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Wherever You Go, There You Are

By Sarenka Smith

Self-actualization needs are at the highest level in Maslow's hierarchy of needs, and for good reason. These refer to our realization of potential, self-fulfillment, and personal growth: essentially, the urge to accomplish everything we can -- to become the most we can be. 

I've thought about this concept throughout my recovery journey, particularly within the past year as I've struggled with codependency. When I put down alcohol and drugs four years ago, I had little to no idea I would be forced to battle a host of other process addictions, dependencies, and behaviors: essentially rewiring parts of my brain to better cope with the world around me and more effectively navigate relationships.

While definitions of codependency vary, the concept typically includes "high self-sacrifice, a focus on others' needs, suppression of one's own emotions, and attempts to control or fix other people's problems." [1] A little bleak, but fairly on point in my experience as a recovering codependent. 

Understanding and recovering from codependency have been one of the most challenging and arduous tasks I've encountered. In some specific ways, I think quitting a ravaging opioid addiction was easier. A close friend finishing her Ph.D. in Psychology recently remarked: "While there is a broad societal acceptance that drugs are highly addictive -- what do you do when you find yourselves addicted to another person or relationship?" This is almost more challenging to acknowledge, but it's at the root of codependent relationships. The neglect of our own needs to put someone else and their needs first; the need to be a nurturer, caretaker, or rescuer; the inability to set appropriate boundaries. 

Extricating myself from a highly codependent romantic relationship was the impetus and springboard to my recovery journey: a journey that has necessitated a greater understanding of myself and my own needs. When we are constantly engaged in taking care of others, we can forget -- whether subconsciously or consciously -- that we are complex, multifaceted beings with an entire constellation of needs, behaviors, and experiences. I still struggle with boundaries and people-pleasing, hallmark traits of codependency. I still seek external validation, whether from a colleague, friend, or romantic partner. I still overexert myself both physically and emotionally to help and please others. And I still sometimes think: why do I need to be needed?

A book I recently read on compulsive attachments stated that the Serenity Prayer helps capture the existential reality we find ourselves in when we neglect our own needs in service of another: "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference." Those who have codependent relationships not only have to accept the reality of those relationships but also account for the accumulation of losses in their lives -- and go back to whatever created their original model for relationships. This same book explains how some of us bond to people who are hurtful to us, and we remain loyal despite exploitation. 

I used to hear euphemisms like "recovery is a marathon, not a sprint," and I would roll my eyes. And it's neither trite nor cliche to say that, like any mental or emotional health issue, treatment requires time, effort, willingness, and commitment. In my situation, it also requires the help of a competent and skilled therapist. 

Part of my recovery journey has included the ability to clearly differentiate between codependency and dependency. Within the depths of this relationship, I began to lose my personal values, interests, and identity outside of the relationship. My needs and desires were not only less important, but I also had difficulty expressing them -- and even recognizing them. After the relationship ended, I was forced to confront the separation and create, cultivate, and nurture a new relationship with myself. I often think, "Wherever you go, there you are." There is no escaping yourself. When they say the most important relationship is the one with yourself, it's not just a banal saying without meaning or depth. It's profoundly true. 

Apart from learning more about myself and my own needs, one of the most impactful and transformative learnings was identifying how I show up in relationships outside of a romantic partnership. My familial and platonic relationships have never been stronger, and I'm able to derive such strength and comfort in them. Countless times I've turned to my closest friends and asked: "How do people get through hurt, betrayal, and abandonment without these support systems?"

Neuroplasticity means that our brains can become reorganized and rewired: adapting to new situations or changes in our environment. Behavioral and process addictions like food, gambling, sex, and video games share many fundamental mechanisms as substance addictions: altering our neural networks and pathways in the reward circuitry that affect memory, motivation, and control. But as we globally understand more about addiction and addictive attachment styles -- including codependency -- we also create new and better treatment strategies. Whether it's psychosocial interventions or pharmacologic approaches, or spiritually-driven methodologies like 12-step programs, we can learn, change, and grow.

[1] Dear, G.E.; Roberts, C.M.; Lange, L. (2004). "Defining codependency: An analysis of published definitions". In S. Shohov (Ed.), Advances in Psychology Research. 34: 63–79 – via Huntington, NY: Nova Science Publishers.

Winter of Wonder
Written by

Sarenka Smith

Sarenka has been voraciously reading & writing since she was a small child. For the past half decade, she has worked in marketing & communications for healthcare-focused organizations and…