You’ve discovered your loved one or friend is an alcoholic or addict—now what?
For many people in that situation, their first reaction is, “What can I do to fix my alcoholic/addict?” It took a while for me to figure out that I couldn’t “fix” my son. Instead, I needed to focus on fixing myself, because my son wasn’t the only one who had issues; our whole family system was broken. As I began going to therapy sessions and reading books about broken families, l discovered many resources are available to people who are on the journey toward recovery. Because people have different experiences and backgrounds, you may find some of them more helpful than others. Last time, we looked at Al-Anon as a primary resource. This time, we’ll examine the paradox of focusing on our own lives to fix ourselves.
Many of us grew up with the admonition to “put others first” ringing in our ears. And because we codependents are pleasers who want everyone to be happy all the time, putting others first comes easily, even when it is to our own detriment. However, while putting others first may be a good idea for people who are not codependent (and I’m not convinced it is), it spells danger for us. Part of codependence is being over-involved with the lives of other people, sometimes to the point of trying to live their lives for them or enabling them to continue living in destructive patterns.
Step 1 of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous reads, “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.” And one of the chief ways our lives become unmanageable is through our focus on the lives of everyone around us instead of on our own lives. When I think back to the crazy things I did while living an unmanageable life, I’m amazed that I was able to continue that pattern for so many years. In seeking to control the alcoholic in my life, I tried a lot of things that didn’t work; checking his trunk to see if he had bottles or cans stashed, drawing up agreements for him to sign, buying a breathalyzer, and the list goes on…
I also sought to control the lives of other family members, which they didn’t appreciate. I felt compelled to offer friends, and even complete strangers, advice on various topics. In short, I ran myself ragged trying to make sure everyone toed the line (MY line) and had all the information they could possibly need. When people asked me to lighten up, I viewed them as being ungrateful for all I tried to do to help them. Finally, the stress of managing the lives of everyone around me sent me into overload and threatened to destroy relationships with family and friends.
How did I finally break free of the need to control other people’s lives?
I read some great books on codependence and “pleaser” personalities, and they described me. They pointed out things I had never thought about:
- In my quest to control others, I focused almost exclusively on them and ignored my own needs.
- I am unable to truly give to anyone else unless I focus on myself first; the ability to serve others in a healthy manner grows from an understanding of self. Think of the oxygen masks on a plane; put your own on first, and then you can help other people.
For years, I thought the ultimate sacrifice was to live my life for others. What I didn’t realize was that my belief grew from my codependence on other people. I needed to be nurturing them and pleasing them in order to feel good about myself. And that contributed to my enmeshment with my family; we interacted in very unhealthy ways.
Fortunately, through attending Al-Anon meetings and reading books about codependence and family dynamics, I learned a few more things:
- Focusing on other people’s lives makes my life unmanageable.
- Focusing on myself helps keep my eyes off everyone else’s lives.
The huge benefit with focusing on myself is that it creates time and space in my life so I can explore who I am, what I like, and what I want to be when I grow up. It allows me to rest peacefully at night instead of tossing and turning, worrying about people and the decisions they’re making. It allows me to give my family and friends the space they need to live their lives, which has helped heal my relationships with them.
So the paradox of focusing on my own life to fix myself has allowed me to regain control of my life. I’ve learned that putting myself first makes it possible to let other people live their own lives without my interference, which greatly enhances our relationships. Now my life is much more manageable, and I am able to help and serve others in appropriate ways, which makes us all happier.