A wise friend said to me, sitting at her kitchen table this week, that we can’t live someone else’s life for them. In a culture where we can have trouble coping with our own problems, it would certainly be presumptuous to assume that we know, for a certainty, what someone else needs.

I would add to this that our primary responsibility, in fact, is to worry about taking care of our own selves (“our own oxygen masks first,” if you will), since we are the only ones uniquely qualified to do so. Then, in turn, we will have more to give to others.

Melody Beattie introduced the term codependent as a way to describe people who use relationships with others as their sole source of value and identity in her book, “Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself,” which was first published in 1986.

While originally associated with patterns of behavior observed in homes where alcoholism and other addictive behaviors were prevalent, the concept was expanded to include people who believe their happiness is derived from other people or one person in particular, eventually becoming obsessed with controlling the behavior of those people or person in an attempt to maintain their own happiness.

Nowhere have I heard these sentiments more frequently and clearly expressed than among women who are living with chronic and autoimmune illnesses and who feel they are failing to care for their own deepest needs and desires while struggling to meet the perceived expectations of others.

Where did this all begin?

A brief overview of history and culture sheds light on some of the progressive attitudes and roles of individuals, families, and systems within society. While the details of these matters are undoubtedly complex, a generalization of the situation points to specific developments in parenting and relationship styles over the last century.

The preferred authoritarian-style parenting of the 1950s, with emphasis on discipline and structure, included mothers as primary caregivers in the home and a trustful atmosphere in which children were viewed as capable of caring for themselves. The relatively hands-off approach with lower levels of physical affection set the scene for the next generation.

As their children grew to become parents themselves, potential feelings of resentment for the lack of responsivity from their own parents lead to a more permissive-style of parenting in the 1980s and 90s, one which is often referred to as “helicopter parenting.” Motivated to compensate for what they felt they missed out on as children, these parents became highly involved and responsive to their own children, often over-indulging their children’s desires in hopes of receiving appreciation in return and sometimes confusing the role of parent and friend.

These techniques are believed to have led to the generation of young adults today who have been described at times as entitled and impulsive, irresponsible and expectant of immediate gratification. As with any generation, these generalizations are not a one-size-fits-all assessment, since ultimately the responsibility lies within the individual to decide how to grow and develop into an emotionally secure, interdependent, and empathetic adult who is willing to learn and capable of accepting defeat.

The answer to becoming a capable self-caregiver cannot be found by looking outside yourself – not to parents, to children, to doctors, or to friends to save you. To put it simply, there is only one answer for genuine healing, and that is to take back responsibility for your own self, health, and happiness.

How can this be done?

  • Look within first. Take an earnest look inward to your authentic self and acknowledge your spiritual, physical, mental, and emotional needs. After that, reconnecting with divine power and communicating your desire for support and reliance on that power greater than yourself is the first step towards finding the superhuman strength you need to care for yourself and to heal.
  • Ask for help. Assuming others can read your mind or passively-aggressively implying that others should help will get you nowhere in the long run. When making a request, be open to hearing “No” as the answer, but do not let that stop you from continuing to ask until you find someone who is genuinely in a position to help. Show appreciation and humility for those who extend themselves on your behalf during your time of need.
  • Let go of attachment to the outcome. This is undoubtedly the hardest part, for when you are suffering or experiencing feelings of desperation, help may not come at the exact time or in the precise form you imagined. It can be tempting to feel overwhelmed by your limitations and to return to the coping mechanisms that did not serve you well in the past. Be gentle with yourself – survival mode exists for a reason, but is not always necessary. When you feel yourself regress to seeking external circumstance to fill your empty places, return to step one and repeat as many times as necessary.

Does it really work?

I was moved by the experience of a dear friend who, while recovering from traumatic surgery, found herself in need of caregiving. Rather than succumb to her feelings of helplessness and loneliness while trying to heal at home alone in less-than-ideal conditions, she found the strength to take responsibility for her health, to put herself behind the wheel of a car, and to drive hundreds of miles to her grandmother’s doorstep where she was greeted with a bouquet of flowers, chicken soup, and the support she knew she needed to heal.

My own circumstances in recent weeks have firmly convinced me of the truth of these principles. I am filled with immense gratitude for the friends and loved ones, particularly within my spiritual community, who have supported me in ways I did not anticipate. After a hospitalization with complications and a slow return to healing, I recognize that life in this current world is a series of cycles that allow us to grow and learn – sometimes through the painful reliving of lessons we thought we had already learned – only to come out stronger on the other side.

I hope these stories serve as a source of inspiration for you so that you know you are not alone. We are all enduring this long-distance race together and you are loved. What do you need to start or to continue on your own path of healing today? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.