12 steps

Shout-out to everyone who is super triggered by father’s day.

Shout-out to everyone who has to interact with a father figure today, despite being triggered.

Shout-out to everyone who doesn’t even know why they’re triggered.

Shout-out to everyone who feels like they have PTSD or anxiety or depression or dissociation or personality disorders or addictions or other symptoms of trauma, but has no idea what that trauma might be.

Shout-out to everyone who has body memories, but not conscious memories.

Shout-out to everyone who was “only” emotionally or financially abused. To everyone who, no matter what kind of abuse it was, feels like “it wasn’t THAT bad, I shouldn’t even call it abuse.”

Your experiences are real and your trauma is valid.

There is a path to a safe, happy life, that other survivors have taken and can help you with.

You were not born for this.

You deserve a life that is happy, joyous, and free.

codependency is stockholm syndrome

[The following is a trimmed and updated version of a piece I wrote 8 years ago.]

I Even Dream Codependent

Last night I had a truly horrible dream. I was visiting my childhood home. Even though my parents divorced almost two years after I left for college and have barely spoken since, in the dream my dad was visiting too. I was out on the greenbelt near our house with my first girlfriend. Both of these people abused me.

In the dream, my ex-girlfriend was trying to get me to give her some money that she claimed I still owed her. She had wanted it to come in little pieces over the years, so she could have some whenever she needed it, and she wanted a piece now. She was, of course, being a dick about it, guilt-tripping me and pressuring me in her slightly menacing way.

I went back to the house to get the money and something to eat. I was leaving with a mandarin orange and a fistful of dollar], thinking I was alone in the house, and my dad appeared out of nowhere. He told me something I have now forgotten about how crazy I am and how incompetent I am to run my own life.

I went home, to my real home today, to the church I sometimes visit, because I knew my sponsor would be there. She knows all about these people and my history with them, and is always there for me when I need someone to talk to. I very much wanted to ask her to be there for me now but I couldn’t. I wanted to ask her if we could set up a time to get together every week for a while and talk, but I couldn’t. I wanted to tell her about what was going on with me, but I couldn’t.

Instead, I put off asking for what I wanted out of fear. I was afraid that she would be mad at me for taking up her time. I was afraid that it would somehow be inappropriate for me to try to get her to meet with me every week because she was so busy. I was afraid that this person who could give me what I needed wouldn’t, and that then I wouldn’t get my needs met. I was afraid of talking about all that stuff, and I was afraid of being rejected for it. And so instead, I just made small talk for a while until she had to run off to an appointment, and then followed her around trying to squeeze out what I wanted from her in between my fear and her haste.

This is basically the story of my codependency.

What The Hell Does Being Codependent Mean?

At its most basic, being codependent means trying to control things that aren’t within our control out of fear.

Obsessive control. Compulsive control. Fixing things. Fixing people. Trying to predict all the possible outcomes of what we are going to say or do, in the belief that we can make sure we get the best outcome - or avoid the worst.

When we….

  • worry about how other people perceive us
  • change how we think or act so that they will respond to us the right way
  • avoid bringing something up in order not to “rock the boat”
  • struggle with making even simple decisions like what flavor of ice cream to get (because we have to pick the right one - what if we just pick one and then we’re sad we don’t have the other? what if that’s what we really wanted?)
  • can’t identify our emotions much of the time
  • aren’t sure what we really want much of the time
  • put energy and attention into being able to tell when others are angry or sad even when they don’t say anything about it
  • have been doing that for so long that we just identify as very sensitive or empathic
  • have low self-esteem
  • talk about ourselves in self-deprecating ways, like the way that an animal in the wild might attack itself before others can
  • are never really satisfied with how clean our house is, how well our work is done, or our other achievements (whether everyday or otherwise)
  • are “driven,” type A people
  • stay in jobs or relationships that don’t work for us because we are afraid we won’t be able to find another one (or for any reason, really)
  • look to others’ opinions of our work to gauge our value (like the points here, or the approval of our bosses and coworkers)
  • obsessively correct others’ grammar, spelling and punctuation….

we’re fucking codependent.

