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
Codependency is based on a lie. Its symptoms develop to cope with the deep, but false and painful belief – that “I’m not worthy of love and respect.” In the chart to the left, core symptoms of codependency are in red, but nearly all the symptoms revolve around shame – the shame that accompanies rejection. This entire system operates beneath our awareness, and until we know it and feel it, we’re caught in its grip. 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
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
If you’re in an abusive relationship, you may wonder if your partner is a narcissist or sociopath and whether or not the relationship will improve. If so, or if you recently ended such a relationship, it can undermine your self-esteem and ability to trust yourself and others.
The labels sociopath and psychopath have often been used interchangeably; however, sociopathy is correctly referred to “Anti-Social Personality Disorder.” (APD) Unlike mood disorders, which fluctuate, personality disorders, including APD and Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), are enduring, pervasive – affecting a wide range of situations, and are difficult to treat. Signs may be evident by adolescence, but a diagnosis isn’t made until adulthood.
Diagnosis of Anti-Social Personality Disorder
To qualify for a diagnosis of APD, the patient must have had a conduct disorder by 15 years old, and show at least four of these traits: more
When our self-esteem is low, which is typical of codependency, we’re at greater risk for depression. Codependency is learned, and so are self-esteem and the beliefs and habits that cause both low self-esteem and codependency. Self-esteem is what we think about ourselves. It includes positive and negative self-evaluations. Good self-esteem is a realistic, positive self-concept. It reflects self-respect and implies a feeling of worth that’s not determined by comparison to, or approval from, others. Self-acceptance (which some writers include as part of self-esteem) is even deeper. It’s a feeling of being good enough, neither perfect, nor inadequate. We feel we have worth and are lovable, not merely because of beauty, talent, achievement, intelligence, status, or popularity. It’s a sense of inner contentment. 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 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
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
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
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.
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.
Codependents have underlying internalized shame, which fosters a guilty conscience. They’re especially hard on themselves and may suffer from frequent bouts of unrelenting, false guilt. 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
Envy, jealousy, and shame are inextricably intertwined. Envy and jealousy are primal emotions that frequently overlap. They’re commonly first felt in the form of sibling rivalry and oedipal longings. A child innately wants mommy and daddy all to him or herself and feels “excluded” from the marital bond, especially if there have been parenting deficits that have led to shame and emotional abandonment. Typically, young children of heterosexual parents see their same-sex parent as a rival for their opposite parent’s love and feel both envious and jealous of their same-sex parent. Similarly, an interloper in a marriage may feel both jealous and envious toward the spouse he or she wishes to replace, possibly re-enacting childhood feelings toward his or her parents. Children are frequently envious and jealous of the attention showered on a newborn sibling. Belief that a sibling is favored can create lifelong feelings of shame and inadequacy. 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
The stress of the holidays triggers sadness and depression for many people. This time of year is especially difficult because there’s an expectation of feeling merry and generous. People compare their emotions to what they assume others are experiencing or what they’re supposed to feel and then think that they alone fall short. They judge themselves and feel like an outsider. There are a host of things that add to stress and difficult emotions during the holidays.
- Finances. Not enough money or the fear of not having enough to buy gifts leads to sadness and guilt. The stress of financial hardship during this economic downturn is often compounded by shame. When you can’t afford to celebrate is can feel devastating.
- Stress. The stress of shopping and planning family dinners when you’re already overworked and tired. 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
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
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
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