How Special Do You Need to Be

“Codependency* has no respect for age, color, social standing, or sex.”
Anne Wilson Schaef

We had just finished a terrific sushi dinner in New York City. We were enjoying a double date with D and his wife who lived in New Jersey. D had helped us find a babysitter, so we could enjoy driving his little hot rod and a night in the city.

The saké was good enough that D asked his wife to take the wheel home.  He had keenly spotted a cop nearby. The police officer strolled toward us as we walked to our car. 

We were high on the fun of a city meal, resplendent in smart casual clothes, good food when the officer inquired about our evening. We could all tell he assumed we were urban, young professionals. Important people. Living it up in the Big Apple. 

I suppose we could have easily given that impression. But before stepping into the sleek silver car D’s wife laughed and said, 

“Oh no, I’m just a New Jersey housewife.”

Her casual humility stuck with me, even eight years later. She was completely grounded, then and now, in her normal status.**

She still doesn’t put on airs. She owns her normal plot of earth, small though it may seem to others. 

Under pressure, she held to the normality of her life.  

~~~

Two years ago, I wrote in my journal about “the cult of specialness.” I included a list of ways I had held to being better, unique, chosen, a stand-out.

I put a connection together then that still ripples out into healing. 

Specialness is linked to the widest mental infection in our world today: codependency*. And since codependency is both misdiagnosed and misunderstood, since codependency is a disease that our current culture encourages, coddles, even overtly praises, it’s imperative to speak out about the problem.

Over the years, I have held onto characteristics that helped me feel special simply because I couldn’t stand the possibility that I could be overlooked. The reasons behind this are varied and private. 

Still, specialness wasn’t just my special problem. Many people hold onto specialness as a way to cope, to convince themselves they will never be abandoned, to refuse to face grief, to keep going in a dark world, to stay relevant, central, known. But, specialness is a false god, a Turkish Delight, an addiction that creates more dependency than healing. 

Once you’re special because of x, you must keep up x, or risk abandonment. 

~~~

Nothing so satisfies a codependent as to hear “I’ve never been able to talk to anyone like I can talk to you.” I nearly married the wrong guy because he said that to me. If you’re convinced you’re actually better or more special than most the people you meet, you are easy prey.

Narcissists are hungry to find “special” people. Narcs know they are superstars at putting people on temporary pedestals.

  • “You smell like Catalina Island.”
  • “I want to make you the most important person in my life.”
  • “Vote for me and change the world.”

Narcs are drawn to codependents, people who need to be special more than they want normal human love.  Narcs know codependents will put up with a shell of a person, just for that pedestal. That’s why I believe there’s more evidence that President Obama is a narcissist than President Trump. Obama made people feel incredibly special for choosing him. Trump just leaves you wondering if you’ll still have your job when you’re through.

Narcs don’t leave you wondering. Narcs make you feel like a million bucks, then they disappear. The charm-disappearing act is their speciality. 

And if we want to be special, narcs will flock to us like fruit flies to ripe bananas. It’s impossible to keep them away. There is only one cure. And like most real cures it’s painful and it’s long. But it works.

~~~

Recognize and accept your normal status. Learn to walk as a normal woman, a normal man. A member of the human race. Not raised above or stooping below. Just like D’s wife, hold the normal plot you’re given.

I’m just a homeschooling mom who paints and writes. I’m gifted in painting, but I cannot fix a broken dock. I have great hair but so do millions of others. I’m strong at intuition and reading people, but quick to be prideful and judgmental. I’m organized, but not humble. I have big dreams, but we’re renting homes right now, trying to find our long term place. Nice to meet you. 

And friends may say “No, you’re more.”

And I say, “Sure, I’m more to you, to God, because you love me.”

And suddenly we see how being loved (without being central to anything) is actually better than being special. Being seen as myself without standing on the pedestal is the true salve that heals us.

And so, over the years, I shed the special costumes, and the targets slip off with them. The fruit flies go somewhere else. I no longer need someone to place me higher than I ought to be. And so I no longer need the narcs, the charmers, the addicts. And they cannot find me so easily. 

This means I have a chance at real friendship, where we stand at the same level, looking at the same thing, delighted at the calm goodness in our lives. Which really is tremendous and special.

Friendship is special, because God gave it to me, not because I’m the only one who has it.

~~~

Want more ways to heal from codependency? That’s what this September will be about. Forward this to a friend, share in the comments. Let’s not stay in silence or loneliness about this epidemic. 

Part 1: How Special Do You Need to Be?

