Santa Monica Counseling, Therapist in Santa Monica, Los Angeles, and Culver City, CA, California - Darlene Lancer, JD, MFT
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Getting Triggered and What You Can Do

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.

Defining Triggers

What we react to – our “triggers”– are unique to our personality and individual history. Think of triggers as wounds – often from past trauma. When we’re triggered, we’re re-experiencing a past injury in present time – similar to a post-traumatic stress reaction. It’s reopening a painful wound that hasn’t had a chance to heal. A sign of being triggered is when our reaction is disproportionate to the present event or not reasonably related to the actual present facts.

Internal Triggers

Primary triggers are internal, dysfunctional personal beliefs that we learned in childhood. We can trigger ourselves into feeling ashamed if we don’t measure up to standards we’ve adopted for ourselves. We can easily activate our inner critic to ruin our day or our life! Do the steps in 10 Steps to Self-Esteem: The Ultimate Guide to Stop Self-Criticism to quiet your critic and overcome the “tyranny of the should’s.” An example is the belief that we should self-sacrifice for other people. Codependents generally deny or devalue their needs. Given this belief, it thus makes sense to put the needs of others first and feel guilty or ashamed not to. Someone asking for help would thus trigger our automatic offer of assistance, even when that could harm ourselves or be counterproductive to the person asking.

Shame-based beliefs about ourselves can make us vulnerable to being triggered by the words and behavior of others. When we’re criticized, whether or not it’s intentional, we can easily surrender our self-esteem and sense of well-being. A common trigger for codependents is being told they’re “too sensitive,” or “selfish.” Frequently, their parents dismissed their feelings or needs with these shaming labels. However, labels stick, despite the fact that they were said by an insensitive or selfish parent. We can grow up feeling branded for life, even though the judgments were untrue.

External Triggers and Overreactions

In some cases, triggers are signs of danger that preceded an earlier wound. We learned to react to them in order be safe and loved. Sometimes these warnings are helpful, but when applied automatically to a different situation, our reactions can be dysfunctional. This is particularly true when we overreact. Overreactions occur when the intensity and duration of our feelings and/or behavior are disproportionately greater than normal under the present circumstances. We overreact when we’re reminded of an experience we’ve had with someone or something important in our past. They may be hard to recognize in ourselves because we believe our perceptions are accurate, but they’re easy to identify in others. For instance, when a hypervigilant war veteran draws his gun upon hearing the walls creak at night – his behavior is appropriate in a war zone, but not when he’s safe at home.

Similarly, we might appropriately slow down if we see a police car to avoid a speeding ticket, but if our past experience with the police has endangered us or a loved to us, we might attempt to flee, drawing the police’s attention and leading to a serious conviction for reckless driving. An overreaction can bring about exactly what we’re attempting to avoid.

In some cases, overreactions are learned behavior that was modeled by a parent. Some people catastrophize everything, creating constant melodrama and mountains out of molehills. They may have grown up living in a perpetual state of crisis, and although they claim to hate it, they repeatedly recreate their stressful childhood environment.

More common examples of overreactions are: Marge worries that her husband is having an affair when he has to work late. This triggers for her, because her father worked long hours and cheated on her mother. When Marge asks her husband to help with the dishes, he becomes angry that she’s “telling him what to do.” In fact, he’s reacting to his domineering mother from his youth, not his wife. Marge was intimidated by her mother’s anger, so when her husband is angry, she accepts his blame and apologizes, though she did nothing wrong. By doing so, she not only reinforces his erroneous projection, but she also is encouraging his abusive communication.

Healing Our Triggers

The first step in healing triggers is being able to identify them, as well as your internal beliefs. Remember that these are wounds, and approach them with compassion and tenderness. Depending upon what the trigger is, healing may involve the stages of grief and/or re-evaluating the context and validity of learned beliefs. There are exercises and a handy chart in Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You that are very helpful.

People have different styles of reacting. One person might withdraw, while another attacks. It’s important to identify your reactive behavior and learn to detach rather than react. Then, evaluate the function and effectiveness of your behavior, and experiment with more productive responses. (For suggestions and exercises, see Codependency for Dummies.) As noted above, both overreactions and dysfunctional reactive styles can contribute to the problem we want to avoid. For example, placating an abuser invites more abuse, while setting effective boundaries diminishes it over time. (See How to Speak Your Mind: Become Assertive and Set Limits and How to Be Assertive.)

With healthy self-esteem and intact boundaries, we’re able to see that another person’s actions and point-of-view are not a reflection on us, but express his or her unique perspective, experience, needs, and feelings. There’s no need to react, only to listen and respond. Once we’re more connected to our real self, we can tolerate differing opinions and even negative feelings about us. We can listen to our own feelings and think about the other person’s words and actions. We can decide whether we agree and whether we’re responsible to the other person. We alone determine what we want to do, if anything, and whether we owe an apology.

When we’re reacting, sometimes anger covers up real hurt or vulnerability, blame may be hiding guilt, and self-blame may be displaced anger we have toward someone else. When we take time to connect to our true self, if we have feelings about what was said, we can respond authentically, which is different from an automatic knee-jerk reaction. We needn’t feel angry just because our partner is, nor guilty because he or she is hurt or upset with us, and we needn’t stop speaking to him or her when we’re being stone-walled. By not reacting, we can relate in a more authentic manner, which invites the same from other people and dramatically changes our interactions with them. See www.whatiscodependency.com for “14 Tips for Letting Go.”

©Darlene Lancer 2017

 

Posted in Codependency, communication, relationships, self-esteem, Welcome To My Blog,

Codependency is based on Fake Facts

Symptoms of Codependency

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.

Symptoms of Codependency

The symptoms of codependency are either caused by shame or are or are defenses to feeling shame, as explained in Conquering Shame and Codependency. Most codependents grow up feeling ashamed of their real feelings, wants, and/or needs. As adults they deny, devalue, and/or don’t express them to avoid their shame. Some people can’t identify them at all, and willingly put those of others first. This leads to anxiety, depression, obsessions and addictive behavior. Later, they feel anger and resentment or hurt and uncared about. Especially during courtship, they accommodate and please in order to be loved by someone to avoid a breakup. Once married, there’s often disappointment when the relationship feels unequal.

Shame is a feeling that leads to self-destructive thoughts and negative self-evaluations, which produces low self-esteem. Self-esteem isn’t so much a feeling, but how we think about ourselves. When we have toxic shame and make a mistake, whether real or imagined, our feelings of guilt are exaggerated and irrational. If we don’t believe we’re worthy of love, we must control what we show to others. We don’t communicate what we feel, or express our needs and wants. Instead, we have hidden expectations, and manipulate, hint, or become passive-aggressive. We hide who we are. Authenticity is compromised, and communication becomes dysfunctional. When we can’t be real, intimacy suffers. Initially, there may be wonderful romance, but eventually couples’ behavior becomes ritualized; sharing and closeness that first brought them together happens less infrequently, because they conceal anything that might upset the status quo for fear of feeling rejected or judged.

Still, “shame anxiety” – the fear of being judged or rejected – haunts codependents. To cope and to get what they need and want, they attempt to manipulate and control others. This becomes a necessity when we’re dependent on someone loving us or just staying with us in order to feel okay about ourselves or just to feel safe. Being alone for some people triggers feelings of shame, fear, and loneliness, while others manage fine on their own, yet are very reactive or lose themselves in relationships. This is their dependency. Their mood and happiness depend on someone else’s, and their self-esteem depends on acceptance by other people. They then have to manage others people’s feelings and behavior. People-pleasing and giving are ways to do that, as are creating drama, threats, and demands.

If our well-being and self-esteem depend on another person, it makes sense to think a lot about his or her motives, intentions, feelings, and behavior in order to feel secure. This accounts for codependents’ focus on and obsession about loved ones. Caretaking others is another form of control. If someone is dependent on me and needs me, then s/he won’t reject or leave me. Also, if I’m the one giving and helping someone else, then I don’t have to be vulnerable. My partner can be the vulnerable, “Underdog,” while I can feel strong as “Top dog” and Underdog’s protector, helper, or confidant. Such an imbalanced relationship breeds anger and resentment by both partners.