I could go on writing that list all day. But what those wildly varying examples have in common is control. While codependency is often spoken of as occuring in relationships, we don’t need to be in a relationship to be codependent - and the codependency doesn’t end when the relationship does. If it were a game, the side of the box would read “For 1 to infinity players.”

But Everyone Does That!

Not really, but it can certainly seem that way sometimes. These behaviors are extremely common in many societies around the world, and even encouraged. For example, in the United States there are many different perspectives on how people’s work lives should be, from worker-owned collectives to the Great Harvest Company’s insistence on short workweeks, high pay, and ample vacation to Wal-Mart’s insistence on treating everyone like total and utter shit. The codependent fear-based mentality is certainly represented, but so are other views. If you are already working in a dysfunctional office environment, the scenery is very different.

I worked at the admission department of Mills College for a year and a half, in a classically dysfunctional workplace. Workaholism was encouraged; performance pressure was rampant. Everyone was wildly underpaid, and admission officers were forced to work evenings and weekends and pick prospective students up from the airport on top of their already jam-packed full-time schedules. When I quit, literally half the office told me privately that they were planning to quit too or (more often) that they were jealous of me. One woman begged me to take me with her. And yet, a year later, all of the people who had not already planned to leave are still there. And all of them still hate it. [N.B.: it is now 8 years later, and I think only one staff member from my time remains.]

And why don’t they leave? Fear. Control. The woman who hates it the most, who is routinely scapegoated by the crazy boss (and all the more so now that I am not there to scapegoat too) is afraid that she will not find another job. She is sure that if she leaves without finding something else, she will go broke. Her husband is not working right now, and she has three sons - and little faith in herself. The performance pressure has been dumped on her, so that her receptionist position increasingly involves mailings, data entry, spreadsheets, and other work that she didn’t sign up for, doesn’t enjoy, and isn’t particularly good at.

She wants to find another job first, but has little time to look, to write cover letters, to go for interviews. Most often, she convinces herself for a while that she would never be able to find a job that’s as good as the one she has now - she’ll never ever find another place with a pool! (That she rarely uses.) And anyway, they’ve backed off on her recently! Things are okay right now! [Not long after this, she was scapegoated to the point of being fired.]

The stories of the others are similar. We stay in denial, develop Stockholm Syndrome, because we are afraid that facing the way things really are, and changing them, will hurt. We are afraid that it is beyond us. Better to stay in the slowly boiling pot. Which has often made me think that….

Codependency is Stockholm Syndrome

Stockholm Syndrome occurs whenever a person is in the presence of, and cannot escape, a person who is temporarily more powerful than he or she is, and is threatening in some way.

This can happen from kidnapping and rape, and also from plain old ordinary abusive relationships.

The captive is forced to concentrate on the actions of the captor, and they begin to find ways to appease the abuser as a way of avoiding further abuse. Through a form of cognitive dissonance, they begin to focus on good things about the aggressor, and slowly begin to identify with them. Later, when/if the victim has survived the trauma, they still may identify with their former tormentors.

This is almost an exact description of how codependence occurs.

What Makes People Codependent?

In a word, abuse.

In two words, child abuse.

In more words than that….

Developmentally, children are supposed to feel like they are the center of the whole universe. In many ways, they should be at the center of at least their parents’ universe. It is natural for young children to feel very important and very powerful this way. However, it also means that they naturally assume that they must have caused any abuse that they experience. It creates a lot of fear for them, naturally, and creates an immediate desire to figure out how they can make sure they are never hurt again.

Therapist Pete Walker calls this “the fawn response.” Where others have identified three responses to trauma. fight, flight, or freeze - he adds “fawn” to this set, and explains it as codependency.

When he was a child, faced with a screaming and physically threatening mother, he tried fighting back, only to be smacked across the room. He could not run away; she was too much bigger. He tried to freeze physically, but that didn’t work either; he tried to freeze psychologically by dissociating as he saw his sister do, but could not find an escape that way.

