Learning About Independence, Interdependence, and Codependence

Michelle Duggar was absolutely not the first person to come up with this, but I thought this image would be a hilarious choice for this post.

Content warning: brief mention of suicidal ideation

Early on in my life, I memorized the following order of value with the acronym “JOY”: Jesus first, Others second, and Yourself last. This way of thinking led to many years of never thinking about myself at all. This is because Jesus was so demanding and there were simply too many other people in my family and wider circles to think about.

I could run around from sunup to sundown and still not meet all the needs of my immediate family. I was more in tune with my siblings’ appetites than with my own. For most of my life, I couldn’t even tell when I was hungry. When you’re out of touch with your own appetite out of concern for others, it becomes extremely difficult to recognize what you need, much less want.

During the relationship that lasted from 2016 to 2021, I felt responsible for keeping my ex alive. Without my help, I was afraid they would have nowhere to go, nobody to help them find housing and even hope. They constantly held their suicidal ideation over me, and I thought I was the only one standing between them and certain death.

Since getting out of that unhealthy relationship, I’ve been learning a lot about independence, interdependence, and codependence. True independence is a myth – we need each other to survive. That’s why isolation is such a brutal, violent punishment. Even when a person seeks out isolation for a time – or years of solitude in hermitage – it is a solemn choice to forego a necessity, like fasting from food or water. Interdependence is healthy and necessary.

Codependence, conversely, is when someone becomes so entrenched in the suffering of others that they forget they, too, are suffering. I was first introduced to this concept through the term “people-pleaser.” I knew right away that I was a people-pleaser. I wanted to avoid being scolded or hurt. I didn’t know how to deal with conflict or express myself.

By the time I got to college, I was constantly anxious about every interaction. It didn’t help that I was trying to pretend at being carefree when I had no idea what I was doing. Procrastination and restless sleep were my constant companions as I failed class after class, not knowing what I was doing wrong or how to fix it. I just did whatever I was told, and there simply wasn’t enough time to study while working multiple part-time jobs and doing everything my parents asked of me.

Later on, I would recognize that “people-pleasers” could also be referred to as codependents. I was definitely codependent in my relationships. I was a rescuer, a hero, a savior. I wanted to heal people who were hurting, never taking my own pain into consideration. In surviving my abusive childhood, I thought I was prepared to evade abusers. Instead, I had been groomed for future abusers to take advantage of my overly sacrificial habits.

I am still learning what healthy interdependence looks like. In my current life, it means doing the difficult work of investigating my codependent tendencies. I still catch myself checking in with my partner more than I check in with myself. I do this even though my current partner doesn’t demand this kind of unhealthy concern and attention. I’m doing careful work with lots of therapeutic and group support to unlearn the habits I developed in my childhood to survive.

Learning about these concepts has helped me find clarity. If you’d like to learn more, I recommend these three books:

Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself by Melody Beattie

Adult Children: The Secrets of Dysfunctional Families by John and Linda Friel

I’m Glad My Mom Died by Jennette McCurdy