Breaking Down My Need for Validation Helped Me Identify Co-Dependent Behaviors That Were Holding Me Back

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A person who is co-dependent often suffers from a deep sense of worthlessness and anxiety, and tries to derive a sense of self-worth by helping or rescuing others. A person who is co-dependent may not know how to relax and feel comfortable in a friendship where both people are equals and the relationship is based on enjoying each other's company.

Photo by Samantha Qeja on Unsplash

This was me. The reigning Queen of the Save Em All tribe. I’ve always been the people pleaser. If, for nothing else, you could count on good ol’ dependent Jenn to gallop through the scene, going above and beyond her call of duty to save the day. I’ve always been like that. For as long as I can remember I have always been the one to try and please the crowd.

I didn’t receive much praise growing up. I didn’t receive acknowledgements for doing things that my parents felt I should be doing anyway. Good grades weren’t rewarded. My step-father believed that good grades weren’t negotiable and didn’t deserve special praise. Anything below a B was a disappointment to him. But on occasion, I could count on receiving a trip to Baskin Robbins as a reward for my “hard work”. I knew that if I kept my grades up I could look forward to having ice cream once or twice a month. Sometimes if I was really good then I was treated to Taco Bell on Friday’s after school. It became sort of a tradition. 

My step-father taught me early on that nothing in life is free. People are always going to want something from you and in order to survive you have to make sure that you always have something that they next person is going to need or want. It’s a competitive world out here and you are only as good as the next person behind you. If you want something, you have to be the best so that when you present yourself to the world there is absolutely no doubt that you are the obvious choice. This was a lesson that he applied to all aspects of life.  

The older I got the greater the reward was and the harder I worked. Eventually, I found myself doing things with the idea in mind that if I did it and it was pleasing to whomever I was doing it for, I would be rewarded. That was until I was about 12 years old and some of my step-fathers demons came back to collect their pay and took him out of the household. He was gone for about a year and for that amount of time my mother was a zombie. Most of her days were spent at work, at church praying for God to bring him home or tending to some kind of business that he needed taken care of. Other times, she was sleep. A good majority of the responsibilities were falling on my shoulders and I was desperately in need of TLC. No matter how much I did it was never enough and it always seemed to go unnoticed. It was ever enough. 

I remember sitting in the cafeteria one day and listening to the kids in the table next to mine talk about wanting to throw a party after school but not having a place to have it at. The little devil on my shoulder had me offering my mothers townhouse as tribute. I’m not use why I did it. But I did. Perhaps, I wanted to make new friends or I wanted to seem cool. Either way, it happened. We had about a three hour window before my mother got home. We had so much fun. But then in a strange turn of events and just my luck (isn’t it always) my mother pulled up about an hour early. Let’s just say, it wasn’t a pretty scene. We fought. Bad. But it was the first time that I had gotten a real, unscripted emotion out of her. I finally got her attention. She was finally paying attention to me. It didn’t matter that the attention was negative and it didn’t matter that we were literally screaming at each other. She was paying attention to me. From that moment on I was doing everything I could to continue getting that attention. Now if you ask my mother she will swear up and down I was doing all of these things to impress my friends, and perhaps after a while that was the case, but the primary reason for my behavior was her. 

When I moved in with Grandma not much changed. Getting a reaction out of my grandmother was hard as hell. She’s not a woman of many emotions (aside from anger) so getting praise from her was an accomplishment. She simply wasn’t moved by much. Roscoe pretended to care but in reality he just didn’t want CPS to show up at his door asking questions. After a while, I sunk back into my old habits of causing chaos for attention but unlike my mother, my Grandmother would let me do anything I wanted as long as I graduated high school while doing it. So, that plan didn’t work out too well. Once again, I was starving for attention…this time from anyone.

Saying “no” is a hard thing to do…

The need for validation can be as dangerous as any hard drug out there. You find yourself having a hard time saying no to people out of fear of being rejected later for your refusal to comply with whatever was asked. You find yourself putting yourself in compromising situations for the sake of someone else who won’t even remember you tomorrow. A situation like this was how I ended up losing my virginity.

I lost my virginity at 13 years old to a 16 year old boy named Mickey (I’ll tell that story later) on the bathroom floor of some random dudes mamas house. One of my “friends” had met him during on of her journeys at the mall and in true “bring your friends” fashion here we were. I didn’t want to do it. But I wanted to be liked and accepted. I was new in town and had no other friends at the time. Although, one could argue that these girls weren’t my friends either seeing as how they jumped me on the school’s basketball court one week after my arrival but again, I was desperate. 

I didn’t want to do it and I wish I had the nerve back then to say no. But “no” wouldn’t have gotten me the kudos I was seeking. “No” wouldn’t have gotten me the praise I received when I emerged from the bathroom. “No” wouldn’t have made “D” (the boy who was suppose to hooking up with my friend) ask for my number and ask me to be his girlfriend, which was weird, but whatever. 

My problem with saying “no” didn’t just stop there, in fact, it got worse especially as I began to date. As most teenage girls tend to do, I gravitated towards older men. I guess you can say that I have it honest seeing as how both my step-father and my grandmothers boyfriend were significantly older than my mother and grandmother. I’m talking 10+ years. My biological father was in his mid-20’s when he got my 15 years old mother pregnant.  I grew up thinking that older men and younger women were the norm and that was how it was suppose to go. I had no interest in boys my age. They were immature. I was far more advanced than they were and I needed someone who could relate to me and match my “wit”. 

No one told me that older men had this ability to completely control and manipulate the minds of young girls. I wasn’t warned about how my already rapidly increasing need for validation made me the ideal target for men looking for young girls to push around. It’s no surprise that as a result I’ve done my fair share of things that I regret due to my inability to say no. I’ve gone broke behind supporting men who couldn’t or refused to support themselves. I’ve been betrayed by friends who begged for my help and although I wasn’t particularly in the position to assist, I did only to get an ass to kiss in return.

As I sit here and type this I can admit that I still have a hard time saying “no” when I really want to and creating solid boundaries between myself and the people. No matter how hard I try, saying “no” to someone makes me anxious. I start to sweat a little under my arms, my stomach drops and a every negative feeling I could possibly have rises to the surface. You can literally see the stress on my face. I haven’t quite learned how to combat it yet. I still struggle. I just sit and hope that my reluctance to provide a solid answer sends a signal that is received by the other person letting them know that why I’m not saying no, the answer is hell no. That never really happens though and I usually end up doing whatever it is that I don’t want to do. 

At work things aren’t too different. I have a hard time standing up to bosses and co-workers who infringe on my personal business or think that just because I look like I could be a teenager I am a fully grown woman who will karate chop your kneecaps. 

The fear of being disliked and rejected keeps me from saying “no”. Which leads to a whole other issue…

I became Ms. “Fix It, I’m Sorry” in all of my relationships….

Women are groomed to believe that our life's work here on this earth is to be the emotional support for grown men who can’t adult properly. I was no different. Although I wasn’t “directly” taught this lesson, I learned through observation and watching the women in my life function. 

Already suffering from extremely low confidence I was the perfect kind of girl to prey on. Looking back I can say that I had some definite “what the fuck, Jenn” moments that I am not all too proud of. I willingly accepted the attention from any man who blinked my way twice and I was all too willing to prove why I deserved his attention at all costs. The more uninterested he seemed, the harder I tried. The more he resisted the more of myself I gave up in exchange for a bigger part of him. To make matters worse after my rape, in some twisted mental game to cope and make sense of it all, I began to associate sex with affection/love so anytime a man rejected me I immediately took that as a personal shot at myself or as proof that “I” wasn’t good enough. Because he wouldn’t f*ck me. Because if he really liked me he would have sex with me. 