So he “fawned” over her: he tried to intuit her emotional state and anticipate her needs, to do whatever he could to keep her from reaching boiling point. His focus in his life was no longer on himself, it was on trying to anticipate and control everything outside of him so that he wouldn’t get hurt. Which never works, and which just increases the feeling of shame about being hurt in the first place.The belief that we could have stopped it somehow, and that therefore it is all our fault.

Stockholm Syndrome. When abuse occurs in our family, in our home, it means we are living with, “and cannot escape, a person who is temporarily more powerful than (we are), and is threatening in some way.” We are forced to concentrate on the actions of the captor, and… begin to find ways to appease the abuser as a way of avoiding further abuse.“

We continue to identify with them for years afterward, seeking rationalizations for their behavior, denying that what they did was abuse. It wasn’t bad enough. So much worse happens to so many people. It didn’t really bother me. I deserved it. They really loved me. They didn’t mean to hurt me. They aren’t bad people. Rationalizations, designed to let us continue living in denial, because we are afraid of finally feeling what it was like to live that way.

And as a result, we find ways of continuing the abuse in our adult lives. Our comfort zones have been warped by the abuse: we associate “safe” with “familiar” without realizing that what is familiar to us is not safe. We find ourselves in strings of unhealthy relationships, repeatedly unable to recognize that they are unhealthy until they are over because of those incredible powers of denial.

We accept jobs that are below our skill level, or that pay less than we deserve, or that are dysfunctional in some way, because it feels familiar - because we don’t know what we really want to do - or were never taught the skills we needed to get what we wanted - or don’t believe we can. We pride ourselves in being able to do anything for our friends and partners, but don’t take care of ourselves - living in clutter, not sleeping enough, not changing our oil regularly, not having any fun.

All of this, ultimately, is an attempt to control the abuse. We think, deep down in a land without words, that if we attack ourselves first no one else will. I call it the gorilla switch: that little button inside us that tells us that if we are faced by a big threatening gorilla, we should attack ourselves so that it will get confused and back off. Abuse jams that button; it takes some work to get it loose.

The Root of Codependency

And that brings it back to abuse. Codependency is a reaction to abuse and an attempt to control it. And it doesn’t work, but maybe we can convince ourselves that it is working, or that it is about to. Maybe saying the right thing or doing the right thing averts the abuse 60% of the time, or maybe it’s just random and 60% of the time we can believe it worked. Certainly we have nothing better to try.

It’s a defense mechanism in an impossible situation. It lets us believe that we have some power over the terrible experiences in our lives.

And sometimes that saves our lives, for a while, when it might kill us faster to really understand how bad our experiences are.

But once we are out of them, it’s like a life preserver that we’ve worn since we were children. It is too small; it is choking us.

We fall into assumptions based on our fear and low self-worth, limiting our choices. Instead of considering a soul-smothering job or relationship to be an opportunity to look at what we really want to be doing with our lives and what we can change, we decide that we can’t possibly leave, that our only choices are stay or go broke, that we can leave this job but only if we have another one lined up.

We buy into the idea that “ceaseless toil and broken dreams are the essence of urban living” because it feels safe. We kill our dreams in their sleep so that we won’t have to face the terror and exhilaration of actually experiencing our lives.

Abuse sends us all kinds of horrible messages, and primary among them are that we are not worthy, that we deserve to be hurt, and that feeling this pain is normal. The ground from which we work is shaken and sometimes cracked right across by abuse; our foundations are unsteady. The more abusive messages we get, the more they become our baseline. The controlling self-abusive behaviors, the lack of self-care and the overfocus on things outside of ourselves, seem normal, and we work everything else out from that premise.

But You Make It Sound So Scary! My Life Isn’t That Bad! I Thought I Was Just Being Really Nice!

Well, it depends on what your standards for your life are. The problem with codependency is that it means we are willing to put up with and accept less than we want in our lives - and when we lower our standards for our lives, we can’t tell how our codependency is limiting and hurting us.

