important line between comforting someone, and trying to shut them down. We cross that line when we are uncomfortable with their sadness and we just try to shut them down. We cross that line when we try to tell people not to feel something, by saying things like:
- “It’s not that bad”
- “Stop crying”
- “You should be happy”
One of the ways that we bear with one another when someone is really distressed and upset is this: we let them be upset. We don’t try to get them to calm down, we don’t try to “fix it,” or get defensive.
Learning this was a turning point in my relationship with my wife Charlene. For a long time in our marriage, if she was upset, I would want to fix it right away. Often her being upset would make me sad and stressed out. I generally assumed that if she was sad or angry, it was because of something I had done, or hadn’t done.
You’ve probably heard that saying, “If momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” That speaks to a way of living that is like a thermometer … you just reflect emotionally whatever the other person is doing. If they’re up, you’re up. If they’re down, you’re down. And that’s how Charlene and I related together.
At some point in the recovery experience I started learning to separate myself. If she was sad or angry – it might not be about me. If it was about me – and it was something I could do something about … obviously then it would be my job to do that. But if it was not about me, if was not something I could fix … then the most important thing I could do would be to just listen and be there. I didn’t have to solve it. I didn’t have to get all bent out of shape to help her “snap out of it.” I could just be there for her … and sometimes it was helpful just give her some space to work things out.
5. To live in truth learn to gripe at the right time
Some of us grew up in homes where we didn’t get heard. If we had things that were bothering us – making us sad or angry – and we tried to give voice to them, we got shut down. Maybe we grew up in a home where only one parent could be angry. Or maybe it was super-Christian, and if we were sad we got a Bible verse and sermon thrown at us. Or maybe our parents were caught up in their own problems – or maybe just gone – and so we had to fend for ourselves, and we learned to do that by just shutting down.
So in those kinds of situations, we don’t learn how to deal with the things that bother us. Now as adults, when something ticks us off, or makes us sad, or fearful — we haven’t learned how to deal with it in a healthy way. So we try to suppress those feelings. We minimize how bad something is, or we just deny that something bothers us.
But of course it doesn’t go away … and eventually it comes out in some dysfunctional way. Often the way it works is that we find someone else to gripe to. So something – or someone – is bothering us and making us angry, but we aren’t able to admit to ourselves that it bothers us. Or maybe we do know that it bothers us, but we don’t dare say anything.
Then we have a chance when we’re talking to someone else … and we then have our BMW sessions. You know what BMW sessions are? It’s an acronym I learned in coaching school. It stands for “bitch, moan, and whine.” It’s a gripe session.
Healthy people gripe just like everyone else. The only people who don’t need to gripe are the people who have perfect lives. So if there are things going on that make you mad, sad, or stressed, you’ve got to find a way to deal with that.
So here’s the question: when is the right time to gripe? The answer is (almost always) NOW. Codependent people are always telling you what they were feeling yesterday. How they were mad yesterday – usually at someone else – and instead of dealing with it then, with that person … they are now sharing it with you. The difference between healthy and unhealthy is a matter of when and where.
It’s okay to let someone see your anger. And the best way to do this is to name it, to be honest about it: “I’m angry that you are late again to our meeting.” or “It makes me angry that when we talk, we seem to spend most of the time talking about your kids. It makes me feel jealous and bad about my own family.” You don’t have to go on and on … just be open, and then you can move on.
One qualification: Sometimes it may be necessary to hold on to gripes for a short time, and not deal directly with the person who is frustrating us. This is the case if it’s not a safe person, or if it’s a relationship where you have a pattern of fighting a lot. It may not be a safe or wise thing to deal with it in that moment … but the general principle still applies:
As soon as you can …. as close to “in the moment” as you can … get the gripe out of your system.
Think of it like food that you eat. If you have some food that is bad, and hard to digest … imagine that it doesn’t get digested in your stomach … and it goes to your intestine and stays there. It’s too big to go through your system, but you haven’t digested it yet, so it just stays stuck in your intestine.
That undigested material is going to be toxic to your system. It’s going to mess you up in all kinds of ways. You’ve got to find a way to get that back into your stomach and digest it … then you can move on.
That’s how it is with having things that bother us. We’ve got to digest those things. We’ve got to find ways of processing them so that we let them go. If we don’t, they’ll stay within, and become more and more toxic.
6. To live in truth stop telling stories that could be titled: “What he/she did to me.”
Telling these kinds of stories keeps us in the victim role. And when we stay in the victim role, then it’s also easy for the person who is the perpetrator to stay in that role.
When we tell stories to other people about what this or that person did to us, instead of focusing on what we did, and what we allowed, and what choices we made — it just reinforces our powerlessness and dysfunction.
Let’s be honest: when someone tells the “What he did to me story” — what’s the goal? The goal is to get the hearer to say “Wow he’s really a jerk!” Isn’t that right? It’s a way to get validation for yourself … get some sympathy, some recognition, some reinforcement.
Rather than create the energy for change – and solutions for change, you’re just reinforcing the dysfunction of the relationship … you can repeat this pattern of feeling superior because of how bad he treats you, and then you might even talk to other people about it, and feel even better.
Notice the difference between these two statements:
- Did you hear what he did to me again?
- I feel angry with him for criticizing me in front of our friends at the party last night. I need help deciding what I need to say to him about this.
We need to set limits or understandings with our friends about this, and we also need to set limits about this in the support groups that we’re in. When we allow people to tell “what she did to me” stories, we become partners with them in their dysfunction. It’s like with addiction, we become enablers … it’s like we’re buying the drugs for them. “Oh really? Tell me about it. Oh it must be so hard for you. Oh man, what a jerk … I don’t know how you do it.” We’re not being helpful when we let people go on with those kind of stories … we’re reinforcing the victim and martyr mindset.
How about this as a guideline. The next time someone comes to you with another “what he/she did to me” story, you can say this: “I’m willing to support you if you are working to find solutions. However, I’m not willing to hear you repeatedly talk about how bad it is.”
What do you think about these principles for living in truth? Anything you would add? Let me know in the comments.