In my recent podcast, I talked about how relationships can work and how they can go wrong. Finally, I talked about how therapy might help. I intentionally kept away from codependency in the podcast because it is a whole subject on its own. As we know, codependents have a particular ‘core’ of people-pleasing, control and behavioral traits such as ’fixing’, ’martyrdom’, anger and victimhood. When put like that, life can be difficult but codependents often make it difficult for themselves by continuing the default method of life they have always known.
Codependents are only codependent when in a relationship. This is due to so-called ’relational trauma’ suffered in childhood. It basically means that the bond with caregivers that is a natural right for a child, either did not exist or was dysfunctional. This leaves the child thinking there is something wrong with them, they shame themselves and feel they are not good enough to be loved. Most children will then work hard to foster that bond by overachieving, changing their personality or becoming caregivers for parents. Anything to feel validated. They take on the responsibility that their parents should have had.
One of the consequences of the above is hyper vigilance. A child becomes very aware of its surroundings and what and how it needs to adapt to ’gain’ validation. From retreating to a safe space to being ’the little helper’ or caregiver, a child will attempt to manipulate its environment in order to keep a semblance of the bond going. This is really just a fantasy that the child has, as a form of denial about what is really happening. That would be too damaging to realise even if this could be comprehended in a young mind.
In a nutshell, codependents learn from an early age that they need to control their surroundings in various ways to survive. In terms of relationships, this done with the aid of the drama triangle and ultimate people pleasing, sacrificing of needs and an attraction to people who might mirror their parents, repetition compulsion, as Freud described. This can make partaking in relationships anything but easy and indeed impossible unless measures are taken.
As children, codependents are taught and conditioned to believe that their needs are not important or are excessive. Personally, I can remember being made to feel guilty if I needed something and was told that in the interest of ’politeness’, I should let others go first. This meant I very often went without. Consequently, I always backed down and allowed others to move forward. I became quiet and withdrawn and lived in my own world.
The aim of this post is to evidence how difficult codependents find it to set boundaries, stand up for themselves or engage in effective conflict management. If you have been led to believe that you and your beliefs and needs are not worth anything, what have you got toi stand up for? Isn’t it just easier to allow someone else to hold sway over decisions and the relationship, as your parents did? Many codependents believe and practice that as their truth and settle for a life of enabling and control methods to get a little of what they need. When it doesn’t happen, resentment builds and comes out in often angry outbursts.
Being people-pleasers, a codependent will often try to reduce conflict through avoidance, subduing their own feelings and agreeing with what is said, even if it is delivered in the most hideous of ways. This is where abandonment issues are at their peak and conflict is dealt with considering the fear of being left. Responsibility is taken and action is taken adapt to their partner’s view of them. Many codependents are angry, resentful people who are trapped in loveless relationships believing everything that is said about them just to keep the status quo. It sounds dysfunctional put like that and it is but it mirrors what they had to do to survive their childhood environment. It worked then and they believe it will work in their adult world. It leaves them in a constant state of limbo, never getting what they truly need but not having the courage to change it and leave a dysfunctional, often toxic relationship. They simply don’t have the tools.
So, what can be done? Dealing with codependency really means learning what might have been learnt in childhood and the following tips might help. They are aimed at conflict management but are also relevant generally for codependents.
- Stay Mindful. You will see this advice on just about every post you might read these days but it is essential work. Being in the moment, testing your assumptions and asking yourself relevant questions to keep yourself in the moment can be really helpful and can stop the inevitable slide into a default method of anger and shutting down or even worse, people pleasing to keep the peace. How can this be done? It is firstly practice and a daily one at that. You cannot hope to stay mindful if you don’t practice it generally. This means taking quiet moments to reflect, meditation and enjoying what is around you. In relationships, learn mindful communication techniques. That is effective listening and speaking, creating an environment for discussion and giving your partner psychological air. We are often in a battle for our attention. The Thinking Mind is one part that analyses, thinks, makes judgment and makes decisions about our next steps. It also contains aspects of our childhood protection measures that jump in quickly to have an effect. This is our conceptualised self that tells us stories, builds up drama and tries to pull us towards avoidance. Other features of the “thinking self” are logic, planning and our “monkey mind” full of mental chatter that keeps up occupied with feelings and thoughts. Worse though, this part of our mind is often concentrated on the past and the future. Obviously a complication if one wants to stay in the present. In contrast, the Observing Self is constantly in the present and able to take in all the information from the present moment. It is based on self-awareness and self-knowledge and is innately non-judgmental. It does not think, it merely observes. To illustrate this with an example, have you ever encountered a magnificent sunset (or other natural wonder) and for a moment your mind goes quiet? There are no thoughts. You’re just silently observing and appreciating this amazing event. That’s your Observing Self in action, silently noticing. But the silence doesn’t last long. Within seconds, the Thinking Self pops up: “Oh look at the lovely colors … I wish I had my camera … it reminds me of my trip to…” as you get more and more caught up in your thoughts and you start to disconnect from the sunset. In Western Society, we tend to believe that the Thinking Self is the pinnacle of human development, and accordingly, our education system focuses on rational & analytical thinking, logic, enhancing memory, planning… etc.
