Thursday, July 7, 2011

People Like Cindy and Me: Part 2

... continued from the last post.

When I saw Cindy standing by the fence with three or four of the popular girls, I hurried right over and said hi. She turned slowly and looked at me as if I’d just farted in the pool and bitten the bubbles.

“What do you want?” she looked me up and down. Suddenly I felt naked in my new pink suit. What did I want? I was her best friend!
“I just wanted to say hi.” This wasn’t going like I’d imagined.
“Well, we were talking so why don’t you just run along,” she said, and then she turned her back on me. The other girls laughed. I lowered my head and walked away.

I wanted to run, but I didn’t leave the pool. I had taken my brother so I had to keep an eye on him. And I didn’t want to have to explain to my mom why I didn’t want to be there. So I got in and swam around with some other kids until the lifeguard blew the whistle for rest period. Cindy wasn’t my only friend, just my best.

As I climbed the ladder, I heard Cindy laughing right behind me. “Look at the big pink butt,” she screamed (or maybe it just seemed like she screamed it), and her friends—her real friends—laughed as I hauled my large ass out of the pool and walked as fast as I could to get my towel and wrap it around me. I think I spent the rest of the summer with that towel wrapped around my waist hiding my pretty pink suit.

I didn’t tell anybody about what happened. I was too humiliated, too ashamed that I’d invested so much in a relationship that meant so little to her. I played with other kids at the pool that summer and with the neighborhood kids. I didn’t try to talk to Cindy again and she certainly didn’t sully herself with me. In sixth grade, we were in different classes, and I made friends in my new class who weren’t popular, but who were likeable, loyal friends all through junior high and high school.

I was never friends with Cindy again. In fact, I ignored her as much as possible, which wasn’t hard because she also ignored me. As we got older, she was a cheerleader; I played varsity basketball. She was popular. I had lots of friends without regard to popularity. We were both invited to parties, just not the same ones. I may have gone to more because there are always more not-popular kids.

If this were a movie, I’m sure there would be some crashing moment of epiphany where Cindy would get hers and become much nicer, and I would become a beautiful swan or something and sing a song on stage with a band behind me, and the word popular would take on new meaning. Movies don’t mimic real life.

I never did get into another “friendship” exactly like that one with Cindy. In school, I found real friends, friends with whom I was equals—or close. And I learned to wear a pair of very real-looking big plastic balls so people wouldn’t mess with me. I’m not sure I’ve ever been cool on the inside, but I have many times been able to fake it on the outside—my own cool, not someone else’s.

But sometimes I still struggle with that same ten-year-old girl inside of me who wants to fit in so much that she won’t stand up for herself, won’t say, “Here are my boundaries for how I will be treated. Don’t step over them or we can’t be friends. I am precious and that’s how I deserve to be treated.” I’m often too accepting, too understanding, too forgiving. I will forgive almost anything; I will make up and be friends again after almost anything. If people in a group I’m in get mad and leave, I’m always the one who sticks it out and puts up the welcome light for when they’re ready to come back. I don’t give up on anybody, even when everybody I know tells me I should. Even when, just like with Cindy, I want something different from what the other person wants to offer in the relationship.

And as far as Cindy goes, the part I didn’t tell was that when she was fun and engaging, when she was wooing me, courting me to be her friend (as I see it now), I really liked her. It wasn’t just who she was that made me want to be friends with her. Sure, there was the glamor of walking around the playground with my popular best friend and listening to all the gossip she picked up, but it wasn’t just that. I wasn’t that shallow.

It was also how much fun she could be when she wanted to be. I really liked her. She seemed to know just the right amount of flattery to keep me a step in line behind her. And she wasn’t only flattering to my face, but even more often she made flattering remarks to other people about me. Little crumbs like that kept me coming back for more. (I really am that shallow.) After the birthday party she didn’t invite me to, she was really nice for a while. She invited me to her house for dinner. I had no reason to not be her friend. She could hurt me one minute and really be my best friend the next. To have given her up would have meant not only giving up that cool I borrowed, but more than that, it would have meant giving up having fun with her when she wanted to be fun.

The truth is, it took both of us to maintain that dysfunctional little friendship. She needed me as much as I thought I needed her. Maybe more. She needed somebody who wasn’t as pretty or popular as she was to stand beside. And I either hadn’t developed yet or didn’t appreciate my own admirable talents: that I was one of the “smart kids,” had musical talent and could make and keep friends without all of the games.

