Emptiness is a common feeling, and there are distinct types of emptiness, but it’s psychological emptiness that underlies codependency and addiction. Whereas existential emptiness is concerned with your relationship to life, psychological emptiness deals with your relationship to yourself. It’s correlated with depression[i] and deeply related to shame. Depression may be accompanied by a variety of symptoms, including sadness and crying, anxiety or restlessness, shame or guilt, apathy, fatigue, change in appetite or sleep habits, poor concentration, suicidal thoughts, and feeling empty. more
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You can make significant strides in overcoming codependency by developing new attitudes, skills, and behavior. But deeper recovery may involve healing trauma, usually that began in childhood. Trauma can be emotional, physical, or environmental, and can range from experiencing a fire to emotional neglect. Childhood events had a greater impact on you then than they would today, because you didn’t have coping skills that an adult would have. As a consequence of growing up in a dysfunctional family environment, codependents often suffer further trauma due to relationships with other people who may be abandoning, abusive, addicted or have mental illness. more
Narcissists don’t really love themselves. Actually, they’re driven by shame. It’s the idealized image of themselves, which they convince themselves they embody, that they admire. But deep down, narcissists feel the gap between the façade they show the world and their shame-based self. They work hard to avoid feeling that shame. This gap is true for other codependents, as well, but a narcissist uses defense mechanisms that are destructive to relationships and cause pain and damage to their loved ones’ self-esteem. (Learn the traits required to diagnose a narcissistic personality disorder, “NPD.”)
Many of the narcissist’s coping mechanisms are abusive–hence the term, “narcissistic abuse.” However, someone can be abusive, but not be a narcissist. Addicts and people with other mental illnesses, such as bi-polar disorder and anti-social personality disorder (sociopathy) and borderline personality disorders are also abusive, as are many codependents without a mental illness. Abuse is abuse, no matter what is the abuser’s diagnosis. If you’re a victim of abuse, the main challenges for you are: more
Since writing Codependency for Dummies, countless people contact me about their unhappiness and difficulties in dealing with a difficult loved one, frequently a narcissistic partner or parent who is uncooperative, selfish, cold, and often abusive. Partners of narcissists feel torn between their love and their pain, between staying and leaving, but they can’t seem to do either. They feel ignored, uncared about, and unimportant. As the narcissist’s criticism, demands, and emotional unavailability increase, their confidence and self-esteem decrease. Despite their pleas and efforts, the narcissist appears to lack consideration for their feelings and needs. Over time, they become deeply hurt and frustrated. When the narcissist is a parent, by the time their children reach adulthood, the emotional abandonment, control, and criticism that they experienced growing up has negatively affected their self-esteem and capacity for achieving success or sustaining loving, intimate relationships. more
Research has well-established the link between good self-esteem and relationship satisfaction. Self-esteem not only affects how we think about ourselves, but also how much love we’re able to receive and how we treat others, especially in intimate relationships.
A person’s initial level of self-esteem prior to the relationship predicts partners’ common relationship satisfaction. More specifically, although happiness generally declines slightly over time, this isn’t true for people who enter a relationship with higher levels of self-esteem. But the steepest decline is for people whose self-esteem was lower to begin with. Frequently, those relationships don’t last. Even though communication skills, emotionality, and stress all influence a relationship, a person’s past experience and personality traits affect how these issues are managed and therefore have the greatest bearing on its outcome. more
Because our nervous system is wired to need others, rejection is painful. Romantic rejection especially hurts. Feeling lonely and missing connection share the evolutionary purpose of survival and reproduction. Ideally, loneliness should encourage you reach out to others and maintain your relationships.
