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 dollars, 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. The rest of the dream has dissolved in a blur for me now until the really painful part.

I went home, to my real home today, to the church I sometimes visit, because I knew a close friend of mine 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.

That dream basically tells 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, 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; the administrative side of the office had two supervisors, one who was supposed to understand the technical side of things but who clearly had borderline personality disorder and no appropriate social skills, and one who had better social skills whose main job was to relay information from the abrasive boss. Meetings never ended on time, 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.

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! 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

To quote that writeup:

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.

Borderline Personality Disorder is Codependent

This is a tricky one. Borderline Personality Disorder, in my experience, is different in crucial ways but often comes off as a pathological version of codependence.

As that writeup says, "A person with borderline personality disorder (BPD) is acting out their intense pain, fear, and shame using primitive defenses they may have learned long ago." That is exactly what we do with codependency, but BPD takes some of the traits to a greater extreme.

Codependency doesn't include mood swings every few hours, but as it is caused by abuse it often is accompanied by intense and usually misdirected anger. We often find ourselves getting much angrier than a situation warrants because something about it (often unbeknownst to us) is triggering that anger from the past.

Codependency doesn't necessarily include self-injury or suicidal acts. Those actions, like codependency, are a symptom of abuse. But in a way they are codependent themselves: whether we are self-injuring to express the pain inside of us, to punish ourselves, or to feel something at last, on some level we are reenacting the abuse that we experienced as children, taking on inappropriate responsibility for the abuse in order to feel some kind of control. More consciously, we often do it to control our emotions, whether to numb them or bring them out. Similarly, codependency doesn't necessarily include alcoholism or other self-damaging impulsive behaviors, but it always presents alongside some. Eventually we come to realize that those behaviors were another doomed attempt to control the uncontrollable.

We learn that "people with BPD may not feel like they know who they are, or what they think, or what their opinions are, or what religion they should be. Instead, they may try to be what they think other people want them to be." What could be more codependent? This is classic; and often we don't even know that we are doing it. Likewise, both codependence and BPD are characterized by that feeling of emptiness inside that is caused by abuse.

Oddly, it's the relationship traits where the two really diverge. Not the dissociation or fear of abandonment: thos are both perfectly consistent with codependency. The real difference is in the way that people with BPD see themselves and others in absolute terms.

People with BPD are different from codependents in that they often label people as either "good" or "bad," often changing someone's label repeatedly. They are missing object constancy, which is also related to abuse. Children discover at a very young age that objects are still there even when they are hidden from sight; the absence of object constancy points to very early developmental disruption. Many forms of abuse freeze people in their emotional and psychological development, and this is only one of the ways that that can manifest. What it looks like in everyday life is that people with BPD often can't keep track of changes from day to day. If someone has plans and won't change them to babysit one day, they are Bad. If they call the next day and have a friendly conversation, they are Good. This turns into a kind of emotional amnesia: history quickly gets rewritten so that person was always Bad or Good.

The absolutist thinking is a kind of dissociation itself. It separates each person, each moment with them, into its own little box, and freezes it there. It is a lot like the mindset that keeps people in abusive relationships, in which each new act by the abuser has to be seen as unrelated to the others. Each one has to somehow be rationalized as being an isolated occurence. "Oh sure, she said she wouldn't hit me again, but she never said she wouldn't throw anything. I'll just make sure she promises not to throw anything at me again." "I know he screams at me all the time, but really this time it was all my fault. He's really stopped." The absolutist thinking that sees each moment with each person as isolated from all others may be an extreme example of that, extrapolated out from past abuse as a way to deal with the entire scary world.

People with BPD are invariably codependent, but most codependents do not have BPD. Those who do may possibly be identifiable by this absolutist thinking; by a difficulty identifying problems in their lives and a tendency to automatically attribute those problems to other people, not themselves; by, generally, having to struggle with putting a lot of energy into avoidance of responsibility and projecting problems onto the Bad people of the moment.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is Codependent

The two conditions have a lot in common. Codependency does not involve ritualized acts or persistent invasive repeated thoughts or images necessarily. But ritualized acts are a subconscious (and sometimes conscious) attempt to control things. Following a pattern on a rug and mentally completing it over and over, repeating all iterations of a particular word, touching certain things a certain number of times - these are all methods of controlling the uncontrollable. Of, in fact, becoming consumed with it, addicted to it.