But I don’t really know what it would look like from Cindy’s perspective, so my story is rife with my one-sided judgments and ten-year-old angst. If she even remembers it, she probably would have a totally different story to tell. None of us are reliable narrators of our own lives, and I have been brought up short by my own misunderstandings of situations many times. I seem to have spent a good part of my life feeling the elephant’s ass like a blind mouse.

This story really isn’t about Cindy and what a monster she was anyway. I doubt she was a monster. She had her reasons for how she behaved and I was a willing subordinate. This story is more about a lesson that keeps coming around to me that I wish I had learned when I was ten. It’s a story about how I let myself feel like a victim by not setting honest boundaries and by not being willing to leave a relationship because I wanted to hang on to the good parts, the things that worked. It’s a lesson that comes no easier as an adult.

My friend Andie says I teach people how to treat me. She says I don’t hold people I love to a high enough bar; they can walk right over it. I tell her I’m just a very tolerant person, which only makes her roll her eyes and come back with another metaphor. She says I am a beautiful house, but I let people live in my lovely home rent-free so there’s no room for someone who really wants to live there with me and cherish me. She says I should only let people on my island who want the same things I want and who treat me like the loving, deserving person I am. And if not, I should throw them in the moat. She has lots of metaphors, some mixed, that she extends further than I have room for here. And she’s not easy on me. She asks me hard questions.

So I ask myself: What if I had been honest? What if I had said to Cindy, “When you treat me like that, it hurts. Friends don’t treat each other that way. I want to work things out so we can really be friends, but if you treat me like that, we can’t”? And then, if she didn’t want to meet my bar for the relationship, what if I really did accept the loss and move on…on my terms? Seems like a reasonable thing to have done. She might even have valued me more than I thought and been willing to work on being friends. But I didn’t give her a chance to bring her A game. I accepted her D game.

I’m working a lot on this codependency issue right now. I recently let some unacceptable things slide because I was afraid of confronting them and because I liked some other things too much. I got in water over my head and then burned bridges to save myself. I burned bridges to save myself. Nothing about that metaphor sounds healthy nor am I proud of it. And I’ll never know what would have happened if I had been more honest, set my own boundaries instead of suffering through someone else's terribly mixed messages, kept the bar where I needed it to be….I’ll never know if we might have worked things out and negotiated a healthier relationship. I’ll never know if we both could have played our A game.

So this story isn’t about Cindy the monster at all. It’s about me taking responsibility for letting Cindy be that person she was in our relationship. I’m not saying I could control her; I could only control my own behavior. But I could have controlled whether she treated me that way, and the Cindy story might have turned out better. We might even have been friends in high school, in spite of the whole cheerleader thing.

Speaking of high school, I did get one insignificant vengeful moment of satisfaction when we were juniors. One moment that I’m ashamed to say a low, mean place in my heart still laughs at in spite of my relative maturity.

It was home economics class, and our teacher was teaching the “sex” section of the semester. She’d already shown us disgusting photos of abortions and tried to persuade us that women didn’t have cramps with their periods after they had babies. There was much to mock in her ignorance. Then she moved on to anatomy, female genital anatomy, pointing out the parts on a poster: labia, vagina, clitoris…..clitoris? What the hell is a clitoris? None of us had any idea, but by then I really was cool. There’s no way I would have asked. I just looked bored. Ehh. A clitoris. Looks kind of small and insignificant to me.

But not Cindy. She gasped, leaped to her feet, slammed her hands down on the table and screamed, “Oh my god! I don’t think I have a clitoris! I don’t have a clitoris!” She was not kidding.

There was one second of stunned silence before my best friend Carmel and I burst out laughing. “Oh no! I don’t have a clitoris!” we repeated several times, hands slapped over our cheeks in mock horror. We had no fucking idea what a clitoris was, but look who’s cool now!

Cindy blushed and slumped down in her chair, and the teacher sternly calmed us down. She assured Cindy that she did indeed have a clitoris, all women had one. (Too bad she didn’t tell us where it was or what to do with it, or better yet hold a class and tell the boys what to do with one too, but that’s another topic and if you want that one, you're gonna have to ask for it.) And then she showed us more photos of abortions, just to make sure we didn’t try to find those clitorises and have too much fun down there.

I’m not proud of my reaction that day, and had it been anybody else, I wouldn’t have mocked her. In fact, if it had been anybody else, Carmel and I probably would have come down on the people doing the mocking, and Cindy probably would have been one of the mockers. But that’s not what happened and I did relish the chance to feel superior to her for just a few seconds.

I keep working on this issue of being emotionally honest though, and I know I have to take responsibility for my own actions, the part I play in unbalanced relationships. I don’t know what happened to Cindy, but I hope she’s had a good life. Thinking back on that big lonely house, I wonder if she just didn’t have the skills to ask for the friendship she really needed. It’s too bad, because I would have been a good friend, just like I was to my real friends later: empathic, loyal, funny . And finally, if she didn’t go looking for it that day after home ec, I really hope eventually Cindy did find her clitoris….. as well as somebody else who knows how to use it.

to be continued.......


  1. So, I have a "thing" with the codependency issue. I don't know if you want the predoctoral-intern-me take on codependency or not, but you can let me know. ;) It might be my own resistance coming up, who knows, but I do know of some people who agree with me...although they might be colluding with my resistance...but whatever.

    On another note, thank you for sharing this. You made me think about a bunch of different things and kinda made me have an "aha" moment, too. Thanks for your honesty and for telling the story. <3

    Big hugs.

  2. You're welcome. I'm having impulsive-blogger regrets big time, so I'm glad this brought up something positive for you. If it's an aha moment about a certain situation, then I hope it's a valuable epiphany.

    Yes, tell me what you think about codependency. I could use a distraction. Most of the self-defined codependents I know are really nice people who don't know how not to be too nice, who don't stand up for themselves very well or who, when they do do it, don't do it right. What DO you have to say about the topic? (And what do I win for using the word "do" or a derivative 6 times in one sentence?)

  3. Auto, do you think it's kind of cool that you posted at 10:10 and I posted at 12:12? Maybe I should have a rule about that. Would that be crazy, in your professional opinion?

  4. I'll message you privately with my codependency thoughts/rant. And sure it's cool that we both posted at times that are doubles (says she who still makes a wish at 11:11). In my professional opinion? I say if posting at double numbers makes you happy, post to your hearts content. ;)

  5. Here it is...Codependency, According to Me. ;)

    I agree with you that the people described as “codependent” tend to be really nice people who are often “too nice,” and don’t know how/aren’t very effective in standing up for themselves. They tend not to have clear boundaries about where they and their responsibilities begin and end, and where other people and their responsibilities begin and end. But you know all of this. So here’s my problem(s) with codependency.

    Problem 1: Psychology (founded by white males) has a long and extensive history of ignoring and pathologizing women. Like you said, a lot of the codependency lit focuses on spouses and children of alcoholics. The alcoholics were primarily men, with the spouses being primarily women. Women are socialized such that a lot of the behavior seen in “codependent” people (putting others needs before their own, etc) is praised and regarded highly. Women with alcoholic husbands were really good at making the relationships work, hiding the husbands illness, and making everything look hunkey-dorey. How did they do this? By developing the qualities we described as being “codependent.” Was it healthy for the woman? Probably not. Was it adaptive and her doing the best she could, with what she had been given, while trying to conform to the rules of society and successfully fulfill her role as wife? Absolutely. In fact, if you look at it that way, it’s downright brilliant. But then the relationship ends, or the woman attempts to engage in other relationships with other people, and it doesn’t work so well because the relationship doesn’t fit the rules she’s used to playing by. So then, the rules that were so adaptive in one relationship mess her up in others, and that “pathology” becomes hers. When psychologists caught onto that pattern, they decided the pathology lies in the woman: not in the relationship, not in the partner, not in society, but in her. There’s problem one.

    Problem 2: The way I see it, people’s behavior is based on several assumptions.

    1) People do what works.
    2) People learn what works early in life.
    3) If it continues to work, people will continue to do it.