A UCLA study confirms that sensitivity to emotional pain resides in the same area of the brain as physical pain – they can hurt equally. Our reaction to pain is influenced by genetics. If we have increased sensitivity to physical pain, we’re more vulnerable to feelings of rejection. Moreover, love stimulates such strong feel-good neuro-chemicals that rejection can feel like withdrawal from a drug, says anthropologist Helen Fisher. It can compel us to engage in obsessive thinking and compulsive behavior. This proved true even for tsetse flies in lab experiments. (See “Obsessions and Love Addiction.“) more
Many people, especially codependents, are haunted by inner loneliness. Twenty percent (60 million) of Americans report that loneliness is the source of their suffering. In fact, our emotional reaction to rejection emanates from the area of our brain (the dorsal anterior cingulated) that also responds to physical pain. (Cacioppo and Patrick, 2008)
Loneliness is associated with living alone, which surveys indicate has steadily risen to 27 percent in 2013 and to 50 percent and higher in parts of Florida, West Virginia, and especially California. However, being alone only describes a physical condition. We don’t always feel lonely when we’re alone. Individual needs for connection vary. Some people choose to live solo and are happier doing so. They don’t suffer the same sense of abandonment caused by the unwanted loss of a partner through a break-up, divorce, or death. They may also have greater inherited insensitivity to social disconnection, according to recent research. more
Dysthymia or chronic depression is a common symptom of codependency; however, many codependents aren’t aware that they’re depressed. Because the symptoms are mild, most people with chronic depression wait ten years before seeking treatment.Dysthymia doesn’t usually impair daily functioning, but it can make life feel empty and joyless. Sufferers have a diminished capacity to experience pleasure and may withdraw from stressful or challenging activities. Their emotions are dulled, though they may feel sad or melancholy or be irritable and anger easily. Unlike with major depression, they’re not incapacitated, yet they may have difficulty trying new things, socializing, and advancing in their career. Some may believe that their lack of drive and negative mood is part of their personality, rather than that they have an illness. Like codependency, dysthymia causes changes in thinking, feelings, behavior, and physical well-being.
We’re wired for attachment – why babies cry when separated from their mothers. Depending especially upon our mother’s behavior, as well as later experiences and other factors, we develop a style of attaching that affects our behavior in close relationships.
Fortunately, most people have a secure attachment, because it favors survival. It ensures that we’re safe and can help each other in a dangerous environment. The anxiety we feel when we don’t know the whereabouts of our child or of a missing loved one during a disaster, as in the movie “The Impossible,” isn’t codependent. It’s normal. Frantic calls and searching are considered “protest behavior,” like a baby fretting for its mother. more
There are three million cases of domestic violence reported each year. Many more go unreported. Emotional abuse precedes violence, but is rarely discussed. Although both men and women may abuse others, an enormous number of women are subjected to emotional abuse. Unfortunately, many don’t even know it.
Why is Emotional Abuse Hard to Recognize?
Emotional abuse may be hard to recognize, because it can be subtle, and abusers often blame their victims. more
Anxiety is apprehension of experiencing fear in the future. The danger feared isn’t imminent and may not even be known or realistic. In contrast, fear is an emotional and physical reaction to a present, known threat. Anxiety is typically characterized by obsessive worry and an inability to concentrate that may affect our sleep.
It can trigger a full-blown fight-flight-or-freeze response of our sympathetic nervous system that prepares us to meet real danger; however, a big difference between fear and anxiety is that because anxiety is an emotional response to something that hasn’t occurred, there is nothing to fight or flee. Therefore, tension builds up inside our body, but there is no action we can take to release it. Instead, our mind goes round and round, replaying possibilities and scenarios. more
We all experience guilt from time to time. But many of us have a hard time letting go of it and find it difficult to forgive ourselves, even though we may readily forgive others. First of all, it’s important to recognize whether our guilt is true or false. Just because we feel guilty, that doesn’t mean we are. Feelings aren’t facts. And even if our guilt is “true”–that we’ve morally transgressed, we’re still worthy and capable of forgiveness.
Passive-aggressive people act passive, but express aggression covertly. They’re basically obstructionist, and try to block whatever it is you want. Their unconscious anger gets transferred onto you, and you become frustrated and furious. Your fury is theirs, while they may calmly ask, “Why are you getting so angry?” and blame you for the anger they’re provoking.
Passive-aggressive partners are generally codependent, and like codependents, suffer from shame and low self-esteem. Their behavior is designed to please to appease and counter to control. You may be experiencing abuse, but not realize it, because their strategy of expressing hostility is covert and manipulative, leading to conflict and intimacy problems.
There are several reasons why boundaries don’t work. As I wrote in Codependency for Dummies and How to Speak Your Mind – Become Assertive and Set Limits, assertiveness is a prerequisite to setting effective boundaries, and it isn’t easy.
“Setting boundaries is an advanced form of assertiveness. It involves risk and entails taking a position about who you are, what you’re willing to do or not do, and how you want to be treated and respected in your relationships. It first requires awareness of your values, feelings, and needs, plus some practice in making “I” statements about them.” From How to Speak Your Mind – Become Assertive and Set Limits. more
People tend to think of abandonment as something physical, like neglect. Loss of physical closeness due to death, divorce, and illness is also an emotional abandonment. It also happens when our emotional needs aren’t being met in the relationship – including in our relationship with ourselves. And although loss of physical closeness can lead to emotional abandonment, the reverse isn’t true. Physical closeness doesn’t mean our emotional needs will be met. Emotional abandonment may happen when the other person is right beside us. more
When shame becomes toxic, it can ruin our lives. Everyone experiences shame at one time another. It’s an emotion with physical symptoms like any other that comes and goes, but when it’s severe, it can be extremely painful. Strong feelings of shame stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, causing a fight/flight/freeze reaction. We feel exposed and want to hide or react with rage, while feeling profoundly alienated from others and good parts of ourselves. We may not be able to think or talk clearly and be consumed with self-loathing, which is made worse because we’re unable to be rid of ourselves. more
Caring about someone with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) tosses you on a roller coaster ride from being loved and lauded to abandoned and bashed. Being a borderline (having BPD) is no picnic, either. You live in unbearable psychic pain most of the time and in severe cases on the border between reality and psychosis. Your illness distorts your perceptions causing antagonistic behavior and making the world a perilous place. The pain and terror of abandonment and feeling unwanted can be so great that suicide feels like a better choice.
If you like drama, excitement, and intensity, enjoy the ride, because things will never be calm. Following a passionate and immediate beginning, expect a stormy relationship that includes accusations and anger, jealousy, bullying, control, and break-ups due to the borderline’s insecurity. Nothing is grey or gradual. For borderlines, things are black and white. They have the quintessential Jekyll and Hyde personality. Fluctuating dramatically between idealizing and devaluing you, they may suddenly and sporadically shift throughout the day. You never know what or whom to expect. more
Living with an addict can be a living hell. Unpredictable and dangerous, yet sometimes exciting and romantic. Never knowing when we’ll be blamed or accused. Not being able to dependably plan social events. As the addict becomes more irresponsible, we pick up the slack and do more, often becoming the sole functioning parent or even the sole provider; yet we’re unable to lean on our partner for comfort or support. Meanwhile, we rescue him or her from disasters, medical emergencies, accidents, or jail, make excuses for no-shows at work and family gatherings, and patch up damaged property, relationships, and self-inflicted mishaps. We may also endure financial hardship, criminality, domestic violence, or infidelity due to the addict’s behavior.
We worry, feel angry, afraid, and alone. We hide our private lives from friends, co-workers, and even family to cover up the problems created by addiction or alcoholism. Our shame isn’t warranted; nonetheless, we feel responsible for the actions of the addict. Our self-esteem deteriorates from the addict’s lies, verbal abuse, and blame. Our sense of safety and trust erodes as our isolation and despair grow. My focus is on alcoholism, but many of the feelings partner’s experience are the same, regardless of the type of addiction. more
Wonder whether you’re in love or in lust? Whether your obsession about someone is a sign of love or addiction? Whether you’re staying in a troubled relationship because you’re addicted or in love? It’s complicated, and lust and love and addiction don’t always exclude one another. Endless analyzing doesn’t help or change our feelings, because we’re often driven by forces outside our conscious awareness.