I remember when I was 19 years old I was dating a boy my neighbor hooked me up with. I really liked him. The first month we dated we were inseparable. When you saw him, you saw me. I’m not sure when he became my boyfriend or how but I knew he was my dude but we hadn’t had sex yet and it was startd to worry me. I wasn’t use to not being grabbed at, pulled on or climbed on top of. So the fact that he hadn’t so much as tried made me incredibly insecure and unsure. One night we were sitting in front of my mom’s house after a date and I asked him why he hadn’t tried to have sex with me. I mean, I “am” your girlfriend, right? He said that he really liked me and didn't want to move too fast. He reassured me that it wasn’t anything personal or wrong with me and that he just wanted to make sure things were right. In my mind, that translator to he didn’t like me and I wasn’t good enough.  

I broke down. I literally had a tantrum in the passenger seat of his car. 

He couldn’t believe that I was having a meltdown because he wanted to “respect me”. He didn’t know what to do. After an awkward 10 minutes or so of silence he finally said that if having sex with me proved that he liked me, he would do it and we had sex that following week which was Valentines Day. Even though I knew he only did it to “me” happy it didn’t matter to me. He did it. Which means he loved me and we were going to be together forever. Immediately I became attached and my entire existence became about him. My biggest fear was losing him and to be honest with you, looking back now I can’t for the life of me understand what I saw in him or why. The thought of losing him literally took the breathe out of me so it’s no surprise that when he and I started having some serious problems and I found out that he was cheating on me (go figure) that I completely lost it.

I played the entire damn fool, do you hear me? 

I showed up at his house repeatedly unannounced begging his sister and mother to have him call me. I showed up at his job trying to get him to talk to me and explain why. I knew where his best friend lived so I would take drives over to his best friends house to see if he was there and if he wasn't I would once again use that as my opportunity to plead my case to a listening ear. At the time we broke up Mary J Blige had just released her single “Be Without You”. I burned a CD with that song on it and stuffed it inside an envelope that contained a 6 page letter addressed to him (yes, I did that). I took my mothers car and drove to his mothers place. I stuffed the envelope under his windshield wipers and waited until he came out, saw it and went back inside. I probably waited for another hour checking my phone every 2 to 3 minutes to see if he called or texted. I never heard from him.

The letter was the ultimate “Fix It” letter. It was filled with apologizes for things that I might have done but did not know I did that may have caused him to walk away. I apologized for my insecurities. I practically apologized for existing. I begged for another chance to “fix it”. I threw all of my dignity into the ground because my self-esteem and worth of self was rooted in him. Why? I haven’t the slightest idea. I was 19 and he was 20. We contributed very little to each other’s lives back then and we weren’t even a good fit. But, you couldn’t tell me that back then.

On Christmas 2005, I sent him a text message one more time wishing him a Merry Christmas and to my surprise I got a reply. It was a picture of some women with a ring on her finger. I was destroyed. Two months later I was on a plane heading back to California (I was in Baltimore at the time) desperately trying to get as far away as possible from where my heart got broke.

Sadly, this wasn’t a lesson learned for me and that need once again landed me in a 7 year marriage where I repeated the same vicious cycle and for a while after my marriage I found myself falling into the same patterns when dealing with men I was dating. It wasn’t until I got my feelings hurt sometime in the summer of 2014 that something in me clicked. I haven't been the same since.

Ask Jenn, She’ll Do it….

Have you ever had a friend who seems to only offer help so they can then turn around and use it against you later? As if they were keeping scores on their “friend board”? I’ll admit that I was this friend. But it wasn’t so much for the reasons that most would assume. I wasn’t trying to hold it over anyone’s head. For me, it came down to being a reminder that I was needed and wanted. Being able to say that “I” did this for “my” friend and being acknowledged for it was a form of validation that I mattered. I was able to walk around with false sense of security that they will never leave or abandon me because they need me too much. 

When my friends are going through something you can guarantee that I am going to be far more upset about whatever it is than they will be. Before the end of the story, I am ready to grab my sneakers and get it going. No time like the present, let’s go. I personalize situations as if they were happening to me which has on several occasions caused conflicts because I am trying to “fix” the situation and I am being held back.

Most people think of co-dependency in terms of a person relying on something or someone to help them maintain some sense of normalcy. Something like a drug or addiction. Co-depenency for me showed in form of needing someone to rely on me in order for me to feel useful. I didn’t want to depend on them, I wanted them to depend on me. Take me for all I’ve got. Drain me of all my energy. The more someone leaned on me the more valuable I felt. I had tricked myself into believing that being used (because that’s really what it was) somehow translated into trust and respect. I believed that by “getting it done” I was saving the day and therefore buying the loyalty of the people who I believed to be indebted to me. 

You can imagine how that turned out.

When you realize that you are in a one-sided relationship with a friend you’ve known for 10 years things start to get a little sticky. Most people would severe all ties with someone who took it upon themselves to take advantage of someone in a vulnerable state but I, being the glutton for punishment, saw this as a sign to continue to go that much harder. That good ol’ fear of being alone and abandonment whispered in my ears and told me that none of that was worth losing friendships over and that real friends help one another at all cost. What kind of friend would I be if I just dropped the ball? 

Ironically, I didn’t have to walk away. Over time, as I began slowly to redefine myself and come into my own those friends seemed to drown themselves out. One particularly who I had helped house twice decided that I was no longer “useful” to her (now that she found a new friend to lean on ) and attempted to move out without so much as telling me so that I could be prepared. Crazy, right? 

Miss Independent, thats why I love her...

 I’ve never felt comfortable receiving things and I’ve always done my best to not be in positions where I am forced to ask for help. When Neyo wrote the song, “Miss Independent” he had me in mind. I went above and beyond to make sure I had the things needed to set me apart from the rest because remember, life is one big competition. I could argue that the reason I became such the over achiever that I am is because of this drive to be the best person I could be but that would be a lie although it is true as of this day. But the truth is, I became an overachiever in hopes that someone would see all of my hard work, confirm my greatness and thereby validating my worth. 

Today I have a severe issue with accepting things from people. When I was married my ex use to always complain that he never knew what to get me or purchase that I would like because I never gave anyone the opportunity to get it for me. He said, “What do you get the woman who always gets it herself first?”. I didn’t have an answer, because the answer was nothing. I never shared my likes or expressed interest in anything out loud. I never asked. I can count on one hand how many times I came out and asked my ex-husband to “buy” something for me. 

Receiving praise and accolades for my accomplishments became my drug. If I wasn’t receiving some kind of acknowledgement I felt incomplete. If someone wasn’t telling me that I was “different” I felt unworthy. I intentionally sought out situations and relationships where my ego was stroked and I stood out. I hung out with girls who I could say that I was “not” like, but because I was “such a good person” I hung out with them anyway. As if they needed my pity. 

What I know….

After multiple failed attempts at igniting a fuse at home I began to look for other ways to seek validation of my worth. Couple that with my already untreated issues with abandonment and I was ready to do just about anything to get that attention. And I did. It wasn’t until a few years ago when I dedicated some serious time to working on myself that I realized the patterns in all of my relationships. I never realized how much a lack of confidence can truly influence the type of relationships.

I took 5 years off from serious relationships and took 2 of those years to dedicate to my personal growth. These days I enjoy being on the back end of things. I spend most of my time remaining low key despite having such a large and open platform on social media. I’ve re-evaluated my friendships so that I am only in friendships that are both healthy and productive for both parties, opting to befriend individuals who serve as healthy contributors to my growth. 

Being able to understand and identify these behaviors has afforded me the opportunity to properly vet new individuals seeking access to my life to ensure that they are worth the emotional investment as well as given me a new understanding of self. Being able to separate my heart from my mind has helped me to something now that I was never able to do in the past...

Say no and be okay with whatever may follow...