I was diagnosed with social anxiety disorder when I was 15. At the time, I was having a lot of panic attacks (sometimes as many as two per week) and was anxious when I was around virtually anybody.
To get diagnosed, I saw my mom’s therapist. He talked the entire session and to this day I don’t remember what he said. Watching my mom go through therapy all my life—and feeling like she hadn’t improved—made me feel like therapy was a waste of time.
Before my husband and I got engaged, we actually considered breaking up, and so entered couple’s therapy. We only went for a few sessions, but it was helpful, and I liked our therapist. We were able to overcome our issues and have been happily married for four years.
Despite going through the ups and downs of life like many of us do, I resisted therapy. I felt like I could help myself, that I didn’t need someone else’s help. More than anything, I told myself that a therapist would not understand my issues. I see now how small-minded that was—therapists have seen and helped people just like me. In fact, that was their job!
Codependency Brought Me To Therapy
After having a hard time coping with a close family member with an alcohol abuse problem, I started seeing a therapist in the spring of 2021 but didn’t feel that we were a good fit.
This therapist, like the one I had seen for my social anxiety, talked the entire session. I had two sessions of them talking (that I paid out-of-pocket for) before I let them know I would not be moving forward with them.
Then I got back in touch with the therapist who saw me and my husband (who, thankfully, took my insurance). We got so much done during the first session together. I felt lighter, happier, and freer than I had in a long time. I also gained some crucial insights that I knew would help me in my life.
After six months of therapy (and continuing!), this is what I’ve learned.
The Second You Take Responsibility for Someone Else, You Are Codependent
I went into that first session thinking I could help my family member “see the light” as it were. I learned that this was codependency. I had heard of codependency before but didn’t know what it was.
My therapist suggested a book, Codependent No More by Melanie Beattie, which I read. I began to understand that the second we take responsibility for someone other than ourselves, we are codependent.
Codependency is toxic and draining when we attempt to take responsibility for another autonomous adult. The fact is that we cannot control other people and, in cases with other independent adults, we are not responsible for their happiness, problems, or well-being.
By thinking I could change my family member, I was being codependent. By taking responsibility for their problems, I was codependent. By being codependent, I wasn’t just making things harder for myself—I was making it harder for my family member to heal.
Complete Acceptance Isn’t As Simple As You Think
According to my therapist, the only way I could help my family member—and really, myself—was by accepting them and their problems completely.
I was a bit baffled by this, of course. How could I accept them when they were killing themselves? How could I accept them when they were ruining their life and the lives of those around them? How could I accept their problems when they were the very thing that needed tackling?
My therapist gently explained that nothing I nor anyone else could do would change my family member. The only true change would come from inside of them. And to support that change, I had to accept and love them—and the path they had chosen in this life—unconditionally.
This would require a major shift in perspective on my part, from viewing my family member as an alcoholic to a person who was suffering and needed my love and acceptance more than anything.
This sounded easy—but seemed impossible. How could I not want my loved one to be different when they seemed so unhappy?
My therapist went so far as to say that wanting someone to be different can be considered a form of aggression. I read a quote recently that said, “The space between who someone is and who you want them to be is heartbreak.” And I felt that.
Boundaries Are Crucial—And Assertiveness Is Different Than Aggression
Like many people, I have boundary issues. My entire life, I had been taking responsibility for other people and putting my needs last. I attribute this to the way my parents raised me (thanks, Mom and Dad).
My therapist and I began to uncover just how much of my time was spent not just trying to help my family member or thinking I could change them, but doing things for other people that I didn’t truly want to be doing—all because I felt that I had to, that I didn’t have a choice.
The truth is that, if we don’t put ourselves first, no one will. I realized that I had been letting other people decide for me instead of standing up for myself and saying what I needed in the relationship. If I ever wanted to live a healthy, balanced, happy life, that had to stop.
I read another amazing book called Set Boundaries, Find Peace by Nedra Glover Tawwab, which was invaluable in helping me understand what boundaries were, where I needed them in my life, and about assertiveness.
I always thought assertiveness meant aggression. But they aren’t the same thing at all. Assertiveness is knowing what we need and having the courage to directly say that, not express it through our body language, manipulation, or passive-aggressive language. Assertiveness is a necessary component of setting boundaries—and a mindset I sorely needed to adopt in my life.
In It For The Long Haul
My therapist has been an integral part of my self-growth, and I feel that she has helped me grow more in these last six months than I have in the last decade of my life.
Perhaps the most important thing I learned is that just because I felt therapy didn’t work for my mom didn’t mean that it wouldn’t work for me. And there are a lot of therapists out there—sometimes it just takes a couple tries to find the right person.
I’m planning on continuing therapy as long as I find it helpful—which I imagine will be quite some time. I’m in it for the long haul!