Many codependents are perfectionists. In their mind, they must be perfect, because the alternative is that they will “look bad” in some way or feel like a failure. Mistakes or flaws create great discomfort due to shame arising within. They may feel anxious, angry or driven to fix something, when really they’re attempting to fix their own inner, unconscious, sense of inadequacy. They live with the “tyranny of the should’s” fed by shame anxiety and perfectionism. Making mistakes, being human, feeling ordinary, are not acceptable; these are experienced as shame.

Recovery from Codependency

Learning new behavior, such as learning to be assertive, go a long way to raise self-esteem and build autonomy (rather than dependency). These steps can empower you and give you a greater sense of control and happiness in your life. (See my books and webinars on building self-esteem and learning to be assertive.) Changing lifelong habits isn’t easy or quick. It requires real courage and the support of a therapist or experienced sponsor in a 12-Step group to do the recommended work in the Twelve Steps. However, for enduring recovery, we must truly undo the lie that envelops us. Confronting and healing the core issue of shame are required for lasting change and to prevent relapse into unhealthy relationships. Start by working the steps in Conquering Shame and Codependency. Ideally, begin therapy with a trained, licensed psychotherapist.

©Darlene Lancer 2017

Posted in Codependency, relationships, self-esteem, symptoms of codependency,

Relationship Killers: Anger and Resentment

Anger managementAnger 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.

Codependency Causes Anger and Resentment

Codependent symptoms of denial, dependency, lack of boundaries, and dysfunctional communication produce anger. Denial prevents us from accepting reality and recognizing our feelings and needs. Dependency on others spawns attempts to control them to feel better, rather than to initiate effective action. But when other people don’t do what we want, we feel angry, victimized, unappreciated or uncared for, and powerless – unable to be agents of change for ourselves. Dependency also leads to fear of a confrontation. We prefer to not “rock the boat” and jeopardize the relationship. With poor boundaries and communication skills, we don’t express our needs and feeling, or do so ineffectively. Hence, we’re unable to protect ourselves or get what we want and need. In sum, we become angry and resentful, because we:

  1. Expect other people to make us happy, and they don’t.
  2. Agree to things we don’t want to.
  3. Have undisclosed expectations of other people.
  4. Fear confrontation.
  5. Deny or devalue our needs and thus don’t get them met.
  6. Try to control people and things, over which we have no authority.
  7. Ask for things in non-assertive, counterproductive ways; i.e., hinting, blaming, nagging, accusing.
  8. Don’t set boundaries to stop abuse or behavior we don’t want.
  9. Deny reality, and therefore,
  10. Trust and rely on people proven to be untrustworthy and unreliable.
  11. Want people to meet our needs who have shown that they won’t or can’t.
  12. Despite the facts and repeated disappointments, maintain hope and try to change others.
  13. Stay in relationships although we continue to be disappointed or abused.

Mismanaging Anger

When we can’t manage anger, it can overwhelm us. How we react is influenced by our innate temperament and early family environment. Thus, different people react differently. Codependents don’t know how to handle their anger. Some explode, criticize, blame, or say hurtful things they later regret. Others hold it in and say nothing in. They please or withdraw to avoid conflict, but stockpile resentments. Yet anger always finds a way. Codependency can lead to being passive-aggressive, where anger comes out indirectly with sarcasm, grumpiness, irritability, silence, or through behavior, such as cold looks, slamming doors, forgetting, withholding, being late, even cheating.

If we’re in denial of our anger, we don’t allow ourselves to feel it or even mentally acknowledge it. We may not realize we’re angry for days, weeks, years after an event. All of these difficulties with anger are due to poor role models growing up. Learning to manage anger should be taught in childhood, but our parents lacked skills to handle their own anger maturely, and therefore were unable to pass them on. If one or both parents are aggressive or passive, we would copy one or the other parent. If we’re taught not to raise our voice, told not to feel angry, or were scolded for expressing it, we learned to suppress it. Some of us fear we’ll turn into the aggressive parent we grew up with. Many people believe it’s not Christian, nice, or spiritual to be angry and they feel guilty when they are.

The truth is that anger is a normal, healthy reaction when our needs aren’t met, our boundaries are violated, or our trust is broken. Anger has to move. It’s a powerful energy that requires expression and sometimes action to correct a wrong. It needn’t be loud or hurtful. Most codependents are afraid their anger will hurt or even destroy someone they love. Not necessarily so. Correctly handled, it can improve a relationship.

Anger and Depression

Sometimes anger hurts us most of all. Mark Twain wrote, “Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.”

Anger can contribute to ill health and chronic illness. Stressful emotions wear down the body’s immune and nervous systems and its ability to repair and replenish itself. Stress-related symptoms include heart disease (high blood pressure, heart attacks and stroke, digestive and sleep disorders, headaches, muscle tension and pain, obesity, ulcers, rheumatoid arthritis, TMJ, and chronic fatigue syndrome.

Unexpressed anger breeds resentment or gets turned against ourselves. It’s been said that depression is anger turned inward. Examples are guilt and shame, forms of self-hatred that when excessive, lead to depression.

Expressing Anger Effectively

Managing our anger is essential to success in work and relationships. The first step is acknowledging it and recognizing how it manifests in our body. Identify the physical signs of anger, usually muscular tension, including clenching, and heat. Slow your breath and bring it into your belly to calm you. Take time out to cool-off.

Repeating gripes or arguments in our mind is a sign of resentment or “re-sent” anger. Admitting we’re angry, followed by acceptance, prepares us for a constructive response. Anger may signal deeper feelings or hidden pain, unmet needs, or that action is required. Sometimes, resentment is fueled by unresolved guilt. To overcome guilt and self-blame, see Freedom from Guilt and Blame – Finding Self-Forgiveness.

Understanding our reaction to anger includes discovering our beliefs and attitudes about it and what have influenced their formation. Next, we should examine and identify what triggers our anger. If we frequently over-react and view others’ actions as hurtful, it’s a sign of shaky self-worth. When we raise our self-esteem and heal internalized shame, we won’t over-react, but are able to respond to anger in a productive and assertive manner. To learn assertiveness skills, read the examples in How to Speak Your Mind: Become Assertive and Set Limits, and write out scripts and practice the role plays in How to Be Assertive.

In the heat of anger, we may overlook our contribution to the event or that we owe an apology. Acknowledging our part can help us learn and improve our relationships.

Finally, forgiveness doesn’t mean we condone or accept bad behavior. It means that we’ve let go of our anger and resentment. Praying for the other person can help us find forgiveness. Read “The Challenge of Forgiveness.”

Working with a counselor is an effective way to learn to manage anger and communicate it effectively.

©Darlene Lancer 2017

Posted in abuse, Codependency, communication, depression, relationships, self-esteem,

Secrets and Lies: The Damage of Deception

Lies, Betrayal, Secrets, Deception, AdulteryTrust 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.