- Learn To Be Emotionally Honest. Most of us feel that others will not tolerate emotional honesty. We would rather defend our dishonesty on the grounds that it might hurt others and having rationalised our phoniness into nobility, we settle for superficial relationships. Emotional honesty is the glue that holds the four pillars of trust, honesty, respect and mutual benefit together. It allows us to be intimate, vulnerable and connect deeply with another person. However, we mostly avoid it at all costs. Before we can be emotionally honest with others, it is important that we are emotionally honest with ourselves. This is where it starts and where it will flourish with others. We don’t do this for a number of reasons. Firstly, we fear judgement and criticism from others and it is easier to avoid that. Secondly, we have become adept at manipulating our feelings, subduing them and hiding them in order to control the response from others. In the case of codependency, this is very much the case. The price we pay for this is that we become involved in flat, superficial relationships. Being emotionally honest with ourselves means actually to reveal ourselves. It means taking the risk that your true feelings will be open to judgment. However, if we are in a relationship with someone who handles this well, then in time, it will become easier. If not or if that person is encouraging emotional dishonesty, then you have to reassess the relationship.Being emotional honest means recognising and accepting when you are being defensive, for example or hiding what you are truly wanting to say. So it starts with you being emotionally intelligent and aware. Emotional intelligence may also give us the ability to decide when it is in our best interest to be emotionally honest by sharing our real feelings. There are times when it is not healthy or safe for us to be emotionally honest. In general though, I believe we would be better off individually and as a society if we would be more emotionally honest. Only then will you be able to set healthy boundaries for ourselves and others. In fact, being emotionally honest may well encourage others to do the same.
- Learn To Set Boundaries. Follow this link for a detailed article on giving yourself the gift of boundaries.
- Be Realistic. If you have taken the trouble to learn the above and it is still not working with your partner, it might never work. Being compassionate with yourself also sometimes means that decisions have to be made. In research, published in the journal Social Psychology and Personality Science, researchers conducted a series of studies. For those who were on the fence about ending things, there were three reasons why they decided to eventually stay: emotional intimacy, investment, and a sense of obligation. At the top of the “leave” list were: issues with a partner’s personality, breach of trust, and partner withdrawal. Most people, again according to the research, find it difficult to leave a bad relationship. I quote: According to the lead author, psychology professor Samantha Joel, most people have standards and dealbreakers that often go out the window when they meet someone. And, from an evolutionary perspective, our ancestors probably believed it was most important to find a partner than finding the right one. They also went onto to discuss the role of loss in losing a long-term partner. In effect, anyone in this situation is living a fantasy. A fantasy that means that reality is being denied. In this case, reality means starting again, being alone and dealing with the unfamiliar. Is it that we are eternal optimists and we always have hope that situations and people may change? In some cases, this might happen but mostly it doesn’t and the longer time goes on, the bigger the problem gets. In fact what we tend to do is start berating ourselves for not being able to make a decision and end up believing that the incompatible person in front of us is as good as it gets and we deserve nothing better.
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Dr. Nicholas Jenner is a counseling psychotherapist in online private practice working with individuals, couples and groups, dealing with codependency issues, severe depression, bipolar, personality disorders, anxiety, PTSD, eating disorders and other mental health issues. He has been practicing online for many years and recognized early that online therapy was a convenient method for people to meet their therapist. Working outside the box, he goes that extra mile to make sure clients have access to help between sessions, something that is greatly appreciated. He also gives part of his spare time up to mentor psychology students in a university setting.
For more information, please visit: www.drnjenner.com