Initial attraction stirs up neurotransmitters and hormones that create the excitement of infatuation and a strong desire to be close and sexual with the person. These chemicals and our emotional and psychological make-up can cause us to obfuscate reality and idealize the object of our attraction. Time spent in fantasy fuels our craving to be with him or her. This is normal when it doesn’t take over our lives.
It’s easy to fall in love with narcissists. Their charm, talent, success, beauty, and charisma cast a spell, along with compliments, scintillating conversation, and even apparent interest in you. Perhaps you were embarrassed when your mate cut in front of the line or shuddered at the dismissive way he or she treated a waitress. Once hooked, you have to contend with their demands, criticisms, and self-centeredness. The relationship revolves around them, and you’re expected to meet their needs when needed, and are dismissed when not. more
We all want to get our needs met, but manipulators use underhanded methods. Manipulation is a way to covertly influence someone with indirect, deceptive, or abusive tactics. Manipulation may seem benign or even friendly or flattering, as if the person has your highest concern in mind, but in reality it’s to achieve an ulterior motive. Other times, it’s veiled hostility, and when abusive methods are used, the objective is merely power. You may not realize that you’re being unconsciously intimidated.
If you grew up being manipulated, it’s harder to discern what’s going on, because it feels familiar. You might have a gut feeling of discomfort or anger, but on the surface the manipulator may use words that are pleasant, ingratiating, reasonable, or that play on your guilt or sympathy, so you override your instincts and don’t know what to say. Codependents have trouble being direct and assertive and may use manipulation to get their way. They’re also easy prey for being manipulated by narcissists, borderline personalities, sociopaths, and other codependents, including addicts. more
If you’ve ever been in a relationship with someone emotionally unavailable, you know the pain of not being able to get close to the one you love. They’re evasive, make excuses, or just inept when it comes to talking about feelings or the relationship. Some use anger, criticism, or activities to create distance. You end up feeling alone, depressed, unimportant, or rejected. Usually women complain about emotionally unavailable men. Yet many aren’t aware they’re emotionally unavailable, too. Getting hooked on someone unavailable (think Mr. Big and Carrie Bradshaw) disguises your problem, keeping you in denial of your own unavailability. more
Everyone starts out in life wanting to be safe, loved, and accepted. It’s in our DNA. Some of us figure out that the best way to do this is to put aside what we want or feel and allow someone else’s needs and feelings take precedence. This works for a while. It feels natural, and there’s less outer conflict, but our inner conflict grows. If we’d like to say no, we feel guilty, and we may feel resentful when we yes. We’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t. more
Do you feel trapped in a relationship you can’t leave? Of course, feeling trapped is a state of mind. No one needs consent to leave a relationship. Millions of people remain in unhappy relationships that range from empty to abusive for many reasons; however, the feeling of suffocation or of having no choices stems from fear that’s often unconscious.
People give many explanations for staying, ranging from caring for young children to caring for a sick mate. One man was too afraid and guilt-ridden to leave his ill wife (11 years his senior). His ambivalence made him so distressed, he died before she did! Money binds couples, too, especially in a bad economy. Yet, couples with more means may cling to a comfortable lifestyle, while their marriage dissembles into a business arrangement. Homemakers fear being self-supporting or single moms, and breadwinners dread paying support and seeing their assets divided. Often spouses fear feeling shamed of leaving a “failed” marriage. Some even worry their spouse may harm him or herself. Battered women may stay out of fear of retaliation should they leave. Most people tell themselves, “The grass isn’t any greener,” believe they’re too old to find love again and imagine nightmarish online dating scenarios. Less so today, some cultures still stigmatize divorce. Yet, there are deeper fears. more
Perfectionism is an addiction, meaning we’re repeatedly unable to stop our perfectionist behaviors. Like other addictions, perfectionism varies in severity and can have negative consequences. It harms our self-esteem, make us unable to accept other people’s differences and their mistakes and flaws, and it can rob us of time with them. We require that things look or are done in a specific, “correct” way in accordance with our perfectionist standards. Some perfectionists attempt to perfect their bodies with repeated surgeries or pursue athleticism to the point of injury. Severe perfectionism has also been linked to anorexia, depression, and even suicide.
Perfectionists are chasing an illusion that exists only in their mind. Telling perfectionists that they look fine or that their home or project is excellent is of no use. Their image of how things should be bears little correlation to reality. They will continue to find flaws and have difficulty taking pleasure in compliments or satisfaction from their efforts. more
The term codependency has been around for almost four decades. Although it originally applied to spouses of alcoholics, first called co-alcoholics, research revealed that the characteristics of codependents were much more prevalent in the general population than had been imagined. In fact, they found that if you were raised in a dysfunctional family or had an ill parent, it’s likely that you’re codependent. Don’t feel bad if that includes you. Most families in America are dysfunctional, so that covers just about everyone, you’re in the majority! They also found that codependent symptoms got worse if untreated, but the good news was that they were reversible.
Here’s a list of symptoms. You needn’t have all of them to qualify as codependent. more
Codependency is learned – learned inaccurate information that you’re in some way not enough, that you don’t matter, that your feelings are wrong, or that you don’t deserve respect. These are the false beliefs that most codependents grow up with. They may not have been told these things directly, but have inferred it from behavior and attitudes of family and friends and events. Often these beliefs get handed down for generations. Changing them isn’t easy and is difficult to do on your own, because it’s hard to see others, let alone yourself, through a lens that’s different than the one you grew up with. more
Rejection and breaking-up are especially hard for codependents. They can trigger hidden grief and cause irrational guilt, anger, shame, and fear. Working through the following issues can help you let go and move on.
– Codependents often blame themselves or their partner.
– They have low self-esteem, so rejection triggers shame.
– Relationships are of primary importance to them.
– They fear this relationship may be their last.
– They haven’t grieved their childhood.
– Loss and trauma from their childhood are triggered. more
When an obsession dominates us, it steals our will and saps all the pleasure out of life. We become numb to people and events, while our mind replays the same dialogue images, or words. In a conversation, we have little interest in what the other person is saying and soon talk about our obsession, oblivious to the impact on our listener.
Obsessions vary in their power. When they’re mild, we’re able to work and distract ourselves, but when intense, our thoughts are laser-focused on our obsession. As with compulsions, they operate outside our conscious control and are rarely abated with reasoning. Obsessions can possess our mind. Our thoughts race or run in circles, feeding incessant worry, fantasy, or a search for answers. They can take over our life, so that we lose hours, sleep, or even days or weeks of enjoyment and productive activity.
Obsessions can paralyze us. Other times, they can lead to compulsive behavior like repeatedly checking our email, our weight, or whether the doors are locked. We lose touch with ourselves, our feelings, and our ability to reason and solve problems. Obsessions like this are usually driven by fear. more
Love can’t exist without boundaries, even with your children. It’s easy to understand external boundaries as your bottom line. Think of rules and principles you live by when you say what you will or won’t do or allow. If you have difficulty saying no, override your needs to please others, or are bothered by someone who is demanding, controlling, criticizing, pushy, abusive, invasive, pleading, or even smothering you with kindness, it’s your responsibility to speak-up. Boundaries also are also internal, discussed below. more
Do you wonder if you are Codependent? Do you regularly sacrifice your opinions, needs or wants, and then feel resentful? Do you feel guilty saying no and resentful when you don’t? Are you controlled by, or try to control someone else, whom your thoughts and feelings revolve around, as in the Barry Manilow song, “I’m glad when you’re glad, sad when you’re sad?” Are you afraid of speaking up? Resentment, guilt, control, and fear are the hallmarks of codependency, a term once used only to describe the enabler of an alcoholic, is now more generally applied to unhealthy dependency.
Codependents live from the outside in, rather than from the inside out. In Codependency for Dummies, I define a codependent as someone whose thinking and behavior revolves around another person, substance or process. (Notice my definition includes addicts.) Codependents can’t access their innate true self that underlies their codependent self created in childhood. more
We may not realize that we’re feeling emotionally abandoned or that we did as a child. We may be unhappy, but can’t put our finger on what it is. People tend to think of abandonment as something physical, like neglect. They also may not realize that loss of physical closeness due to death, divorce, and illness is often felt as an emotional abandonment. However, emotional abandonment has nothing to do with proximity. It can happen when the other person is lying right beside us – when we can’t connect, and our emotional needs aren’t being met in the relationship. more
Everyone laughs when I tell them that I wrote Codependency for Dummies. But codependency is no laughing matter. It causes serious pain and affects the majority of Americans, both in and out of relationships. I know. I spent decades recovering.
There are all types of codependents, including caretakers, addicts, pleasers, and workaholics, to name a few. They all have one thing in common: They’ve lost the connection to their core. Their thoughts and behavior revolve around someone or something external, whether it’s a person or an addiction.
It’s as if they’re turned inside out. Instead of self-esteem, they have other esteem, based upon what others think and feel. Instead of meeting their own needs, they meet the needs of others, and instead of responding to their own thoughts and feelings, they react to those of others. Hence, they have to control others to feel okay, but that just makes matters worse. It’s a haywire system that leads to conflict and pain and makes emotional intimacy difficult. (Also see my blog about symptoms of codependency.) more
The relationship duet is the dance of intimacy all couples do. One partner moves in, the other backs-up. Partners may reverse roles, but always maintain a certain space between them. The unspoken agreement is that the Pursuer chase the Distancer forever, but never catch-up, and that the Distancer keep running, but never really get away. They’re negotiating the emotional space between them. We all have needs for both autonomy and intimacy – independence and dependency, yet simultaneously fear both being abandoned (acted by the Pursuer), and being too close (acted by the Distancer). Thus, we have the dilemma of intimacy: How can we be close enough to feel secure and safe, without feeling threatened by too much closeness?
The less room there is to navigate this distance, more difficult the relationship. There is less anxiety, and hence less demand on the relationship to accommodate a narrow comfort zone. more
Sons of narcissistic fathers are driven by lack of confidence. Raised by a self-centered, competitive, arrogant father, they feel like they can never measure up or be enough to garner their father’s approval. Their father may be absent or critical and controlling. He may belittle and shame his son’s mistakes, vulnerability, failures, or limitations, yet brag about him to his friends. He may boast about inflated versions of his achievements, while disparaging those of his son. A narcissistic father may ruthlessly bully or compete with his son in games, even when the boy is a less-capable child. Similarly, he may be jealous of his wife’s attention to the boy, compete with him, and flirt with his girlfriends or later wife.
Narcissists lack empathy. Many such fathers are authoritarian and rigid about how things should be done, the correctness of their opinions, and getting their way, portrayed by Robert Duval as the father in the movie “The Great Santini.” Franz Kakfa articulately describes a literary example of such an imposing intolerance in Letter to His Father (1966): more
Donald Trump has grown an empire of wealth and power, but is it enough? He admits that it isn’t the money that motivates him. (The Art of the Deal, 1987) What drives narcissists are their fears of feeling weak, vulnerable, or inferior. Consequently, for male narcissists in particular, achieving power is their highest value – at any cost. Trump is “certain about what he wants and sets out to get it, no holds barred.” (Trump on Trump)
There is great disparity between what narcissists show the world and what goes on inside. Despite their big egos, they’re frightened and fragile – just the opposite of their grandiose, powerful façade. They must work hard to keep up their image, not only for others, but for themselves. In fact, their immodesty and exaggerated self-importance are commensurate with their hidden shame. “Me thinks you protest too much,” defines them. Shame is paradoxical in that it hides behind false pride. Its defenses of arrogance and contempt, envy and aggression, and denial and projection all serve to inflate and compensate for a weak, immature self. Like all bullies, the greater their defensive aggression, the greater is their insecurity. more