Harm Caused by Secrets and Lies

Most people who lie worry about the risks of being honest, but give little thought to the risks of dishonesty. Some of the ways in which lies and secrets cause harm are:

  1. They block real intimacy with a partner. Intimacy is based on trust and authenticity – the ability to be vulnerable – “naked” not only physically, but emotionally.
  2. They lead to cover-up lies and omissions that can be hard to remember. These mount up, and if the truth comes out, it may be more hurtful than the original secret. The longer the truth is hidden, the greater becomes the hurdle of revelation, for it would bring into question every instance of cover-up and all times the innocent partner relied upon and trusted the betrayer.
  3. Because of number 1 and 2, above, the secret holder normally feels guilty, or at least uncomfortable, during intimate moments with the deceived person. Closeness and certain topics tend to be avoided. Avoidance may not even be conscious and include things like being preoccupied with work, friends, hobbies, or addictive behavior, and doing activities that leave little opportunity for private conversations. The deceiver might even provoke an argument to create distance.
  4. Universally, honesty is valued as a moral norm, although the context and specifics may differ among different cultures. When we violate religious or cultural norms by hiding the truth, we experience anxiety generated by guilt. Despite our best efforts at hiding, our physiological reaction is the basis for electronic lie detectors.
  5. Violation of our values leads to not only guilt about our actions, but also it affects our self-concept. Over a long period, deception can eat away at our self-esteem. Ordinary guilt that could be reversed with honesty now becomes shame and undermines our fundamental sense of dignity and worthiness as a person. The gap between the self we show others and how we feel inside widens. Writes secret keeper Jane Isay, “… a simple set of secrets can spread through a person’s character like a cancer, one that is hard to remove.” (“Secrets and Lies,” Psychology Today, March, 2014.) See Conquering Shame and Codependency.
  6. Ways of managing guilt and shame create more problems. We hide not only the secret but more of who we are. We might build resentments to justify our actions, withdraw, or become critical, irritable, or aggressive. We rationalize our lie or secret to avoid the inner conflict and the danger we imagine awaits us if we come clean. Some people become obsessed with their lie to the point that they have difficulty concentrating on little else. Other people are able to compartmentalize their feelings or rationalize their actions to better manage dishonestly. Compartmentalization and denying, rationalizing (“What my partner doesn’t know won’t hurt him/her.”) or minimizing (“I only did it once.”) are psychological defenses that help us deal with inner conflict and an undesirable reality. They can be so effective that we’re convinced lying supports the relationship. We don’t want to face the hurt or choices that the truth could precipitate.
  7. Not surprisingly, beyond mental distress, research reveals that lying leads health complaints.
  8. Victims of deception may react to the avoidant behavior by feeling confused, anxious, angry, suspicious, abandoned, or needy. They may begin to doubt themselves, and their self-esteem may suffer.

What to Reveal

Opinions vary on how much “truth” others need to know. In some cultures, there’s a tacit understanding that infidelity is expected – as long as the adulterer is discreet. Mores change over time, so that homosexuality and transexuality, once taboos, are more openly accepted and discussed.  Similarly, the fact of adoption and information about the birth parents were once kept secret or only revealed when the child was older. Such jarring revelations often were traumatic, yet also explained confusing anomalies in the child’s mind. Today, it’s recommended that toddlers be told, and some families opt for open adoptions, where the birth mother is involved more or less in the child’s life.

We have a right to information about our heritage, particularly for medical reasons. Secrets about things such as addiction, criminality, and mental illness lead to chronic shame and family dysfunction. Children already “know” something’s wrong, but denial undermines their self-trust and reality testing.

In a sexual relationship, we have a right to know our partner’s intentions and fidelity for emotional as well as health reasons. Often faithful partners rationalize or deny this need and their vulnerability to their emotional detriment. By not asking questions or expressing their needs, they enable and collude in deception for the same reason that the betrayer is dishonest or secretive – to not rock the boat and jeopardize the relationship. When there’s been betrayal, even if the couple stays together, seeds of distrust linger and sometimes poison the relationship.

On the other hand, we also have a right to privacy. Even in the most intimate relationship, disclosure of conversations with our therapist, close friends, and relatives in my opinion, should be discretionary.

Victims of Betrayal

When the truth comes out, often it‘s enlightening. It can help the other person make sense of previously unexplained or confusing behavior. At the same time, it can be devastating and traumatic to discover that the one we loved and trust has betrayed us. It can shatter the image we have of our partner as well as our confidence in ourselves and even reality itself. Unfortunately, frequently victims of betrayal blame themselves. Although it may be fruitful to examine our behavior in order to learn from it, we’re never responsible for someone else’s actions or omissions. If the relationship wasn’t working, both partners have a responsibility to speak up and address problems.

Aggrieved partners begin to review details of prior events and conversations, looking for overlooked clues and evidence of lies. There’s a natural desire to seek explanations and to know more facts. They may painfully conclude that they and their partner have been living in two very different realities, which they once believed were shared. Even if the relationship survives, it’s a loss when trust is broken. (See “Rebuilding Trust.”) As with all losses, our first reaction is denial, if not of the facts, then the severity of the impact. It may take time to accept the truth. Each of us will attribute a different meaning to the facts in order to heal and make peace with ourselves, our loved ones, and a disordered reality we once thought was safe and predictable.

When, and How to Reveal

What, when, why, and how we disclose are all essential factors. The timing, impact, and our motives should be carefully considered. The Ninth Step in Twelve Step Programs suggests making amends to people we’ve harmed, “except when to do so would injure them or others.”(See Spiritual Transformation in the Twelve Steps.) Full disclosure may be necessary to rebuild a broken marriage. Research shows that half-truths can leave you feeling even worse. (“Total Regret,” by Kelly Dickerson, Psychology Today, May, 2014.) Studies also show that people who have good self-esteem and a positive opinion of their partner are more likely to forgive. See “The Challenge of Forgiveness.”  However, what are the compelling reasons to reveal an affair that’s long over or a current one that we have no intention of ending? In the first case, is it to deepen mutual intimacy, or in the latter, to avoid it or provoke a divorce that we’re afraid to initiate? Disclosing our dissatisfaction in the relationship might be the necessary conversation that if communicated earlier would have prevented the affair.

For everyone involved, the pain of secrecy compounds the pain over the initial event, and the longer deception continues, the more damaging it is to self-esteem. Ideally, before revealing the truth to the person we’ve lied to, it’s helpful to have accepted our mistakes; otherwise, our shame and guilt can be obstacles to genuine empathy for the person we’ve harmed. First talk to someone nonjudgmental, whom you trust, or seek counseling. If we’ve forgiven ourselves, we’re in a better position to answer questions and face anger and hurt feelings that we’ve caused. To heal from guilt, see Freedom from Guilt and Blame – Finding Self-Forgiveness.

Each case of betrayal is unique. The potential damage and complications that surround lying as well as disclosure are things to consider when telling lies and keeping secrets. Contemplation in advance about the consequences of our actions to ourselves, our loved ones, and our relationships requires a degree of self-awareness, but can prevent unnecessary suffering. For more information on affairs, see www.dearpeggy.com.

©Darlene Lancer 2016

Posted in abuse, communication, Divorce, marriage, relationships, Welcome To My Blog,

Codependency Addiction: Stages of Disease and Recovery

stages-of-codependencyCodependency 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.

Experts agree that addiction is a disease, similar to other medical conditions. The American Society of Addiction Medicine defines addiction as a chronic, progressive brain disease, affecting the reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. It’s characterized by craving, denial, dysfunctional emotional responses, and inability to consistently abstain and control behavior. To diagnose a mild substance use disorder, the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM-V) requires only two out of 11 symptoms, which can vary in severity on a continuum. (See “Living with an Addict” for the diagnostic criteria.)

However, there isn’t universal consensus on the definition of “disease” itself. Previously, the definition required that it be chronic and progressive. Now, the American Medical Association defines disease as a condition that impairs normal functioning, creates harm, and has distinguishing signs or symptoms. In 1956, it decided that addiction was a disease, and in 2013 also named obesity a disease. A prime motivation in both cases was to de-stigmatize these conditions and encourage treatment.

Is Codependency a Disease?

In 1988, psychiatrist Timmen Cermak suggested that codependency is a disease noting the addictive process. Psychiatrist and doctor of internal medicine, Charles Whitfield , described codependence as a chronic and progressive disease of “lost-selfhood” with recognizable, treatable symptoms– just like chemical dependence. I agree with Dr. Whitfield, and in Codependency for Dummies refer to codependency as a disease of a lost self. In recovery, we recover our selves.

Codependency is also characterized by symptoms that vary on a continuum similar to those associated with drug addiction. They range from mild to severe and include dependency, denial, dysfunctional emotional responses, craving and reward (through interaction with another person), and inability to control or abstain from compulsive behavior without treatment. You increasingly spend time thinking about, being with, and/or trying to control another person, just as a drug addict with a drug. Other social, recreational, or work activities suffer as a result. Finally, you might continue your behavior and/or the relationship, despite persistent or recurring social or interpersonal problems it creates.

