The patterns that, bit-by-bit, I work on breaking every day.
When I started recovery as an adult child of an alcoholic, going back and remembering my childhood was painful enough, but more daunting was facing and dismantling the character defects and harmful habits I’d developed to cope with it. Criticism tends to reverberate and expand inside my head, so I avoided it and refused to take responsibility for my own behaviors. But recognizing I was a para-alcoholic meant actually seeing myself objectively and doing the work to change. As I recovered from my co-dependent, control-freak ways, the things that changed weren’t extreme behaviors but the everyday bad habits that made my life far harder than it needed to be. So here’s some patterns that bit-by-bit, I work on breaking every day.
1. People pleasing, over-responsibility, and having no boundaries
I know, I know: that’s three things! But bear with me—I grouped these together because they all stem from the same source: a compulsive need to be liked. I had such a ninja talent for discerning and then delivering what other people wanted that most of the time I didn’t even realize I was doing it. I’d agree to do things that didn’t interest me, or didn’t have time for, and end up stressed and angry. I’d find myself instantly agreeing with things I didn’t, and I’d hold back to avoid conflict. Almost all of this came from my fear of abandonment and a desperate need to keep people in my life, regardless of whether they were healthy for me. Instead, I’d do what I thought they wanted and feel resentful for it. Now, I no longer need everyone to like me, and I make a point to be honest about what my opinion may be, as long as I’m kind about it. One of the first things I learned was to add a new word to my vocabulary: No. Most people are surprisingly okay with hearing it.
2. Ignoring my own feelings and impulses
Years of burying how I really felt meant that I had trouble identifying my own emotions. I didn’t even have the words for basic ones. I slowly learned to pay attention to my physical responses, but even those were only a clue to the unaddressed layers underneath. Now, if I feel my shoulders tighten, I know that I’m stressed, but underneath that is probably anger because I’ve compulsively said yes when I didn’t want to. And if I feel resentment toward a person or a responsibility, I can almost always trace it back to failing to be honest with someone else about what I actually want and need. Now, when I feel negative emotions, I accept them rather than resisting. They pass more quickly. And knowing my real feelings also helps me be honest with myself about whether I actually want to go to a friend’s party or when I’ve agreed out of guilt.
3. Controlling other people
Letting go of people pleasing made me realize just how sneakily controlling I’d been with the people closest to me. I’d skirt around the truth to avoid hurting feelings, because I didn’t want my friends and family to feel negative emotions—especially not toward me. And it’d rob both of us of the chance to either make things better or move on. But as I accepted my own feelings, I saw just how fleeting emotions are. So now I own up to the things I want, and let others have their feelings—regardless of how angry they may be. It’s not my job to protect people who aren’t asking for it.
4. Avoiding new situations
For years, I’ve avoided new situations, or kept them to a minimum as much as is actually possible. I wouldn’t take on new endeavors unless I knew exactly what to expect and precisely what the rules of any potential environment might be. Not knowing them gave me unbearable anxiety. But this meant that I became isolated and missed out on things I actually wanted to do. I still have to talk myself through new situations, but when deciding whether to do something as simple as taking a class or even going to a party, I set aside my initial resistance and ask myself, “Do I want to do this because I’ll enjoy it?” If yes, I do it. And if I feel anxious, I self-soothe and remind myself it’s okay to be scared and that my worst-case-scenario fears will hardly be realized. This is how I ended up taking adult ballet classes. Two years ago, I would have talked myself out of it using a barrage of excuses all covering up my fear. But now, I can (uh, almost) do a pirouette.
My unflagging perfectionism was a large part of why I avoided new situations. No matter what task, job, or hobby I’d take on, I expected myself to be perfect at it before I’d ever even tried it. I couldn’t bear for others to witness my embarrassing novice attempts, whether it was in writing, performing, or even something as basic as putting oil in my car. Worse, falling short of perfection (which was always) led to an internal berating. When I started to be kinder to myself, I realized just how hard it had been to hear anything over the sound of my own voice yelling at me. My inability to let go of my imperfection meant I missed a lot of important information. Now, I let myself have whatever terrible first draft may be needed and recognize that’s the first step to getting better. I haven’t let go of excellence, but I’m more forgiving of my process now. I didn’t rewrite this article from top to bottom, I just line edited it.
6. Seeing myself as a victim
Before recovery, I saw myself as the perpetual victim, always at the mercy of other people’s inconsideration. But I soon saw that playing victim was just a way of avoiding responsibility for my choices and/or my part in a situation. Any time I’m tempted to complain about a friend who doesn’t return calls or a boss who yells, I remember: I chose this. And if it’s all that bad, most of the time, I can unchoose it, too. Read more…