Getting your “buttons” pushed or getting “triggered” is an opportunity to heal and grow. The more hurts we’ve endured and the weaker our boundaries, the more reactive we are to people and events. Our triggers – our buttons – are our wounds. Codependents are off the charts when it comes to reacting to others’ feelings, needs, problems, opinions, wants, and more. When we react, we permit our insides to be taken over by someone or something outside of us. There’s no filter or boundary. We’re pulled off center and might start thinking about that person or about what might happen in the future. Negative reactions easily escalate hurt feelings and conflict. Often, however, we’re really reacting to someone from our past.
A wise, apropos Al-Anon slogan is “Q-Tip,” – “Quit Taking It Personally.” Interpreting someone else’s words or actions to be a comment about us is taking another person’s feelings personally. We might react with guilt or defensiveness, because we assume we’re the cause of someone else’s negative emotion or problem. We have just taken on the other person’s problem or shame when they shame or blame us. Our peace of mind and self-esteem now resides with someone else. more
Anger hurts. It’s a reaction to not getting what we want or need. Anger escalates to rage when we feel assaulted or threatened. It could be physical, emotional, or abstract, such as an attack on our reputation. When we react disproportionately to our present circumstance, it’s because we’re really reacting to something in our past event – often from childhood.
Codependents have problems with anger. They have a lot of it for good reason, and they don’t know how to express it effectively. They’re frequently in relationships with people who contribute less that they do, who break promises and commitments, violate their boundaries, or disappointment or betray them. They may feel trapped, burdened with relationships woes, responsibility for children, or with financial troubles. Many don’t see a way out yet still love their partner or feel too guilty to leave. more
Trust is a fragile. Secrets and lies jeopardize trust and can damage us and our relationships – sometimes irreparably.
We all tell “white lies.” We say “I’m fine,” when we’re not, compliment unwanted gifts, or even fib, “The check is in the mail.” But in an intimate relationship, emotional honesty includes allowing our partner to know who we are. Honesty is more than simply not lying. Deception includes making ambiguous or vague statements, telling half-truths, manipulating information through emphasis, exaggeration, or minimization, and withholding information or feelings that are important to someone who has a “right to know” because it affects the relationship and that person’s free choice. Although we may consider ourselves honest, few of us reveal all our negative thoughts and feelings about people we are close to. It requires the courage to be vulnerable and authentic. more
Codependency has been referred to as “relationship addiction” or “love addiction.” Our focus on others helps alleviate our pain and inner emptiness, but by ignoring ourselves, it only grows. This habit becomes a circular, self-perpetuating system that takes on a life of its own. Our thinking becomes obsessive, and our behavior compulsive, despite adverse consequences. Examples might be calling a partner or ex we know we shouldn’t, sacrificing ourselves, finances, or values to accommodate someone, or snooping out of jealousy or fear. This is why codependency has been referred to as an addiction. more
In recovery circles, being a “victim” is frowned upon. Decades ago, when I heard people say they were no longer a victim, I had no idea what they meant. Actually, a victim is an individual who has been fooled, hurt, or harmed, due to his or her own emotions or ignorance, an unfortunate event, or the actions of someone who deceived, cheated, injured, or killed him or her.
At the time, I really was a victim. I was in a relationship where I experienced systematic, emotional abuse, but due to my ignorance, I didn’t know it. Many people, particularly codependents, are in relationships with addicts or abusers, including relationships with partners or parents who have mental illness, such as a bipolar mood disorder or borderline, sociopathic, or narcissistic personality disorders. They suffer from frequent and often malicious verbal and sometimes physical attacks, betrayal, manipulation, and other forms of abuse that can alter their perception, self-image, and ability to protect themselves. Many victims in abusive relationships don’t recognize it as such, because it’s reminiscent of the shame, neglect, or other mistreatment they experienced in their families of origin. As children they were unprotected victims; hence, they didn’t develop adequate self-worth or learn how to stand up to abuse. 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 it becomes abusive, 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
Forgiveness can sometimes feel impossible or even undesirable. Other times, we forgive only to be hurt again and conclude that forgiving was foolish. Both situations arise from confusion about what forgiveness really means. Forgiveness doesn’t require that we forget or condone another’s actions or the harm caused. In fact, for self-protection rather than anger, we may decide to never see the person again. Forgiveness doesn’t mean we justify or play down the hurt caused. Often, codependents forgive AND forget, and continue to put themselves in harms’ way. They forgive and then rationalize or minimize their loved one’s abuse or addiction. This is their denial. They may even contribute to it by enabling. 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
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
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
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
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
Has setting limits not worked? Despite your efforts, are your boundaries often ignored? It’s frustrating, but it’s not always the other person’s fault. Here’s why and what to do.
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
Are you searching for a soul mate or unconditional love? Your quest can set you on an impossible journey to find an ideal partner. The problem is often twofold: No human being, nor any relationship can ever achieve perfection, and often unconditional and conditional love are confused.
Usually, we yearn for unconditional love because we didn’t receive it in childhood and fail to give it to ourselves. Of all relationships, parental love, particularly maternal love, is the most enduring form of unconditional love. (In prior generations, paternal love was thought of as conditional.) But in fact, most parents withdraw their love when over-stressed or when their children misbehave. To a child, even time-outs can feel emotionally abandoning. Right or wrong, most parents at times only love their children conditionally. 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
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
People don’t understand the 12-Step recovery process, unless they have participated in a 12-Step program. Although they may encourage others to attend, they may feel perplexed or act patronizing. Often, therapists don’t realize that the 12-Steps are not merely an for addiction, but are guidelines for nothing less than a total personality transformation. Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics was influenced by Carl Jung, whom he wrote seeking a treatment for alcoholism. Jung replied that the cure would have to be a spiritual one – a power equal to the power of spiritus vini, or alcohol. He thought that addicts were “misguided ‘seekers for the spirit,’ …in the world of Dionysus, the god of renewal through the light from below, from the earth rather than from the heavens…” (Whitmont, 227)
The 12 Steps provide a spiritual remedy. They outline a process of surrender of the ego to the unconscious, God, or a higher power, and very much resemble the process of transformation in Jungian therapy. Jung believed that unity and wholeness of the personality, which generates a sense of acceptance and detachment, occurs when both the conscious and unconscious demands are taken into account – when not the ego, but the Self, is at the center of consciousness. (Storr, 19) He felt his life was “a story of the self-realization of the unconscious,” and rediscovered, as suggested by the 12 Steps, that God was “a guiding principle of unity.” (Storr, 24-25) 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
Valentine’s Day creates a lot of expectations that are often unrealized. It’s fraught with landmines, whether you’re in or out of a relationship, the grass isn’t always greener. Is your situation described here? Read six tips to having a great holiday.
I can recall Valentine’s Days I wished I were in love with someone who loved me. Worse, were Valentine’s Days when I missed an ex or spent time thinking about someone who wasn’t in love with me. Looking back, what was sad was that I made myself unhappy and ruined days thinking about “if only.” more
Each time you affirm your true, authentic self, every cell in your body cheers “Yes!” When you negate yourself, it has negative biological consequences. To build self-esteem and affirm your true self, try this:
Take action to meet your needs.
Express who you really are.
Think good thoughts about yourself.
Take action to do what you really want. more
Good relationships run smoothly and enable you to enjoy your life, work, and activities beyond the relationship. You’re not always worrying or talking about it. Like a smooth-running car, you don’t have to keep repairing it. You may have disagreements and get angry, but you still have goodwill toward one another, talk things over, resolve conflicts, and return to a loving, enjoyable state.
Cars do need maintenance, however. Take care of it, and it performs better. Relationships also take time and effort to maintain an intimate connection. This happens naturally in the initial romantic stage when you want to get to know your partner, spend time together, have frequent sex, and are more open and flexible. You’re less willing to compromise and may want less intimacy. Even if you don’t actually argue, you may return to the same emotional state you were in before you met – or worse – and wonder where your love went or whether your partner loves you. This is where the “struggle for intimacy” is required in order to maintain that love connection. more
Power exists in all relationships. Having power means to have a sense of control, to have choices and the ability to influence our environment and others. It’s a natural and healthy instinct to exert our power to get our wants and needs met. When we feel empowered, we can manage our emotions, we believe that we matter and that we can affect outcomes. We have a sense of efficacy in our lives, rather than being at the effect of others and circumstances. Instead of reacting, we can act because we have an internal locus-of-control.
In contrast, many of us may feel powerless and victims of outside forces. We can feel like our destiny is out of our hands. Some of us voluntarily give up our power to others. We may feel uncomfortable with exercising our own power, and believe that we will alienate others. Instead, we might react to others, defer to their wants and need, and have trouble making decisions and initiating independent action. We might feel like we’re being mean or raising our voice when we merely state what we want or don’t like. This impaired sense of power is common among codependents and stems from: more