Stages of Codependency

Codependency is chronic with enduring symptoms that are also progressive, meaning that they worsen over time without intervention and treatment. In my opinion codependency begins in childhood due to a dysfunctional family environment. But children are naturally dependent, it cannot be diagnosed until adulthood, and generally begins to manifest in close relationships. There are three identifiable stages leading to increasing dependence on the person or relationship and corresponding loss of self-focus and self-care.

            Early Stage

The early stage might look like any romantic relationship with increased attention and dependency on your partner and desire to please him or her. However, with codependency, we can become obsessed with the person, deny or rationalize problematic behavior, doubt our perceptions, fail to maintain healthy boundaries, and give up our own friends and activities.

            Middle Stage

Gradually, there’s increased effort required to minimize painful aspects of the relationship, and anxiety, guilt, and self-blame set in. Over time, our self-esteem lessens as we compromise more of ourselves to maintain the relationship. Anger, disappointment, and resentment grow. Meanwhile we enable or try to change our partner through compliance, manipulation, nagging, or blaming. We might hide problems and withdraw from family and friends. There may or may not be abuse or violence, but our mood worsens, and obsession, dependence, and conflict, withdrawal, or compliance increase. We might use other addictive behaviors to cope, such as eating, dieting, shopping, working, or abusing substances.

           Late Stage

Now the emotional and behavioral symptoms begin to affect our health. We may experience stress-related disorders, such as digestive and sleep problems, headaches, muscle tension or pain, eating disorders, TMJ, allergies, sciatica, and heart disease.  Obsessive-compulsive behavior or other addictions increase, as well as lack of self-esteem and self-care. Feelings of hopelessness, anger, depression, and despair grow.

Recovery

The good news is that the symptoms are reversible when a codependent enters treatment. People don’t generally seek help until there’s a crisis or they’re in enough pain to motivate them. Usually, they aren’t aware of their codependency and may also be in denial about someone else’s abuse and/or addiction Recovery begins with education and coming out of denial. Reading about codependency is a good beginning, but greater change occurs through therapy and attending a Twelve-Step program, such as Al-Anon, CoDA, Nar-Anon, Gam-Anon, or Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous.

In recovery, you gain hope and the focus shifts from the other person to yourself. There are early, middle, and late stages of recovery that parallel recovery from other addictions. In the middle stage, you begin to build your own identity, self-esteem, and the ability to assertively express feelings, wants, and needs. You learn self-responsibility, boundaries, and self-care. Psychotherapy often includes healing PTSD and childhood trauma.

In the late stage, happiness and self-esteem doesn’t depend on others. You gain the capacity for both autonomy and intimacy. You experience your own power and self-love. You feel expansive and creative, with the ability to generate and pursue your own goals.

Codependency doesn’t automatically disappear when a person leaves a codependent relationship. Recovery requires ongoing maintenance, and there is no perfect abstinence. After a number of years in treatment, the changes in thinking and behavior become increasingly internalized, and the tools and skills learned become new healthy habits. Still, codependent behavior can easily return under increased stress or if you enter into a dysfunctional relationship. Perfectionism is a symptom of codependency. There is no such thing as perfect recovery. Recurring symptoms merely present ongoing learning opportunities!

©Darlene Lancer 2016

Posted in Addiction, Codependency, communication, Making Change, self-esteem, therapy, Welcome To My Blog,

Sociopath or Narcissist?

sociopath charles mansonIf 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:

  • Doesn’t sustain consistent work (or school)
  • Doesn’t conform to social norms, including unlawful behavior whether or not arrested
  • Disregards the truth, indicated by repeated lying, conning, using aliases, not paying debts
  • Impulsive or fails to plan ahead; moves around without a goal
  • Irritable and aggressive; e.g., fights or assaults
  • Recklessly disregards safety of self or others
  • Consistently irresponsible, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations
  • Lacks remorse, and feels justified in having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another
  • Doesn’t sustain monogamy for more than one year
  • Irresponsible and negligent as a parent

Types of Narcissists – Malignant and Closet Narcissist

Some narcissists can look like sociopaths, but there are narcissists who aren’t malicious and who care about their families. Those who have all or most of the 9 criteria for a diagnosis of NPD (only five are necessary), and who exhibit them intensely and/or frequently, are considered malignant narcissists. They’re more exploitative, vicious, and destructive.

There are several types of narcissists – ranging from the common “Exhibitionist Narcissist” to the inhibited or “Closet Narcissist,” coined by psychoanalyst James Masterson. They may have an inferior self-image and show evidence of depression and emptiness, which the exhibitionist narcissist also has but hides, (also from him or herself). Rather than seek attention, the closet narcissist may shun it and even act humble. Like codependents, they are uplifted through the idealization of others. Contrary to some popular beliefs, this does not make codependents closet narcissists. The latter still lack real empathy and believe in their specialness and sense of entitlement, even in their martyrdom.

Comparing Sociopaths and Narcissists

Both sociopaths and malignant narcissists can be charming, intelligent, seductive, and successful. They share similar traits of being unreliable, self-centered, insincere, dishonest, and needing control. Both malignant narcissists and people with APD have an inflated view of themselves and sense of entitlement. Even when they’re abusive, they believe they’re justified and deny responsibility for their behavior. They lack insight, empathy, and emotional responsiveness. Although they might feign appropriate emotional reactions, this is a learned behavior and not sincerely felt. Narcissists who have fewer and less severe symptoms, along with “narcissistic” people who don’t have full-blown NPD, can have insight, guilt, remorse, and an ability to emotionally connect, as well as love. (See Dealing with a Narcissist: 8 Steps to Raise Self-Esteem and Set Limits with Difficult People to determine if your loved one is capable of change and whether your relationship can improve.)

Differences between Sociopaths and Narcissists

While sociopaths qualify as narcissists, not all narcissists are sociopaths. What drives them differs. But the main distinction is that a sociopath is more cunning and manipulative, because their ego isn’t always at stake. In fact, they don’t have any real personality. They’re the ultimate con artists and can take on any persona that suits them. Thus, they may be harder to spot, because they’re not trying to impress you or win your approval – unless it serves their agenda. Instead of bragging, their conversation might center on you rather than on themselves, and they can even be self-effacing and apologetic if it serves their goal.

Like premeditated killers, a sociopath is more calculating and might plot and plan an attack months in advance; whereas, a narcissist is more likely to react sooner, using intimidation and lies. Sociopaths are lazier and try to swindle, steal, or exploit others financially, while many narcissists though exploitative, work hard to achieve their aims or perfection. Although both characters may be motivated to win at all costs, narcissists are more interested in what you think of them. They need others’ admiration. This makes them dependent and codependent on others, and actually capable of being manipulated.  They’re less likely to divorce their spouse than a sociopath, who might leave or vanish if they’re exposed or don’t get what they want.

Help and Treatment

People with NPD or APD don’t usually seek treatment, unless, in the case of NPD, they’re experiencing severe stress, depression, or their partner insists. Those with APD are sometimes unwillingly court-ordered to therapy, which in itself becomes a hurdle to overcome in terms of trust and receptivity. Therapy should focus on helping them access their feelings and learn from the negative consequences of their behavior.

Many narcissists can improve with treatment, and those who have insight can benefit from psychodynamic psychotherapy. If you suspect you’re in a relationship with a narcissist, learn more about narcissistic relationships and get a checklist of narcissistic behaviors.

Everyone is unique, and people don’t always fit neatly into defined categories. Severe NPD resembles APD, and any differences are really irrelevant. Don’t be concerned with diagnosing; instead, put your energy into healing yourself from trauma or PTSD and codependency. If you’re in an abusive relationship, seek help immediately. Neither  staying nor leaving is easy. Focus on gaining awareness, protecting yourself, and getting help and support. Follow the steps in Dealing with a Narcissist to raise your self-esteem and set boundaries. Change and a better life is definitely possible.

©Darlene Lancer 2016

Posted in Codependency, Divorce, Narcissism, relationships, self-esteem, therapy, Welcome To My Blog,

10 Habits that Cause Low Self-Esteem and Depression

self-love, self-esteemWhen 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.