Part 2: Perfectionism and Art

Part 3: How Beauty Made Me Sober

How Special Do You Need to Be

*Co-dependency is a disease within the addictive process. Co-dependents need to fuse with someone else’s needs to validate their own. In clinical terms they’re “externally referent.” Codependents, like all addicts, are characterized by many signs: dishonesty (denial, projection, delusion), not dealing with feelings, control, confusion, perfectionism, fear, rigidity, judgmentalism, depression, inferiority/grandiosity, self-centeredness, external referencing, etc. As a term, “co-dependent” was coined to describe the enabling partner in an alcoholic relationship. The alcoholic is dependent on his substance, but the co-dependent is also addicted, not to alcohol but to the place they play in the addiction.  Codependency is actually present before alcoholism and when untreated, alcoholism is the result. For a codependent, one fudged truth about who they really are is like a first drink for an alcoholic. Even while alcoholics find treatment, their codependent partners are often overlooked and even shamed for finding sobriety.  Codependency has diseased most our relationships, in the family, the church, in education and politics. And our culture is invested in keeping people away from healing. For a short, smart book on the topic see Co-Dependence: Misunderstood-Mistreated by Anne Wilson Schaef. 

** I know, I know, compared to the rest of the world she’s privileged. But that is not the point of this story.  The point is, compared to the way she was perceived, she chose to self-identify as more humble.

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When I think about what I want for my kids, it is freedom in their relationships. Freedom to come or go, and freedom to choose the right thing, not just what would make their partner/kid/mom feel needed/wanted/ok.
I think it’s a sign of maturity to be ok with being normal, typical, nothing special.
When Kyle died, a few people told me I must be very special to be “chosen” for such a tragedy. That’s a damnable theology. And it was the least comforting thing. Suffering is common to all. It’s not “why me?” but “why not me?”
Thank you for this substantial post! It captures so much of what’s important to me.

I know it was an aside, but my first thought when you mentioned Obama/Trump was the “go home, you’re very special” video after the Capitol invasion. I’d be surprised if we could elect a president right now (ever? I don’t know enough election history) who doesn’t appeal to the ego.
https://www.wsj.com/articles/trump-tells-rioters-i-know-how-you-feel-draws-bipartisan-condemnation-11609977209

The big pushback I have here is- on what grounds do base your perception of Trump being able to handle intimacy and Obama not being able to handle it. Trumps marital history should be telling to us that he is not quite the person you seem to be making him out to be.
Is intimacy truly the highest telling point? My money would be one Obama being the one who can maintain intimacy, from what has been observable.

Last edited 14 days ago by Erin Adams

Thank you for opening this topic up this month! I know I carry the qualities of codependency (stemming from my adaptive responses to early childhood trauma), and I’ve wondered how to shed this entanglement more. The thought of not being “special” but rather “normal” really struck a cord with me and the “everyone is special” upbringing I had in the 90s / early 2000s. Much to chew on and look forward to reading about this month!

Jonalyn, this opens up an area of awareness for me that I’ll be chewing on and using to reflect on past and present seasons of my life. Thank you for the powerful food for thought.

A great read, thanks Jonalyn. “Narcs are drawn to codependents, people who need to be special more than they want normal human love.” This idea of normal human love, laced throughout, was my fav. Settling for specialness instead of real love…to me that goes right back to the Garden. I think the need for specialness captures the essence of the rebellion that robbed us of living in our given, boundaried human significance! One of the biggest traps is mistaking addictive specialness for true intimacy and belonging—both in our human loves and our spiritual ones. The Turkish delight idea also really sticks!

“Once you’re special because of x, you must keep up x, or risk abandonment.” This sentence stuck out to me, because it shows that there is this effort that must be made not freely received. Thank you for the work you do to heal yourself and for caring so much to heal others too!

As an enneagram 2, there’s just sort of an inherent shame, that’s I’m not worthy unless I can be something of worth to someone THEN I’ll receive back. The idea that you’re special because of x would imply I have to work to be worthy. That in and of itself puts oneself chronically at risk of losing x and losing love. Whereas breaking the need to become something before being worthy of love means that one does not have to work to receive. In that, is freedom. Maybe another way to say it would be I can receive without first giving or becoming (and standing in that worth is freedom and having been healed) whereas not being healed and free assumes I have to be before receiving.

Been meaning to comment Jonalyn. This is great. It cuts right to the heart of codependency.

“Being seen as myself without standing on the pedestal is the true salve that heals us.”

I think we all know this deep down, but we get distracted by the intense momentary pleasure of being pedestalized. The little dopamine hits we get from it are so addictive, it’s no wonder that special is such a popular drug.

Humility is the cure for codependency. Seeing ourselves with clarity, warts and all, without all the tempting distortions to mask that shameful normality we’re so terrified to reveal.

Thank you. This has given me some new ideas to implement in my work.

The original picture was dusky and nearly black and white. I wanted to recover some of the color you can see with your eye, but in my first attempt I made the colors too vibrant and the values too light.

Second attempt I worked smaller and focused on keeping the values similar for the trees, hills and figures. I like this smaller attempt much more as it captures that calm sunset mood in the Rocky Mountains.

My friend, H, drove out from Orange County to celebrate my 40 birthday. She and I have walked side-by-side through decades of growth. We have both faced the darkness alone and together. We have both cheered and listened in ways most friends cannot. She is a therapist, I’m a writer but we are equals in our pilgrimage. 

My husband took the picture that served as the reference photo for this painting. We are standing looking out at the sunset over the Yampa River in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. I am most proud of how soft and gentle the sunset and reflection are next to the darkening trees and bridge. 

Healing often feels just like this, standing on a bridge between two places, taking a moment to thank God for the mentors and friends along the way. 

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When I think about what I want for my kids, it is freedom in their relationships. Freedom to come or go, and freedom to choose the right thing, not just what would make their partner/kid/mom feel needed/wanted/ok.
I think it’s a sign of maturity to be ok with being normal, typical, nothing special.
When Kyle died, a few people told me I must be very special to be “chosen” for such a tragedy. That’s a damnable theology. And it was the least comforting thing. Suffering is common to all. It’s not “why me?” but “why not me?”
Thank you for this substantial post! It captures so much of what’s important to me.

I know it was an aside, but my first thought when you mentioned Obama/Trump was the “go home, you’re very special” video after the Capitol invasion. I’d be surprised if we could elect a president right now (ever? I don’t know enough election history) who doesn’t appeal to the ego.
https://www.wsj.com/articles/trump-tells-rioters-i-know-how-you-feel-draws-bipartisan-condemnation-11609977209

The big pushback I have here is- on what grounds do base your perception of Trump being able to handle intimacy and Obama not being able to handle it. Trumps marital history should be telling to us that he is not quite the person you seem to be making him out to be.
Is intimacy truly the highest telling point? My money would be one Obama being the one who can maintain intimacy, from what has been observable.

Last edited 14 days ago by Erin Adams

Thank you for opening this topic up this month! I know I carry the qualities of codependency (stemming from my adaptive responses to early childhood trauma), and I’ve wondered how to shed this entanglement more. The thought of not being “special” but rather “normal” really struck a cord with me and the “everyone is special” upbringing I had in the 90s / early 2000s. Much to chew on and look forward to reading about this month!

Jonalyn, this opens up an area of awareness for me that I’ll be chewing on and using to reflect on past and present seasons of my life. Thank you for the powerful food for thought.

A great read, thanks Jonalyn. “Narcs are drawn to codependents, people who need to be special more than they want normal human love.” This idea of normal human love, laced throughout, was my fav. Settling for specialness instead of real love…to me that goes right back to the Garden. I think the need for specialness captures the essence of the rebellion that robbed us of living in our given, boundaried human significance! One of the biggest traps is mistaking addictive specialness for true intimacy and belonging—both in our human loves and our spiritual ones. The Turkish delight idea also really sticks!

“Once you’re special because of x, you must keep up x, or risk abandonment.” This sentence stuck out to me, because it shows that there is this effort that must be made not freely received. Thank you for the work you do to heal yourself and for caring so much to heal others too!

As an enneagram 2, there’s just sort of an inherent shame, that’s I’m not worthy unless I can be something of worth to someone THEN I’ll receive back. The idea that you’re special because of x would imply I have to work to be worthy. That in and of itself puts oneself chronically at risk of losing x and losing love. Whereas breaking the need to become something before being worthy of love means that one does not have to work to receive. In that, is freedom. Maybe another way to say it would be I can receive without first giving or becoming (and standing in that worth is freedom and having been healed) whereas not being healed and free assumes I have to be before receiving.

Been meaning to comment Jonalyn. This is great. It cuts right to the heart of codependency.

“Being seen as myself without standing on the pedestal is the true salve that heals us.”

I think we all know this deep down, but we get distracted by the intense momentary pleasure of being pedestalized. The little dopamine hits we get from it are so addictive, it’s no wonder that special is such a popular drug.

Humility is the cure for codependency. Seeing ourselves with clarity, warts and all, without all the tempting distortions to mask that shameful normality we’re so terrified to reveal.

Thank you. This has given me some new ideas to implement in my work.

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