I vividly remember the first day of school in eighth grade. I woke up extra early, made sure I had all my school supplies in order, pulled on my favorite Gap T-shirt and cargo jeans, and drew on the white eyeliner that was my signature look that year. As I pulled my hair back into a gelled topknot, I remember feeling pangs of total dread. Not because I hated school—in fact, I loved it and was great at it. I hated the first day of school because, in my district, that was when they weighed you in gym glass. Later that day, my weigh-in was like all the others. I begrudgingly hopped on the scales removing every piece of jewelry and unnecessary clothing. Patiently, I watched as the gym teacher slid the little metal bar across the physician scales for what felt like an eternity until it landed on a number I was none too proud of.
"Too much weight, AlTai," he muttered.
His words were like fire ants biting away at me and adding fuel to my self-loathing fire. As if I didn’t already know I was overweight? My peers’ incessant bullying along with my parents' recommendations to go on the "cabbage soup diet" were reminder enough. They were right, though; I was too heavy—physically and emotionally. By the age of 13, I tipped the scales at 188 pounds, and at a mere 5'5'', I was in the dangerously obese, prediabetic zone. On the outside, I seemed happy, loved, and well-rounded. So why was I so heavy?
The new thin girl was still disconnected from the real me — she was a contrived, built, and forced version of what I thought people wanted to see.
Childhood was complicated for me—as it is for most of us. Mine was rife with family illness and taunting, overworked, and checked-out parents. So at a very young age, I decided that the best and safest role for me to thrive in the family system and out in the world was as the caretaker. "I got this for you" became my motto. I believed that if I took care of everything, I’d somehow be lovable and worthy. Needless to say, this caretaker role was a big burden, and so I started to eat my feelings—and I ate to fill the emptiness that was eating away at me, knowing on some subconscious level I was wearing a mask.
At 13 years old, tired from the relentless jabs, I decided the weight was too heavy a burden to bear and vowed to lose it. So I strapped on a pair of inline skates and "worked out" for the first time ever. I started eating less mayo and more greens. I learned that food isn’t love when you punish yourself with it. And in eight months I lost 65 pounds, and my parents and peers were all so happy. Suddenly, instead of being the butt of everyone’s joke, I was the talk of the town in a positive way. But did I feel happy and alive in my new body? Did I feel like the real me? Nope. The new thin girl was still disconnected from the real me—she was a contrived, built, and forced version of what I thought people wanted to see.
I had become the consummate chameleon—shifting shapes and colors to accommodate the audience I was in front of. If me being fat upsets you, I’ll change that! I believed so strongly in the version of me that was built for others, and I thought that if I was anyone but her, I would be totally and completely unlovable. I believed it so wholeheartedly that when I started my career I almost worked myself into the ground.
I relied on the people and experiences around me to know who I was at all times.
I began my first company, a marketing agency, at 22. I had equity in four different startups by 25 and wrote and published my first book that same year. I regularly worked 70-hour weeks, said yes to every request, overdelivered, and undercharged. On paper, I looked very successful, but I felt terrible. By that point, I’d developed two autoimmune diseases, my weight yo-yoed up and down, and I was having memory troubles. I was so deprived of proper nutrition, I lost a lot of my hair. Being the ultimate caretaker and people pleaser with zero boundaries will do that to you.
If my performance-called-life was about shouldering the burden for others, I’d found the perfect career. I had a really cool job, but I let a complete lack of boundaries and a need to prove myself take me out, both physically and emotionally. In that condition, I wasn’t serving anyone. I couldn’t show up fully for my clients, for my employees, for my family, and least of all for myself. But we cannot serve from an empty vessel. And when we are tired, cranky, and sick, you can bet your business is going to feel the same way. Our work is an extension of us. Everything and everyone we touch experiences our energy or lack thereof. We can’t show up fully for our projects. Brainstorms feel like a joke. And our balance sheet might as well be called our "imbalanced sheet." But why was I doing all of this? What was I trying to prove?
It wasn’t until very recently, when I was trying to launch a new business venture that I really saw the disconnect. I was feeling stuck and frustrated, and a good friend of mine recommended I read Conquering Shame and Codependency, a book by Darlene Lancer. I was immediately affronted—and went straight into defensive mode. I’m not codependent, I thought. I LOVE being alone, and I’ve never once grasped on hard to a romantic relationship; they must have me confused with someone else?!
But my intuition nudged me to buy the book, and when I read the following line, I finally understood why she had recommended it and what she meant by codependent: A codependent is someone who can’t function from his or her innate self but organizes thinking and behavior around another person(s), process, or substance…Codependency is a disease of a lost self, depriving us of vitality, spontaneity, and self-fulfillment.
Wow! "A disease of a lost self" indeed. I read that line over and over and over again. I relied on the people and experiences around me to know who I was at all times. I started out life convinced that if I was my true self, I’d be unlovable. I cemented that idea into the archives of my mind when I lost 65 pounds and finally felt accepted. But it was that thinking, carried forth into my career, that nearly cost me my business and a life I actually wanted to live.
It took some time to crack open the façade and emerge into a version of me that finally felt real and lovable—and when I did, I felt more full and more alive than ever before. Opportunities I’d been praying and wishing for started to flood in, my relationships got even sweeter, and the only time I ate was when I actually felt hungry—what a novel concept.
Codependency is about a hunger for acceptance. It’s about a void within us. It’s about the lost self we’ve yet to own, nourish, and love. As a coach, I am inclined to help others find these blocks within themselves too. Next time you find yourself playing to the crowd or totally depleted and exhausted from being someone else, ask yourself this:
1. Where are you being untrue and why?
What area of your life do you feel like you might not be your 100 percent most authentic self? Is it in your career, romantic relationships, or friendships? Why do you feel like it might not be safe to be who you really are?
2. Where do you over-rely on the approval of others?
Overdependence on any one person or thing outside of ourselves for approval is the hallmark of codependency. But we all do it in some way or another. In what areas of your life are you over-reliant on others?
3. How might this be keeping you stuck?
When we are constantly performing in order to receive the approval of others, we miss out on a whole world of possibilities. How might your performance be keeping you stuck? Or holding you back from joy? Or living your fullest life?
So how can you stop being codependent? Here's how to move on from a codependent relationship.
And are you and your partner looking to get healthier, together? Register now for our FREE Functional Nutrition Webinar with Kelly LeVeque.