We each have intrinsic value, not based on how we perform or what we do or give. Just as every baby and breed of animal are unique and worthy of love, so are we. Unfortunately, as codependents, many of us grew up in families where love was nonexistent, conditional, or had to be earned. We believed that we had to earn or win the love of a parent. As a result, we’re afraid to be authentic for fear we may be disliked. We may pursue people who cannot love and reject those who love us. We “over-do” or “over-give” in relationships and at work, and end up feeling resentful, used, or exploited.

Habits that Damage Self-Esteem

If you conclude that self-esteem is essential to enjoying your life and enjoying enduring, healthy relationships, you’re right! The following bad habits, typical of codependents, can make you feel insecure, ashamed, anxious, sad, and hopeless:

  • 1. Negatively compare yourself to others
  • 2. Find fault with yourself
  • 3. Tyrannize yourself with “Should’s”
  • 4. Project self-criticism onto others and imagine they’re judging you
  • 5. Don’t try new things to avoid failing
  • 6. Procrastinate
  • 7. Doubt your instincts and decisions
  • 8. Ignore your needs and wants
  • 9. Don’t set boundaries and allow abuse, criticism, or exploitation
  • 10.Refuse to forgive yourself

When we compare ourselves to someone else, whether favorably or unfavorably, we are measuring ourselves by an external standard. Feeling “better than” someone is really a means to compensate for underlying shame and low self-esteem. The lift we get is false. It would be more helpful to wonder why we need to compare ourselves to someone else. When we compare ourselves negatively, it’s self-shaming. We feel inferior, lose confidence, and like ourselves less. It depresses our mood and discourages us.

An active inner critic besieges us with what we should and should not do and second-guesses what we’ve already done. Habitual fault-finding can cause us to assume others see us as we see ourselves. In this way, we project our critic onto others and anticipate and feel the effects of criticism or judgment that we imagine, even when none occurs. This leads to shame anxiety, people-pleasing, and conflicts in relationships.

Lowered self-confidence causes us to fear making mistakes, looking foolish, or failing. Our self-esteem is always on the line, so it’s safer not to try anything new to avoid appearing incompetent or not succeeding. This is another reason we procrastinate tasks or experiences that are new or challenging. At the same time, we nag and criticize ourselves for failure to accomplish our goals. Rather than take a chance, we make ourselves wrong for not trying, which ensures “failure” and low self-esteem.

Accommodating others from an early age leaves us unsure of our values and beliefs and encourages reliance on others. Decision-making becomes difficult, even paralyzing. Low self-esteem and shame heighten our fear of making mistakes, leading to self-doubt, insecurity, and indecision. Instead, we procrastinate or look to others for validation, opinions, and answers, which further undermines our self-trust and self-esteem.

Accommodating others also alienates us from our needs and wants. By not acknowledging, expressing, and meeting our needs and wants, we’re admitting to ourselves and others that they’re not important; ergo, that we’re not important. On the other hand, taking responsibility to meet our needs and/or ask for them (such as asking for a raise) builds self-esteem. When we don’t, we feel helpless and a victim of circumstances and other people.

Not feeling worthy of love and respect – which we deny to ourselves – makes us vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. We don’t feel worthy of being treated well, and deny, excuse, or rationalize being abused or disrespected. Dependent upon others’ approval, we’re afraid to set boundaries lest we alienate those we love or need. We’re quick to blame ourselves and readily accept blame from others, because we’re guilt-ridden due to shame. Although we forgive the mistakes of others, especially if we receive an apology, we’re not as kind to ourselves. Apologies to ourselves don’t count. In fact, we can punish ourselves or hold a grudge against ourselves for years over past mistakes. (See Freedom from Guilt and Blame – Finding Self-Forgiveness.)

Treatment for Low Self-Esteem and Depression

Fortunately, we can grow our self-esteem and increase our capacity for self-fulfillment. It will enhance our creativity, ambition, physical and emotional health, loving relationships, and resilience in the face of adversity. It is the key to success. (Assess your self-esteem in this online quiz.) There’s a lot you can do on your own by following the steps in the How to Raise Your Self-Esteem webinar.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (“CBT”) is effective in treating both codependency and low self-esteem. Research has consistently found a link between depression and low self-esteem, and also that raising self-esteem using CBT reduces depression.[i] Treating any underlying trauma is also important, particularly when it’s focused on changing erroneous and self-shaming beliefs. Many CBT exercises are included in my books. (Also available on Amazon.) To overcome self-criticism, follow the steps in 10 Steps to Self-Esteem: The Ultimate Guide to Stop Self-Criticism. Learn to be assertive and set boundaries doing the exercises in the ebook, and webinar, How to Be Assertive. To dig deeper, discover and heal the roots of shame in your childhood, get Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing Your True Self.

©Darlene Lancer 2016

[i] Tsai-Hwei Chen, et al.,  “The Evaluation of Cognitive-Behavioral Group Therapy on Patient Depression and Self-Esteem;”  Gardner & Oei, “Depression and Self-Esteem”)

Posted in Codependency, depression, Making Change, self-esteem, therapy, Welcome To My Blog,

Steps to Be Empowered and Not a Victim

victimIn 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.

There’s a saying in Al-Anon Family Groups: “There are no victims, only volunteers” – meaning that when you tolerate unacceptable behavior, you volunteer for it. Learning that I was being verbally abused was enlightening. Before that, I brushed off painful epithets and criticisms by rationalizing and minimizing them. This is called denial. Once I faced the truth in an assertiveness class, I found the words and courage to name the abuse and say how I felt about it. To my surprise, the verbal abuse stopped, with only an occasional slip-up. I learned to disengage and walk away from potential attacks before they escalated. I was becoming empowered, and no longer behaving like a victim. This process took time.

There are other forms of “playing the victim,” such as blaming your unhappiness on your job or inaction on physical or emotional circumstances. The common denominator is putting the responsibility for your circumstances outside of yourself or beyond your power. Someone else or some circumstance is preventing you from achieving what you want.

Learning the Role of Victim

Contrary to the Al-Anon slogan, being a victim isn’t a role anyone wants or consciously chooses. No one enjoys feeling powerless and hopeless. There are unconscious forces at work that usually are determined by beliefs learned early in life. For example, if we have a shamed-based self-concept that we’re a failure or unworthy of happiness, we’ll likely prevent ourselves from achieving success or happiness, no matter how hard we try.

These beliefs are usually learned growing up in a dysfunctional family. Abusive relationships are closed systems. Often abusers try to exercise exclusive control over their partner with direct threats or through subtle manipulation, such as guilt or undermining, in order to keep their partner from talking to others or receiving outside information and help. Parents do this, too, to hide their shame and keep up appearances, using overt threats of punishment if the abuse is recounted to others, or with sayings, like, “We don’t share our dirty laundry,” and “Blood is thicker than water.” Victims may not know that there’s help or how to access it, and may fear for their life or loved ones if it’s reported.  Using the children to blackmail a spouse is not uncommon.

Becoming Empowered

Becoming empowered and leaving victimhood behind is difficult and extremely hard to do on our own. We’re all too used to our own perspective and repetitious thought patterns that go unchallenged until we talk to someone with a different, healthier perspective.  For instance, I felt trapped when I was verbally abused while riding in the car. Until my Al-Anon sponsor made the suggestion, I’d never considered getting out of the car. When I did, I couldn’t believe the immediate, exhilarating, empowering, and liberating high I felt. Had I not discussed the problem with her beforehand, that action never would have occurred to me. I started driving separately in my own car to events. This way, I could leave when I wanted, avoid abusive conversations, and not worry about my partner’s sobriety. By learning to speak up and set boundaries, I was becoming empowered and was no longer a victim to someone else’s mood or behavior.