Being codependent, unconsciously living out the effects of abuse, means that we stay in dysfunctional jobs and relationships, telling ourselves that it’s not that bad for one reason or another. Even if we would counsel a friend in a similar situation to leave, it’s “good enough” for us. It means carrying around the painful weight of subconscious beliefs from long ago: that we don’t deserve better, that we could never get better, that if we speak up or live only for ourselves there will be dangerous repercussions.

It means not being true to ourselves, especially not to our boundaries, and often not knowing what boundaries we are “allowed” to have or how to set boundaries with others. It means that our default setting is to find ways to say yes to people and to agree with them, instead of finding ways to know what we can reasonably do and what we really think and feel. It means having a pattern of difficult, even abusive jobs and relationships, and clinging hard to any better ones we find.

It means fearing that we are not loved or worthy of love.

It means not taking care of ourselves well, often routinely not getting enough sleep, or enough food, or enough exercise, or enough fun, and having a hard time recognizing the effects of those things in the daze that they induce.

It means making many decisions out of fear of change instead of out of healthy desires for ourselves. It means putting a whole lot of energy into denial of the way things have been in the past and how they affected us, instead of accepting and working through the past so that we can put that energy into creating really incredible lives for ourselves.

In short, it means having normal lives like many of the people around us, being tired all the time, being followed by unfulfilled wishes and deadened dreams, joking about our dissatisfying jobs and settling for the best relationship we think we deserve, instead of being joyful and free.

It’s a real catch-22: in order to make changes we have to want better things for ourselves, but being codependent means that we are used to accepting less than we deserve.

Part of us wants to avoid having better things, because the cost is to face these issues - and sometimes, that cost seems too high. Better, we think, to just accept the way things are and keep telling ourselves that these are really minor problems, or not problems at all. Anyway, our energy is so tied up in keeping those beliefs going that we don’t have any left for changing things, right?

More to the point, being codependent means that we are out of touch with what we feel. Can you name the emotions that you are feeling right this second? If so, were you aware of them before I asked? If not, well, it’s very hard to feel what the effects of codependency are when we aren’t really feeling the effects of most things in our lives. This is the sort of thing that twelve-step groups mean when they talk about insanity: that we do things which harm us, from staying up too late to binge-drinking, because we aren’t paying attention to what the effects feel like. We lose the connection between cause and effect, to our detriment.

But there is hope. I have worked on my codependency for two and a half years, and while I still struggle sometimes with fear of people and unconsciously guarding what I say and do against their imagined reactions, or with self-care like going to bed early enough to enjoy my waking life, everything else has changed so much. [N.B. LOL wut maybe this was longer than 8 years ago? that should be 11 years ago if it’s two and a half years in.]

I am in a healthy, joyous, and balanced adult relationship for the first time in my life. [N.B. Now we’ve been married for almost 6 years!] I have huge reserves of self-respect and self-love. I go to bed by midnight even when I stay up late, instead of staying up until one or two in the morning every night watching reruns. I do half an hour of yoga almost every day because I enjoy it and love the way it makes my body feel, when previously I tried everything to convince myself to exercise regularly and could never keep it up.

I know exactly what my boundaries are in almost every situation, and know how to set them and keep them. I refuse to have abusive people in my life, and have kicked all of them out. I have learned to trust those who are trustworthy, instead of struggling with trust issues with just about everybody including myself. I can trust my instincts and listen to my body to know what to do. I no longer stay in jobs that don’t satisfy my needs and bring me joy.

I am doing what I love without the fear that is a hallmark of codependency and which used to lurk behind everything I did.

The resources I’ve used to do this are several. EFT, reading, and writing have all helped somewhat, but my primary tools have been 12-step fellowships. The twelve steps are an excellent framework for addressing these very problems, like the guidebook to life that I never thought I would get.

The main thing to remember is that recovering from codependency means discovering things about yourself that you never knew were there. Reclaiming parts of yourself and your life that you thought you had abandoned forever. Embracing everything with a passion and energy that you never knew you could bring, and finding that your life can be as fantastic as you want to make it. It’s worth the battle.

Just a few free groups, online and off, for some of the different effects mentioned above: