Self-care is the act of doing something that increases your health and wellbeing. Self-care restores your energy and “fills you up” emotionally, physically, and spiritually. It’s treating yourself with love and compassion. Self-care helps prevent burnout and is an essential part of living a healthy, happy life. But some people have a hard time doing things for themselves.
Why codependency makes self-care difficult
People with codependent traits focus on what other people need and work hard to make them happy, while often putting their own needs and happiness last. It’s hard for people with codependent traits to recognize and value their own needs and meet them through self-care.
Self-care is important for everyone, but it’s especially important for those of us who struggle with codependency. Self-care isn’t just a way to take care of yourself, it’s a part of healing codependency because as you learn to balance caring for yourself with caring for others you move away from the codependent pattern of self-sacrifice and martyrdom.
This article outlines three primary reasons that self-care is hard for people with codependent traits and provides actionable steps that you can take to tune into your needs and meet them through self-care.
3 reasons self-care is hard for codependents and how to overcome them.
1. No one modeled self-care for you.
Self-care is hard to practice if no one showed you how to establish healthy habits, how to relax, or how to prioritize yourself. In codependent families, life revolves around other people’s needs and moods, making it difficult for you to meet your own needs for things like rest, fun, healthy friendships, creativity, exercise, and spirituality. Being overly focused on other people, leaves little time, energy, and money for your own needs.
Beyond having a lack of role models, you may have been actively discouraged from practicing self-care.
Perhaps you were told that taking time for yourself, spending money on yourself, or pursuing a hobby is selfish or wasteful. Or you may have been taught that self-care is a sign of weakness; only weak or lazy people need to rest or replenish themselves.
If no one modeled self-care for you, you can find healthy examples now and work on overcoming the negative messages that you received about self-care.
Exercise: Explore the messages you got about self-care as a child by writing down the answers to these questions.
- Did you see anyone take care of their physical, emotional, or spiritual needs? If so, how? How did other family members respond? Were they supportive or did they make comments like “Why are you going to church? That’s a waste of time!”? Did your parents do things to stay healthy, like exercising and going to the doctor? What did they think of mental health care?
- Who do you know that practices self-care regularly? Notice the things they do to care for themselves and how they talk about self-care. If possible, ask them about how they prioritize their needs.
2. You weren’t allowed to have any needs.
People who struggle with codependency, usually learned in childhood to deny and suppress their feelings. If you felt discouraged or anxious as a child, you probably didn’t tell anyone. You suffered in silence because asking for help would be met with anger, ridicule, shame, or your request was simply ignored. A safer alternative was to “stuff” your feelings deep inside. To survive and cope with family problems, you probably became adept at noticing and trying to manage other people’s feelings, but you pushed away your own because no one seemed to care about your feelings or needs.
Children in families with untreated addiction or mental illness learn that their feelings are wrong and they shouldn’t have any feelings. But, we all have feelings and they are useful in letting us know what we need. So, if you don’t recognize and allow yourself to feel anxious, for example, you’re not going to ask yourself, “Why am I feeling anxious? What can I do to feel safe or relaxed?” and you won’t learn how to soothe yourself.
As an adult, you may be unaware of your feelings (especially uncomfortable feelings like anger, depression, fear, etc.) or you may find unhealthy ways to self-medicate and numb your feelings (alcohol, drugs, food, TV, and smartphones are common ways to numb).
Even though it can be uncomfortable, it’s important to notice your feelings because they are cues that you need something and self-care can help you meet those needs. For example, when you recognize that you feel depleted, you can take care of yourself by going to bed early. Alternatively, if you don’t recognize that you’re tired or not feeling well, you may push yourself until you’re physically sick or you fall asleep while driving home.
Exercise: Practice noticing your feelings. Check in with yourself three times a day by asking yourself how you feel and writing it down. Also, ask yourself what you need in this moment. What would help you feel less stressed, loved, and accepted? What can you do for yourself to give yourself comfort, health, or renewed energy?
3. You don’t feel worthy of self-care.
People with codependent traits often grow up feeling damaged and ashamed. Abusive words or actions destroy children’s self-esteem; they feel defective, not good enough, and unworthy of unconditional love and acceptance. In families with untreated addiction or mental illness, there can also be emotional neglect. As I mentioned above, children’s feelings and needs are often neglected which sends the message that they don’t matter.
Furthermore, many children mistakenly believe they caused their family’s problems because adults overtly blamed them or didn’t help them understand the real, complex reasons for the family’s dysfunction. Children instinctively know when something is wrong in their family. Things don’t feel safe. Their parents may be overly harsh and unpredictable, or they’re absent and the kids are left to their own devices.
But if no one talks about the family problems, children will feel confused and grow up not trusting their own judgment. Without the ability to trust yourself, you can’t develop a strong and independent sense of self. And if you don’t know who you are, what you like, and what you believe in, it’s very hard to practice self-care.
Exercise: Notice when you’re being self-critical and harsh with yourself. Remind yourself that these are the old messages you heard in childhood; they don’t have to be your current reality. Offer yourself a kind word of self-acceptance instead. Begin rebuilding your self-esteem by making a list of your strengths and noticing the things you do right. At the end of each day, write down 3 or 4 things that you’re proud of or that you’ve improved upon.
Self-care may not come naturally to you, but you can overcome these barriers to self-care by learning from people who model healthy self-care, tuning into your feelings, honoring your needs, and trusting yourself.
©2022 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved. Photos courtesy of Canva.com.
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Learn more about how to end codependent relationships
Navigating the Codependency Maze provides concrete exercises to help you manage anxiety, detach with love, break through denial, practice healthy communication, and end codependent thinking. It was written by Sharon Martin, a psychotherapist with over 20 years of experience helping people overcome codependency, people-pleasing, and perfectionism and find their way back to themselves. For more info and to view sample pages, click HERE.