Steps to Self-Empowerment

Whether you really are a victim in an abusive relationship or see yourself as one in your life, the solution is the same. There are suggested steps to achieving this freedom, not necessarily in the following order:

  1. 1. Learn all you can about your situation. Information is power. Read my blogs on abuse and books on codependency.
  2. 2. Get support from a therapist, experienced life coach, and/or a 12-Step Program.
  3. 3. Objectively observe others’ undesirable behavior and your reaction. Does your reaction make you feel better or stop the unwanted behavior?  Do you also do some of the objectionable behavior? Experiment with other responses, including none, and see the result.
  4. 4. Are you aligned with your goals and values? What steps do you need to take to be in alignment?
  5. 5. Start meeting your unmet needs. See the list in Codependency for Dummies.
  6. 6. What beliefs hinder you from accomplishing your goals. For shame-based beliefs, follow the steps in 10 Steps to Self-Esteem: The Ultimate Guide to Stop Self-Criticism and Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You.
  7. 7. Take responsibility for your choices. What feels different when you say “I want to,” instead of, “I have to,” and, “I don’t want to,” instead of, “I can’t?” Taking responsibility helps you accept your choices and initiates the opportunity for change.
  8. 8. Take action. Acquire the necessary skills and resources to achieve your goals. For example, if you’ve been nagging your partner to repair or clean something and s/he continually refuses to meet your request, either get the skills to do it yourself or hire someone who will. If lack of training or education stops you from pursuing a career you want, sign up for the requisite classes–even if it will take a several years.
  9. 9. Learn to be assertive. This empowers you to be authentic, set limits, and to build your self-esteem. Read How to Speak Your Mind – Become Assertive and Set Limits and watch How to Be Assertive.
  10. 10.Take responsibility for your happiness, unhappiness, and any part in disagreements and problems in your relationship, whether or not your partner does the same. Make amends for your contribution.

©Darlene Lancer, 2016

Posted in abuse, Codependency, communication, Making Change, self-esteem,

How to Spot Manipulation

manipulationWe 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.

Manipulative Tactics
Favorite weapons of manipulators are: guilt, complaining, comparing, lying, denying (including excuses and rationalizations), feigning ignorance, or innocence (the “Who me!?” defense), blame, bribery, undermining, mind games, assumptions, “foot-in-the-door,” reversals, emotional blackmail, evasiveness, forgetting, fake concern, sympathy, apologies, flattery, and gifts and favors. Manipulators often use guilt by saying directly or through implication, “After all I’ve done or you,” or chronically behaving needy and a helpless. They may compare you negatively to someone else or rally imaginary allies to their cause, saying that, “Everyone” or “Even so and so thinks xyz ,” or “says xyz about you.”

Some manipulators deny promises, agreements, or conversations, or start an argument and blame you for something you didn’t do to get sympathy and power. This approach can be used to break a date, promise, or agreement. Parents routinely manipulate with bribery – everything from, “Finish your dinner to get dessert,” to “No video games until your homework is done.”

Manipulators often voice assumptions about your intentions or beliefs and then react to them as if they were true in order to justify their feelings or actions, all the while denying what you a say in the conversation. They may act as if something has been agreed upon or decided when it hasn’t in order to ignore any input or objection you might have.

The “foot-in-the-door” technique is making a small request that you agree to, which is followed by the real request. It’s harder to say no, because you’ve already said yes. The reversal turns your words around to mean something you didn’t intend. When you object, manipulators turn the tables on you so that they’re the injured party. Now it’s about them and their complaints, and you’re on the defensive. Fake concern is sometimes used to undermine your decisions and confidence in the form of warnings or worry about you.

Emotional Blackmail
Emotional blackmail is abusive manipulation that may include the use of rage, intimidation, threats, shame, or guilt. Shaming you is a method to create self-doubt and make you feel insecure. It can even be couched in a compliment: “I’m surprised that you of all people you’d stoop to that!” A classic ploy is to frighten you with threats, anger, accusations, or dire warnings, such as, “At your age, you’ll never meet anyone else if you leave,” or “The grass isn’t any greener,” or playing the victim: “I’ll die without you.”

Blackmailers may also frighten you with anger, so you sacrifice your needs and wants. If that doesn’t work, they sometimes suddenly switch to a lighter mood. You’re so relieved that you’re willing to agree to whatever is asked. They might bring up something you feel guilty or ashamed about from the past as leverage to threaten or shame you, such as, “I’ll tell the children xyz if you do xyz.”

Victims of blackmailers who have certain personality disorders, such as borderline or narcissistic PD, are prone to experience a psychological FOG, which stands for Fear, Obligation, and Guilt, an acronym created by Susan Forward. The victim is made to feel afraid to cross the manipulator, feels obligated to comply with his or her request, and feels too guilty not to do so. Shame and guilt can be used directly with put-downs or accusations that you’re “selfish” (the worse vice to many codependents) or that “You only think of yourself,” “You don’t care about me,” or that “You have it so easy.”

Codependency
Codependents are rarely assertive. They may say whatever they think someone wants to hear to get along or be loved, but then later they do what they want. This is also passive-aggressive behavior. Rather than answer a question that might lead to a confrontation, they’re evasive, change the topic, or use blame and denial (including excuses and rationalizations), to avoid being wrong. Because they find it so hard to say no, they may say yes, followed by complaints about how difficult accommodating the request will be. When confronted, because of their deep shame, codependents have difficulty accepting responsibility, so they deny responsibility and blame or make excuses or make empty apologies to keep the peace.

They use charm and flattery and offer favors, help, and gifts to be accepted and loved. Criticism, guilt, and self-pity are also used to manipulate to get what they want: “Why do you only think of yourself and never ask or help me with my problems? I helped you.” Acting like a victim is a way to manipulate with guilt.
Addicts routinely deny, lie, and manipulate to protect their addiction. Their partners also manipulate for example, by hiding or diluting an addict’s drugs or alcohol or through other covert behavior. They may also lie or tell half-truths to avoid confrontations or control the addict’s behavior.

Passive-aggression
Passive-aggressive behavior can also be used to manipulate. When you have trouble saying no, you might agree to things you don’t want to, and then get your way by forgetting, being late, or doing it half-heartedly. Typically, passive-aggression is a way of expressing hostility. Forgetting “on purpose” is conveniently avoids what you don’t want to do and gets back at your partner – like forgetting to pick up your spouse’s clothes from the cleaners. Sometimes, this is done unconsciously, but it’s still a way of expressing anger. More hostile is offering deserts to your dieting partner.

How to Handle Manipulators
The first step is to know whom you’re dealing with. They know your triggers! Study their tactics and learn their favorite weapons. Build your self-esteem and self-respect. This is your best defense! Also, learn to be assertive and set boundaries. Read How to Speak Your Mind: Become Assertive and Set Limits or watch the webinar How to Be Assertive. For techniques and scripts for dealing with difficult people, read Dealing with a Narcissist: 8 Steps to Raise Self-Esteem and Set Boundaries with Difficult People. Contact me at info@darlenelancer.com for a free report “12 Strategies to Handle Manipulators.”
©DarleneLancer2014

Posted in Codependency, communication, marriage, relationships, self-esteem, Welcome To My Blog,

The Challenge of Forgiveness

forgiveness, how to forgive, broken heartForgiveness 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.

Meaning of Forgiveness

“Forgiveness is releasing a prisoner and discovering the prisoner was you,” said Hilary Clinton.  When we hold grudge, hostility can sabotage our ability to enjoy the present and our future relationships. Ongoing anger harms us and actually has negative health consequences. It raises blood pressure, impairs digestion, and creates psychological symptoms, such as anxiety, depression, and mental and physical pain.

“Holding anger is poison. It eats you from inside. We think that hating is a weapon that attacks the person who harmed us. But hatred is a curved blade. And the harm we do, we do to ourselves.” (Mitch Albom, The Five People You Meet in Heaven)

The opposite is true of forgiveness, which improves mental and physical functioning. Although forgiveness can mean to pardon, generally, it means to let go of resentment, releasing us from obsessive or recurring negative thoughts. When we “forgive our enemies,” we relinquish any desire for payback, revenge, or that misfortune comes to them. Empathy and understanding toward our offender help us forgive. If we’re in a relationship, we attempt to rebuild trust and may set boundaries around our partner’s conduct in the future. Although the past impacts, informs, and shapes us, we’re able to make constructive changes and move on in peace.

When to Forgive

Forgiveness too soon may deny anger that’s needed for change. If we’ve been deceived, abused, or victimized, justified anger affirms our self-respect. It can motivate us to protect ourselves with appropriate boundaries. It helps us cope with grief and let go. It can smooth the progress of separation from an abuser. In divorces, usually at least one spouse is angry, facilitating the breakup.

Initially, we hurt. If we’ve been betrayed or rejected, it’s natural to feel pain – just like a physical wound. We must experience it and cry without self-judgment. We need time to feel the hurt and loss that has happened and to heal. Once, we feel safe and have gone through stages of loss, it may be easier to forgive.

Denial can make us forgive too soon or block forgiveness altogether. We should never deny, enable, or condone abuse. Denying that someone is an addict or abuser encourages us to continually accept broken promises, avoid setting boundaries, or stay in a toxic relationship. Denying that a loved one isn’t the ideal we want or imagined only feeds our disappointment and resentment. Accepting that you’re a partner or our parents are flawed, as we all are, can open the door to acceptance and forgiveness.

If forgiveness is withheld too long, it can impede completing the stages of grief and lead to bitterness. Many codependents are uncomfortable with feeling or showing anger. Instead, they’re preoccupied with resentment and replay negative scripts and events in their minds. Resentment can disappear when we give ourselves permission to be angry and allow feelings of anger and sadness to flow. They may not even need to be expressed to the person who hurt us.

How to Forgive

It takes conscious reflection, a decision, and often prayer to let go and forgive. The following are some suggestions:

  1. Be sure to work through the stages of grief. (See “Recovery from Breakups and Rejection.”)
  2. Keep in mind that forgiveness relieves you of pain. It’s medicine for you.
  3. Think about the ways that resentment negatively holds you back and affects your life.
  4. You’re not responsible for someone else’s behavior – only your own. Consider your contribution to the situation. Perhaps you didn’t communicate your expectations or boundaries, provoked the person, or denied his or her capacity to hurt you.
  5. Try to see the person’s behavior and attitude from his or her point-of-view in the context of their life experience. Did he or she intentionally try to hurt you? In other words, develop empathy, but this doesn’t justify abuse or mean you should forget they’re capable of repeating it.
  6. Praying for the other person is effective. See the practice described in my ebook, Spiritual Transformation in the Twelve Steps.

Self-Forgiveness

Sometimes we must forgive ourselves before we’re ready to forgive someone else. We often blame others when we feel guilty. We can hold onto resentment to avoid accepting responsibility for our actions or to avoid feeling guilty. Although it’s important to reflect upon and take responsibility for our contribution to the problem, we need to forgive ourselves for any part we played. It may be harder to forgive ourselves than someone else. If you continue to feel guilty, do the exercises in Freedom for Guilt and Blame: Finding Self-Forgiveness.

Reconciliation

Reconciliation may or may not follow forgiveness. If we were hurt by someone close to us and want to maintain the relationship, then reconciliation might require their taking responsibility for their actions, making amends, and an agreement not to repeat their behavior. See my blog, “Rebuilding Trust.” If trust was deeply broken with deception or an affair, couples counseling may be necessary in order to heal. Sometimes, the relationship is stronger as a result.

In some cases, we must clearly recognize and believe that the person we care about won’t change, that their behavior reflects their wounded self. Letting go of expectations that they act differently can set the stage for acceptance of reality. We may decide to continue the relationship on less intimate terms or with different boundaries that protect you. For example, you may choose to only spend time with an addict when, or on the condition that, he or she is sober, or see an abusive person in a safe place, for short visits, and/or with a third person present.

The other person might not be willing to take responsibility for his or her behavior or forgive us for ours, but forgiveness is for our benefit. Others’ anger hurts them, and our anger hurts us. Remember that forgiveness increases our integrity and peace of mind. It heals the cracks in our heart.

©Darlene Lancer 2016

Posted in abuse, Addiction, Codependency, communication, Divorce, Making Change, marriage, relationships,

Codependency, Addiction, and Emptiness

empty1Emptiness 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.

Existential Emptiness

Existential emptiness is a universal response to the human condition – how we find personal meaning in the face of a finite existence. It’s associated with “existentialism,” named by philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and grew out of the nihilism and alienation of post-World War II society. He described the nothingness and emptiness of living in a lonely, God-less and meaningless universe. It’s primarily concerned with social alienation, spiritual bankruptcy, and our relationship to our life, society, and the world around us. This isn’t viewed as a mental-health problem and doesn’t lead to depression.

Buddhist Emptiness

The Buddhists teach extensively about emptiness, originating with Gautama Shakyamuni Buddha in the 6th B.C.E. Their concept is quite different from the ordinary understanding of the word. For rather being a painful emotional state, its full realization provides a method to end pain and suffering and reach enlightenment. Fundamental is the idea that there is no intrinsic, permanent self. The Mahayana and Vajrayana schools go further to believe that the contents of consciousness and objects are also empty, meaning that phenomena lack a substantial, inherent existence, and have only relative existence.

The Cause of Psychological Emptiness

For codependents, including addicts, their emptiness comes from growing up in a dysfunctional family devoid of sufficient nurturing and empathy, referred to by psychiatrist James Masterson as abandonment depression.[ii] Codependents experience this to varying degrees. They suffer from self-alienation, isolation, and shame, which can be masked by the behaviors that accompany addiction, including denial, dependency, people-pleasing, control, caretaking, obsessive thoughts, compulsive behavior and feelings such as anger and anxiety.

Chronic failure to receive adequate empathy and fulfillment of needs in childhood can profoundly affect our sense of self and belonging in adulthood. Physical separation or emotional abandonment from parents in childhood impacts how as adults we experience being alone, the ending of a relationship, death, or other significant loss. Sadness, loneliness, and/or emptiness, can activate feelings of shame and vice versa. Often, these early deficits are exacerbated by additional trauma, abuse, and abandonment later in adolescence and adult relationships. After a loss, we can feel like the world has died, representing a symbolic death of our mother or of the self, and be accompanied by feelings of emptiness and nothingness.

Searching for wholeness through addiction and others provides only temporary relief from emptiness and depression and further alienates us from ourselves and a solution. This strategy stops working when the passion of a new relationship or an addictive high wanes. We’re disappointed; our needs go unmet; and loneliness, emptiness, and depression return. We may long for the initial passionate, vibrant relationship. Unbearable anxiety and emptiness intensify when we try to detach from an addictive relationship, when we’re alone, or when we finally stop trying to help, pursue, or change someone else. Letting go and accepting our powerlessness over others can evoke the same emptiness that addicts experience when giving up drugs or a process addiction.

Shame and Emptiness

Prolonged shame is coupled with psychological emptiness, whether felt as restlessness, a void, or a hunger to fill it. For some, it’s felt as deadness, nothingness, meaninglessness, or a constant undertone of depression, and for others, these feelings are felt periodically – vaguely or profoundly, usually elicited by acute shame or loss. Many traumatized codependents hide a “deep inner hell that often is unspeakable and unnamable,” a “devouring black hole,” which when contrasted with their hollow and empty persona, create a divided self, “massive despair and the sense of broken reality.”[iii] Addicts and codependents often feel this depression when stopping an addiction, including the ending of even a brief close relationship. Same, guilt, doubt, and low self-esteem typically accompany loneliness, abandonment, and rejection.

Internalized shame from childhood colors loss and separation– as revealed in a stanza of a poem I wrote at 14: “Yet from day to day man is doomed, his sentence is what others see. Every move is judged and thus an image forms, but man is a lonely creature.” The “image” refers to my self-image etched in shame and loneliness. Thus, when we’re alone or inactive, we may quickly fill our emptiness with obsession, fantasy, or negative thoughts and self-persecutory judgments. We might attribute loneliness and unrequited love to our unworthiness and unlovability. This perpetuates our assumption that if we were different or didn’t make a mistake, we wouldn’t have been abandoned or rejected. If we respond by isolating more, shame can increase, along with depression, emptiness, and loneliness. It’s a self-reinforcing, vicious circle.