    So, in the case of children of alcoholics, or children of parents who demonstrate similar relationship styles as are typically seen in families with alcoholism, they learn early in life how to relate to others. They learn what works. Their attachment style is based on what brought them the love and attention they needed as an infant. They learned about the world through these early relationships. If they learned at 4 years old that they need to take care of Mommy, or that no one is going to help them if they cry, or that screaming and biting get them the attention they need, they’re going to keep doing that thing. By the time they turn 6 and 10 and 15, those patterns and what works for them in getting their needs met are already engrained. With any luck, they aren’t still screaming and biting to get attention, but maybe they have emotional or physical crises all the time. Maybe they are rejecting of others. Maybe they take care of others to the extent of ignoring themselves. Why do they do that? Because it works. Because the relationships they have been in taught them that this is how to get their needs met (needs for attention, affection, love, security, whatever). The relationship in which this pattern doesn’t work doesn’t last, because it’s new and different and it’s not reinforcing in the same way. So when that happens, the “codependent” feels crappy about herself. Why? Because what usually works isn’t working. So what does she do? What she knows how to do…more of the same…because that works! It feels like the world is falling apart, or like she is unworthy, or like she is unlovable, because no matter how hard she tries, the pattern just doesn’t work.

  6. So how does this look to the outside world? It looks like the woman has a problem, so she is pathologized…she is the one with the relationship problem. In reality, the “codependent” is doing what she has been taught. She’s doing the only thing she knows. We can’t forget how these behaviors developed: they developed because they were the healthiest way to live and cope with the people around her. In the right circumstances, the behaviors she exhibits are healthy. They are what got her what she needed so far in life. But psychology never seems to recognize that the “pathology” or the “problem behaviors” are what the woman needed in those other situations…they were the healthiest way to live in an unhealthy environment. And yet, the problem suddenly lies within her, rather than in the environment or the prior relationships. That really pisses me off.

    I think so much change can come about if a person is told “this behavior has worked for you for a really long time. It has worked in all these ways, and it helped to bring you to where you are today in the good ways and in the ways you want to change. This behavior helped you to survive, to learn about your world and about other people, and to get your needs met. It is fantastic that you found this behavior and that it has worked for you so far. But now, as the person you are today, with the people you know now, and the person you want to become, that behavior isn’t working so well, and that’s okay. As we grow and change, so do our ways of relating, and the things that used to work don’t work anymore. It’s time to find new behaviors that are going to help you navigate this world, as this person, with these people, because all those old behaviors and styles of relating just aren’t necessary anymore.” Is it hard? Yep. Is it probably going to be a big, long struggle to some degree? Yeah. Old behaviors, and particularly attachment behaviors, are the foundation of a lot of things. But it feels a whole lot better to me than saying “you developed this behavior/way of relating because you are unhealthy, and now you need to change it,” which is what I hear when people talk about codependency.
    I don’t know if that makes sense, or maybe it’s something you know and have read before. I don’t know much about you, or how you work in relationships or friendships or anything much at all, but I do know that I heard a lot of self-blame and shame in your writing, and I know that you don’t deserve that because you developed this style of relating because it worked. Maybe it still does and maybe it doesn’t, I don’t know, but I do know that the blame and shame behind it working or not is society’s sick and not yours.

    Love you.

  7. Wow, Laura, thanks for your comments. I have a lot to chew on here. I want to make one very brief response though and I'll be back later.

    You hit the nail on the head about behavior that used to work. I grew up in a family where there was more than one secret, but there was one really big, important one and it was about me. I always knew something was wrong but I didn't find out until I was a young teen what it was. Even then, I had to keep that secret and act like everything was "normal." (No, it wasn't Santa.) That secret was devastating for each of us kids when we one by one learned of it, but especially for me.

    As I said though, there were more secrets. I grew up trying to act as if I believed what I was told instead of what I observed and felt and knew for certain. I wasn't very good at pretending so I had to work extra hard at it. And those skills, as you say, did save me a lot of pain. i had no choice.

    They aren't so helpful now. I don't want to get near inauthentic relationships. I want what is said and what is done to match up. But given my past, I still run into the urge to fall back on old coping skills so everybody will be happy.

    Recently I was in a situation where talk and behavior were widely disparate. And I used my old coping skills, tried some new ones, but made no headway....and finally did something that even to me seems crazy. Unexpectedly and uncharacteristically crazy. Not the coping mechanism I want to replace looking the other way and pretending everything is normal. But....if it breaks the pattern, then I'm going to have to accept it as something necessary (that I never want to do again.)

    Thanks again for your thoughts, wise one. <3