“Codependence” is one of those words people say so much they forget what it means. It becomes just another term to throw around, like “systemic” or “natural wine”. I spent a long time thinking about the concept, after realising I’d been in several codependent relationships, and wanted to avoid replicating the pattern in the future. I’d thought I’d mastered it. But not unlike my relationship to natural wine — which I very much like, but, when pushed, cannot explain what it is — over the years, my awareness fizzled into a buzzword.
The problem with codependence is that it feels like the right thing to do for many of us. We believe we are helping, supporting and empathising. We care about the wellbeing of those around us and about maintaining our relationships. We don’t want to discard people because they are troubled — we know everyone struggles, and who better than us to help? And actually, we have the solutions. Let us make you a list and set up an appointment and find you some hobbies and provide you with some constructive criticism and keep on loving you so much than you’ll have to love us back, and change into the person we know you can and should be, which would really make us feel a lot more comfortable.
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Women are particularly prone to codependency, as we are socialised to be the sex that considers the feelings, needs, and desires of others before our own. Women who put themselves first are cold, selfish, bitches. We are meant to be caretakers, and stay in marriages no matter how much they hurt us. We sacrifice ourselves for what we tell ourselves is the good of the partnership. Some call it “emotional labour” — defined by the American sociologist Arlie Hochschild in her book The Managed Heart as having to “induce or suppress feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others”.
But the things we do to “keep the peace” do not actually make us feel more peaceful. They make us feel anxious and resentful; unheard, unseen, and misunderstood. Our lives become entirely focused on another — controlled by stress and fear attached to someone else’s behaviour. And rather than detaching, we stick around, trying to manufacture the perfect circumstances, behaviours, or scenarios, wherein we can finally relax.
In coming to these insights and revelations about some relationships in my life, it struck me that we’ve become enmeshed in one big codependent relationship with today’s modern activist — the “social justice warrior” we are now weary of hearing about. The young, self-righteous and woke.
Cancel culture, that ever expanding trend which sees individuals “called out” and burned at the virtual stake for various — usually insignificant — transgressions, from quoting someone else saying the n-word, to standing up for the rights of women and girls without acknowledging the men who are also women and girls, to tweeting a research paper showing that rioting does not tend to inspire public support, has left us all in fear. Rather than feel inspired by this activism, we feel controlled by it. We know the damage that can come from just one tweet; a text shared without context; an unflattering moment, caught on film; or the intentional or lazy misconstruing of one’s work, argument, or article. It takes so little to destroy a person’s life these days — it’s no wonder we all feel we are walking on eggshells.
Like those trapped in codependent relationships, many of us have stopped trusting our own judgments. We are afraid to say what we really think, no matter how rational. Having honest discussions, engaging in independent thought, and asking the wrong question may cause a trauma response. We have been made to feel responsible for the emotional states of others. It is our responsibility to make those around us feel “safe”, and that “safety” depends on our ability to fake it — to suppress ourselves. The truth is hate speech; words are violence. We must alter our vocabulary, twisting ourselves into knots to make it through a sentence without stumbling into a trap set by the woke Stasi, as Julie Bindel would say.
If we can simply play the game, uphold the facade, be sure never to let an unfiltered thought slip from our mouths, we believe we can avoid “drama,” maintain our relationships, and keep the peace. Ironically, these attempts to ensure a sense of safety and avoid conflict leave us feeling entirely unsafe. Can none of us admit how oppressive it feels to hide your authentic self? To not be able to have honest conversations with those around us or to express ourselves, and trust we will still be loved, respected, and valued?
If I were our culture’s psychologist I would suggest we free ourselves from this emotionally abusive relationship with the internet mob, and find ourselves again.
As such, I have some advice for those wanting to disentangle themselves from what has become a toxic relationship with modern activist culture:
1) Stop apologising. Not unless you really, truly mean it. If you know you said or did nothing wrong, do not try to placate your bullies or attackers, no matter how intense they become. Your self-worth and integrity is worth more than whatever you hope grovelling will achieve. These people won’t leave you alone if you apologise, anyway. In fact, showing weakness makes it worse. Now they know they have you by the figurative balls (lady or man), and will only double down. Show no fear, show you will not cave, and eventually you will be left alone. There is no fun in bullying someone who does not give a fuck.
2) Detach. Physically and emotionally. Take yourself away from social media, which is where cancel culture thrives. Take yourself away from people who engage in this type of behaviour in real life. If someone is going to bail on you or turn on you, either because of social pressure, a desire to maintain status or popularity, or because you say something they disagree with, that person is not your person. Ask yourself whether you want to spend your life fearful that your true self will be discovered, and that those who are meant to love you, stick by you, and support you, will abandon you without a genuine conversation.
Do you want to hang out with a crew of cowards or do you want your circles to be made up of those who know you, know you are not perfect, know you will never agree on everything, and accept you anyway, and do the work of having sometimes uncomfortable, but honest, conversations? Be with people who will tell you the truth, to whom you can tell the truth; and move on.
3) Follow the advice we were given as kids, which most of us quickly learned we should not be followed at all: be yourself. Don’t hide your true self to protect others or yourself. Be the most authentic, open, vulnerable, honest person you can be (while also maintaining healthy boundaries).
The more open and true you are, the less likely someone will suddenly realise that, in fact, you do have a mind of your own, and perhaps you say inappropriate but hilarious things, or still find Louis CK funny, or know all the words Big L’s “Clinic”, or still follow Meghan Murphy on Instagram, and that you therefore must be publicly denounced, or simply ghosted.
I have been trying to reveal my flaws, imperfect thoughts, and vulnerabilities over the years for just that reason. I don’t want a pedestal; I want you to know that I’m human. I want the freedom to be myself. This is what we should all aim for: flawed, truthful, diverse, humanity. Stop trying to please everyone by squashing yourself. It won’t lead to safety, security, calm, or happiness. It will lead to fear, anxiety, and misery.
We can’t simply blame those around us for this culture we are living in. If we aren’t being honest and aren’t being true to ourselves, it is our own responsibility to change, and to start doing things differently.
Maybe we all need to break up, detach, and come back together — truly ourselves and ready to have some hard, honest, real, probably scary conversations. I suspect this is where we will find love and security — not in the arms of those who keep us hooked in with fickle loyalty.
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