Essentially, it is codependency wearing a very specific suit. We try all kinds of illogical and impossible ways to ward off danger. Showering people with gifts. Bending over backwards to do things for them. Making assumptions about what they want, or think, or will do, and running our own lives based on those assumptions. Curtailing our very thoughts in order to control others. As with most psychological diagnoses, the main difference is whether it is expressed in a way that seems scary enough to warrant a special label.

Often, OCD behaviors are consciously an attempt to "defuse" disturbing or unwanted ideas. Sometimes they come with a belief that the behaviors can ward off danger, like an obsessive ritual of checking everything in the house when leaving it to make sure it is all unplugged or locked. Often, they include trying to cancel out "bad thoughts," especially sexual images or images of causing physical harm. Often, this is a result of a child taking on the guilt and shame that belonged to their abuser and fearing that just as the abuse seemed random and inexplicable, so they will randomly and inexplicably become abusive themselves. Enter OCD: a powerful extension of the magical thinking and intense fear that accompany abuse.

Codependency is Addiction

Every addiction, deep down, is a doomed attempt to control all those feelings, all those situations, all those people that are out of our control. The most superficial example is that of the person who drinks to have fun, to loosen those inhibitions, to feel normal. To change themselves and how they feel without really changing themselves or how they feel. A temporary chemical change which requires increasing amounts of chemicals and which increasingly disables lots of other important functions. Including the connection to reality - not least because ultimately, buying into that illusion of control, of extroversion, of fun, erodes the ability to accept and deal with the lack of control, extroversion, and fun.

And that turned into the deeper example. Plenty of people use addictive behaviors that are more subtle, like overworking or undereating. At its most basic, an addiction is any self-harming behavior that we rely on to control our fear - whether it shows up as anxiety, embarrassment, guilt, or something else entirely. Fear that we aren't good enough, fear that we will run out of money, fear that we'll never succeed, fear that we're not loved, fear that we're not safe, and all those tiny personal iterations of those fears: that we'll never be able to get another job if we quit this one, that the rent check will bounce, that asking for what we want will make our partner storm out in a huff. There is no cocaine addict, shopaholic, pothead, alcoholic, sex addict, bulimic or compulsive overeater out there who is not codependent. The only difference between us all is which crazy controlling behavior is currently killing us, and how fast.

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.

It's very hard to choose something new and different. First of all, we don't live in an emotionally intelligent society. We live in a society of other people like us, who pretty much have each been reinventing the wheel for centuries. Get abused, become an adult, figure it all out alone. Then twelve-step groups came along, and started helping people learn new ways of dealing with their pasts and seeing their futures. Eventually therapy started to catch up to them, too. But the wave of people who are helping others see these patterns and see that they can have totally new, different, free lives is still growing.

Second of all, even if we could see how codependency affects other people, what they changed, and what their lives are like now, it is still difficult at first to see how these things apply to us. Codependency acts like a set of blinders, cropping our vision. We fall into assumptions based on our own low self-worth, limiting our choices. Instead of considering a soul-smothering job 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.

Instead, codependently, we give up real control of our lives, in the sense of empowerment, for the well-worn pathways in our thoughts and behaviors that make us feel like we'll eventually control things. For some reason, human beings would often rather try to change something the same way ten million times unsuccessfully than try one new way that might fail. We choose what we know doesn't work rather than what might not work, because if we know it doesn't work at least we can control the outcome.

All of these diseases and disorders that connect to (or are) codependency are more ways that we hurt ourselves after being abused. More ways to try to protect ourselves with harmful behaviors. Abuse sends us all kinds of crazy 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, followed by unfulfilled wishes and deadened dreams, joking about our dissatisfying jobs and settling for the best relationship we think we deserve, instead of going for something that is truly extraordinary.

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.

I am in a healthy, joyous, and balanced adult relationship for the first time in my life. 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 used to lurk behind everything I did.

The resources I've used to do this are several. EFT, reading, and writing have all helped, but my primary tools have been 12-step programs like Codependents Anonymous, COSA (for those affected by someone's sex addiction or sexual anorexia), Debtors Anonymous, and Survivors of Incest Anonymous. The twelve steps are an excellent framework for addressing these very problems, like the guidebook to life that I never thought I would get. Everyone has different tools that they use to deal with their issues, the more the better. 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.

Free groups, online and off: