Friday, June 25, 2010

The Hunger of Codependence

The act of naming, exploring and validating our feelings is primal in the recovery from codependence. As Charles Whitfield says, we need to “get down on the floor and wrestle with each feeling. … Until we can recognize, feel, experience and work through a feeling ... we cannot use it and then let it go.” The same can be said for the hunger that often feeds these feelings. Until we recognize, experience and satisfy it’s yearning, the hunger will remain and may manifest in addictions such as drug dependence, eating disorders, workaholism and codependence or in mental states such as depression and anxiety.

In the Bantu tale of last week, a hunger lay beneath the varying emotions each animal expressed. The gazelle and the elephant, hungry to be seen as worthy and important, were at first arrogant, but then angry and embarrassed when found lacking. The other animals hungered for strong leadership but it was hidden behind false hopes, frustration and, eventually, cynicism. Only the young tortoise, the one “too young, too small, and too slow” found a means to satisfy the collective hunger. She did not listen to the animal’s judgment but humbly trusted herself and her innate wisdom to bring abundance to the community. She alone, was able to complete the journey and name the tree.

Trees, such as the one in this story, are symbolic to many cultures, representing, among other things, our interconnectedness and oneness of spirit. When we “name the tree,” our metaphoric hunger, we culminate a powerful inner journey where our deepest desire for connection, recognition and love is spoken out loud. Like the tortoise, we must not only speak it but keep it alive in our consciousness, courageously exposing ourselves to the fears of being unworthy, not enough or too needy. And, like the tortoise, when we commit to naming our hunger, we can ignore the judgments of others, redirecting our external search for authority to that which comes from within.

For many of us, our hunger to be loved, accepted and validated lies beneath our codependent behaviours. We overextend ourselves to others in the hopes of being loved; we deny our feelings in the desire for acceptance; and we bully or try to control others to feel safe and validated. These methods, however, will never satisfy the hunger. Instead, as Anita Johnston writes, we “must journey back into the past from where [one] came, cross the great empty plains of … life, travel deep into the jungle of [the] mind, find the place near [the] river of feelings where [one’s] inner authority rules, and ask ‘What is the name of my hunger?’”

By boldly stating our hunger, whatever it may be, we start a new journey that seeks to nourish our soul from within rather than from without. In this journey we find that we can only be loved, if we love our self; can only be seen, if we see ourselves; and can only feel secure if we trust ourselves.

Naming our hunger begins the journey of recovery from codependence.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Name Your Hunger

In the entry below, I’ve copied an old Bantu tale called “The Name of the Tree” from Anita Johnston’s book, Eating in the Light of the Moon. She describes it a metaphor for naming your spiritual hunger or inner famine. Although Johnston writes about disordered eating, I feel it can pertain to anytime we lose our sense of self — who we are—starving ourselves for a relationship with our inner spirit. Johnston writes : “To learn the name of … hunger, [one] must journey back into the past from where [one] came, cross the great empty plains of … life, travel deep into the jungle of [the] mind, find the place near [the] river of feelings where [one’s] inner authority rules, and ask ‘What is the name of my hunger?’”

Naming your hunger is a powerful tool of healing. It asks us to name what we really need to sustain our life. Is it power, money and success or is it love, family, and trust in life’s process? When we are sick, is it that we suffering from a disease or a dis-ease of spirit? When we feel lonely, is it because we are alone or is it because we have deserted ourselves? I will talk more of this next week, especially how it relates to codependence but till then, let me know what you feel when you read this magical tale…

An African Folk Tale

This old Bantu folk tale is about a great hunger a long, long time ago in Africa. A drought had left the land dry and fallow and no food could easily be found for the animals. One day, all the animals, except the lion, decided to leave the jungle to scour the landscape in search of something to eat. The lion, who was king of the jungle, chose to remain behind and rule over his kingdom. And so, the elephants, the giraffe, the rabbit, the tortoise, the monkey, the zebra, and the gazelle set out together to scour the landscape for food to eat. They crossed the great river, and walked and walked across the flat land for many days, not knowing where their journey would take them.

After some time, as they approached the edge of the plain, the animals began to make out the figure of what appeared to be a tall tree, the only one that stood for miles around. And as their journey drew them closer to this tree they saw that it was laden with the most luscious fruit they had ever seen! Fruit as red as pomegranates, and orange as mangoes, as yellow as bananas, as purple as plums, and as fragrant as all the fruits of the world.

But, for all its beauty and promise, the tree left the animals crying in frustration and despair. For it was so tall and its branches so high off the ground that even the neck of the giant giraffe was not long enough to reach even the bottom-most fruit. And the trunk of the tree was so smooth that even the agile monkey could not climb it.

The famished animals collapsed on the ground beneath the tree. “What are we going to do?” they lamented. An old tortoise spoke: “My great-great-grandmother once told me about a tree such as this one, with beautiful and delicious fruit. But only those who knew the name of the tree could reach the fruit.”

“How can we find the name of the tree?” the animals asked in unison.

The old tortoise answered, “The lion knows the name. Someone must travel back to the jungle to ask him.”

It was decided that the gazelle, who was the fastest runner of all, should go. The gazelle, proud of his swiftness, raced to the jungle and to the place near the river that the lion king called home. “What do you want?” questioned the lion when the gazelle arrived.

“Great King,” said the gazelle, “all the animals are so very hungry. We have been searching for days for something to eat. We have finally found the most beautiful tree, filled with wondrous, colourful fruit. But until we find the name of the tree, the fruit will remain out of our reach, and all the animals will continue to starve.”
The lion thought quietly for a moment and then said, “I will tell you what you need to know. I do not wish to see the animals of my kingdom suffer amy more. But I will only tell you once, for I do not wish to repeat myself or to tell anyone else this special name. You must listen carefully and remember. The name of the tree is Ungalli.”

“Ungalli,” said the gazelle. He thanked the lion and ran through the jungle and then back across the flat land thinking about how clever the other animals were to send an animal as swift as he and how happy and grateful they would be when he returned with the name of the tree. Lost in his thoughts, he did not see the rabbit hole that was near to where the animals lay waiting. He stepped in the hole and flipped head over hoof through the air until he landed with a thud at the foot of the tree.
The animals gathered around him. “What is the name of the tree?” they shouted with great hope and expectation.

But the gazelle just stared at the animals with a dazed look in his eyes. “What is the name of the tree?” the desperate animals shouted again and again.

“I cant remember,” he uttered, in a voice barely above a whisper. “I cant remember.”

The animals moaned. “We have no choice. We will just have to send someone else, someone who will remember no matter what,” they said.

It was decided that the elephant should go since it was well known that she did not forget anything. And so the elephant strode off across the flat, empty plain, feeling quite proud of her excellent memory. When the elephant arrived at the place near the river where the lion king lived, the lion growled, “What do you want?”
“Oh, king,” said the elephant, “the animals are all so hungry and I ... ”
“I know, I know,” said the lion impatiently. “I will tell you the name of the tree with the wonderful fruit, but don’t you forget because I absolutely will not tell anyone else. The name of the tree is Ungalli.”

“I will not forget,” said the elephant with arrogance, “I never forget anything.”

She made her way out of the jungle and across the plain thinking to herself, “How could I forget! I can remember the names of all the trees in this jungle.” And she began to name them. Quite impressed with her memory, she began naming all the trees in Africa and then began to recall the names of all the trees in the world. Lost in her thoughts, she carelessly stepped in the same hole in the ground that had spoiled the gazelle’s journey just the day before. But unlike the gazelle, the elephant’s foot was so big and fit so tightly in to the hole that she could not so easily get it out.

The elephant pulled and tugged but her foot wouldn’t budge. Those animals who were not too weak from hunger ran toward the elephant shouting, “What is the name of the tree?”

Angrily, she pulled and tugged at her foot again and again until at last she was able to free it from the hole. “What is the name of the tree?” the animals shouted again.

“I cant remember,” she said crossly, as she rubbed her sore foot, “and I don’t care.”
The animals were too tired and too hungry to complain. Some began to cry. They didn’t know what to do. Then a very young tortoise said, “I will go and find the name of the tree.”

“You are too young, too small, and too slow,” replied the animals.

“Yes,” said the very young tortoise, “but my great-great-great-grandmother, the one who knew about the tree, taught me how to remember.”

Without waiting for the animals to respond, the little tortoise headed out slowly across the great plain. Step by step she made her way to the place near the river in the jungle where the lion king lived.

The king was not at all pleased to see the tortoise and roared, “If you have come for the name of the tree, forget it! I’ve told it twice before. And I warned the gazelle and the elephant that I would not tell anyone else the name of the tree is Ungalli so I will not tell you.”

The young tortoise politely thanked the lion for his time. As she walked out of the jungle she repeated to herself over and over, “Ungalli, Ungalli, the name of the tree is Ungalli.” She crossed the great plain, saying over and over, “Ungalli, Ungalli, the name of the tree is Ungalli. Ungalli, Ungalli, the name of the tree is Ungalli.”

Even when feeling tired and thirsty, the young tortoise never stopped saying, “Ungalli, Ungalli, the name of the tree is Ungalli,” because great-great-great-grandmother has said this was what one should do to remember. Falling to the bottom the same rabbit hole that had tripped the gazelle and trapped the elephant, the young tortoise just climbed out saying, “Ungalli, Ungalli, the name of the tree is Ungalli.”

None of the animals noticed as the young tortoise approached them. They were lying under the tree preoccupied with their great misfortune when she walked straight up to them and announced in a loud voice, ” Ungalli, Ungalli, the name of the tree is Ungalli.”

The startled animals looked up. They saw the branches of the tree bend down so low that they could reach the wonderful fruit that was as red as pomegranates, and orange as mangoes, as yellow as bananas, as purple as plums, and as fragrant as all the fruits of the world.

The animals ate until their bellies were full. With great joy and merriment, they lifted the very young tortoise high up in the air. They paraded around and around the tree singing and chanting, over and over, “Ungalli, Ungalli, the name of the tree is Ungalli” because they did not want to forget. And they never did.
Transcribed from Anita Johnston’s book on eating disorders, Eating in the Light of the Moon.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Centre Stage

I recently misunderstood a friend’s email communication and, without checking in with her, took it as a personal affront. The next time I saw her, I reacted quite defensively and she asked what was wrong. When the truth finally came out (amazing how the truth can hide behind self righteousness) and the misunderstanding was cleared she asked, “you know that’s a sign of codependency, don’t you?” As I looked up in surprise with not a little chagrin she continued, “you were making it all about you.”

Well, besides the fact that the world does revolve around me (… doesn’t it?) she had a point. In centre stage, our codependent parts seek the spotlight for both our own and other people’s dramas. They take responsibility for things that have nothing to do with them and try to fix people and situations that are out of their control. Our codependent parts make us believe that we have more power than we do, not in our life, but in other people’s lives. With our own life we feel powerless and we try to gain some control by either taking an over interest in others or believing, as I did above, they have an over interest in us. The rescuing and martyring codependent parts take more blame than they should – it is my fault that the situation is as it is – and the bullying codependent parts take not enough blame and see it as their duty to remedy the situation by making others change. It comes down to boundaries: knowledge of where we begin and where we end. As Charles Whitfield says, the codependent “cannot see the other as separate from self; [or does not see] self as separate from the other”. In the former, the rescuer/martyr come through and takes responsibility for others; in the latter, the bully takes over, trying to control others. Both are codependent, both take centre stage.

With this recent misunderstanding, I took a friend’s authentic concern about me to be a statement about my abilities or lack thereof. I did this because of my own self doubt: I believe that I am not good enough, therefore everyone else must also agree. In other words, I was not seeing the other as separate from myself. My codependent parts are always on the look out for conspirators in this endeavor and will tap into the subtlest remark and make it a critique about me.

How could I have handled it differently? Well, it started with my friend stating concern about me. I could have responded with: “thank you for caring about me but I am okay. However, when you state your concern in that way, I feel you don’t trust me to handle the situation”. Simple, eh? I give my friend the benefit of the doubt, that is, she is a caring and not judgmental person, and then name how I feel when she shows care in that way. There is no judgment, nor blame, as in “you made me feel bad,” and I take responsibility for my feelings by expressing them in a healthy manner. In this way I don’t create stories about what she believes: I respect myself, I respect my friend and my codependent parts get to experience another, more healthy, reality that shares centre stage with other people and perspectives.

Friday, June 4, 2010


I was at a party the other day. It was an eclectic mix of young and old, environmentalists and writers; health practitioners and organic farmers. Waiting to pour myself some refreshments, I started up a conversation with a petite, young woman with large brown eyes. The talk came around, as it does, to what fuels our life and I told her I wrote a weekly blog on codependence. Her eyes grew yet larger. “Every week?” she asked incredulously. I looked at her and paused, not knowing quite how to answer. A part of me felt defensive to be sure, but most of me just found it funny. Finally, I responded with a laugh, “Yeah, every week, pretty boring, huh?”

Although I truly thought it amusing, I think I set myself up for the following week because once named, boredom decided to stick around. Every word I wrote, action initiated, and thought completed was boring. I was at an utter loss of what to do as restlessness wrestled with all I did: when I wrote, I wanted to read; if I stood, I wanted to sit; when I talked, I bemoaned its futility. All was useless, all was boring.

Boredom is the sealed carton confining fermenting milk on a hot day; restlessness is the milk. My restlessness wanted release but boredom kept a cap on it, denying any satisfaction. In this state I flitted and fluttered from one thing to another, never happy; never content. I was trying to write up an outline for a new workshop and I was being stymied at every point. I needed to be still so to allow my creativity to come forth but restlessness overrode this option. I felt overwhelmed, unhappy and dissatisfied with life. What was really happening, however, was that boredom and restlessness had hired out as the henchman for my codependent parts.

Codependent parts do not like to be still. To be still invites inner reflection and these parts fear that the sight will not be pretty. To them, there is nothing worthy to be found within and so they urge an outward gaze to find life fulfillment. My codependent parts deny I have any creativity. Moreover, they fear that if I try to express it (despite continuous proof otherwise) I will be criticized and found wanting.

I have fought against these beliefs before (and won) but this time their tactics had changed and I was unprepared for boredom to be the manifesting adversary. Thankfully, I had enough sense of my own self worth that I kept pushing through, despite the challenges, to write down tidbits of ideas in the few moments of space I could find. I wanted to give up on many occasions and, actually did surrender several times, only to pick up the fight again a few hours later.

It wasn’t until I was forced into stillness on a long bus ride that I could finally identify what was happening. I realized that my codependent parts were doing everything possible to keep me from expressing my inner power. In their selective memory of times past, they were scared that if my creativity came out, I would be shut down by some external force. They were, in a dysfunctional way, trying to protect me from being hurt. When I saw that, I was able to voluntarily sit in stillness and reassure these parts that it was okay. That I wouldn’t be shut down and, if I was, I could handle it. I sat with my parts just like a parent would for a small child and listened to their story. And, just like a child with a chance to express and someone there to listen to their fears, the restless parts calmed down. In the space that was created, my truth came forth: as in all human beings, I was infinitely creative and that creativity could not only bring ideas to fruition but adapt and learn from potential disappointments and external criticism.

I am reminded as I write this of Marianne Williamson’s quote: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure…”. Our codependence parts fear that power because it has been denied and/or crushed too many times in the past. It is up to us, that is, our core self, to remind these parts that things have changed, that we are no longer powerless children. As creative adults we have capable skills to deal with external oppression and that we will survive despite the misgivings of our codependent parts.