Additionally, self-shaming and lack of autonomy deny access to our real self and the ability to manifest our potentialities and desires, further confirming the belief that we can’t direct our life. We miss out on joy, self-love, pride, and realizing our hearts’ desire. This reinforces our depression, emptiness, and hopeless beliefs that things will never change and that no one cares.

The Solution

Whether we have existential or psychological emptiness, the solution begins with facing the reality that emptiness is both inescapable and unfillable from the outside. We must humbly and courageously assume responsibility for ourselves, live authentically, and become who we are – our true self. This gradually heals codependency and is the antidote for the depression, emptiness, and meaninglessness that result from living for and through others. See Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You for the entire chapter on emptiness and how to heal.

[i] Clive G. Hazell, “A scale for measuring experienced levels of emptiness and existential concern,” Psychological Reports, 1984, 117, no. 2 (1984): 177-182.

[ii] James F. Masterson, The Search for the Real Self – Unmasking the Personality Disorders of our Age (New York: The Free Press, A Division of MacMillan, Inc., 1988), 59.

[iii] Leon Wurmser, “Abyss calls out to abyss”: Oedipal shame, invisibility, and broken identity,” The American Journal of Psychoanalysis Vol 63, no. 4, Dec. 2002.

Copyright, Darlene Lancer, 2016

Posted in Addiction, Codependency, depression, Making Change, self-esteem,

10 Tips to Spot Emotional Unavailability

WaitingIf 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.

There are several types of unavailability – both temporary and chronic. Some people have always been unavailable due to mental illness and/or a troubled childhood. Others temporarily make something a higher priority than a relationship, such as a family obligation, education,  project, or a health concern. People recently divorced or widowed may temporarily not be ready to get involved with someone new. In the middle, are those who are too afraid to risk falling in love because they’ve been hurt by one or more relationships, which may include being hurt by a parent when they were a child. Often these different reasons for unavailability overlap, and it’s difficult to ascertain whether the problem is chronic or will pass.

If you’re looking for a close, committed relationship, a person living in another state, or who is married or still in love with someone else is not going to be there for you. Similarly, addicts, including workaholics, are unavailable because their addiction is the priority and it controls them. Still, some people give the appearance of availability and speak openly about their feelings and their past. You don’t realize until you’re already in a relationship that they’re unable to really connect emotionally or make a commitment.

Here’s a list of more subtle red flags that may signal unavailability, especially when several add up. They apply to both genders. Following them are questions to ask yourself to find out whether you’re ready for a committed relationship.

1. Flirting with flattery. People who are too flattering. Like snake charmers, these wooers may also be adept listeners and communicators. Often good at short-term intimacy, some allure with self-disclosure and vulnerability, but they prefer the chase to the catch.

2. Control.  Someone who won’t be inconvenienced to modify his or her routine. Typically, commitment phobics are inflexible and loathe compromises. Relationships revolve around them.

3. Listen.  Your date may hint or even admit that he or she isn’t good at relationship or doesn’t believe in or isn’t ready for marriage. Listen to these negative facts and believe them. Ignore vulnerability, bragging, and compliments.

4. The Past.  Find out if the person has had a long-term relationship and why it ended. You may learn that prior relationships ended at the stage when intimacy normally develops.

5. Perfection Seekers.  These people look for and find a fatal flaw in the opposite sex and then move on.  The problem is that they’re scared of intimacy. When they can’t find imperfection, their anxiety rises. Given time, they will find an excuse to end the relationship.  Don’t be tempted to believe you’re better than their past partners.

6. Anger.  Notice rudeness to waiters and others, revealing pent-up rage. This type of person is demanding and probably emotionally abusive.

7. Arrogance.  Avoid someone who brags and acts cocky, signaling low self-esteem. It takes confidence to be intimate and committed.

8. Lateness.  Chronic lateness is inconsiderate, and can also indicate the person is avoiding relationship, but don’t assume that punctuality means he or she’s a catch.

9. Invasiveness or Evasiveness.  Secrecy, evasiveness, or inappropriate questions too soon about money or sex, for example, indicate a hidden agenda and unwillingness to allow a relationship to unfold. Conversely, someone may conceal his or her past due to shame, which may create an obstacle to getting close.

10. Seduction.  Beware of sexual cues given too early. Seducers avoid authenticity because they don’t believe they’re enough to keep a partner. Once the relationship gets real, they’ll sabotage it. Seduction is a power-play and about conquest.

Most people reveal their emotional availability early on. Pay attention to the facts, especially if there’s mutual attraction. Even if the person seems to be Mr. or Mrs. Right, yet is emotionally unavailable, you’re left with nothing but pain. If you overlook, deny, or rationalize to avoid short-term disappointment, you run the risk of enduring long-term misery.

Be honest with yourself about your own availability.

1. Are you angry at the opposite sex? Do you like jokes at their expense? If so, you may need to heal from past wounds before you’re comfortable getting close to someone.

2. Do you make excuses to avoid getting together?

3. Do you think you’re so independent you don’t need anyone?

4. Do you fear falling in love because you may get hurt?

5. Are you always waiting for the other shoe to drop? Although people complain about their problems, many have even more difficulty accepting the good.

6. Are you distrustful? Maybe you’ve been betrayed or lied to in the past and now look for it in everyone.

7. Do you avoid intimacy by filling quiet times with distractions?

8.  Are you uncomfortable talking about yourself and your feelings? Do you have secrets you’re ashamed of that make you feel undesirable or unlovable?

9. Do you usually like to keep your options open in case someone better comes along?

10. Do you fear a relationship may place too many expectations on you, that you’d give up your independence or lose your autonomy?

If you answered yes to some of these questions, counseling can help you heal in order to to risk getting close. If you’re involved with someone emotionally unavailable, pressuring him or her to be more intimate is counterproductive. However, marriage or couples counseling can change the relationship dynamics and help you to have a more fulfilling intimate relationship.

Copyright, Darlene Lancer 2012

 

Posted in Codependency, communication, Divorce, Intimacy, marriage, relationships,

Trauma and Codependency

A father is threatening his little boy with a fingerYou 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.

Childhood Trauma

Childhood itself may be traumatic when it’s not safe to be spontaneous, vulnerable, and authentic. It’s emotionally damaging if you were ignored, shamed, or punished for expressing your thoughts or feelings or for being immature, imperfect, or having needs and wants. Some people are neglected or emotionally or physically abandoned and conclude they can’t trust or rely on anyone. They hide their real, child self, and play an adult role before they’re ready. Divorce, illness, or loss of a parent or sibling can also be traumatic, depending upon the way in which it was handled by parents. Occurrences become harmful when they’re either chronic or severe to the extent that they overwhelm a child’s limited ability to cope with what was happening. For more on shame and dysfunctional parenting, see Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You.

How you’ve encountered these experiences are your wounds. Most everyone manages to grow up, but the scars remain and account for problems in relationships and coping with reality. Deeper healing requires reopening those wounds, cleaning them, and applying the medicine of compassion.

Symptoms of Trauma*

Trauma is a subjective experience and differs from person to person. Each child in a family will react differently to the same experience and to trauma. Symptoms may come and go, and may not show up until years after the event. You needn’t have all of the following symptoms to have experienced trauma:

  • Over-reacting to triggers that are reminders of the trauma
  • Avoiding thinking, experiencing, or talking about triggers for the trauma
  • Avoiding activities you once enjoyed
  • Feeling hopeless about the future
  • Experiencing memory lapses or inability to recall parts of trauma
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Having difficulty maintaining close relationships
  • Feeling irritable or angry
  • Feeling overwhelming guilt or shame
  • Behaving in a self-destructive manner
  • Being easily frightened and startled
  • Being hypervigilant — excessively fearful
  • Hearing or seeing things that aren’t there
  • Having restricted feelings — sometimes numb or emotionally flat, or detached from emotions, other people, or events
  • Feeling depersonalized; a loss of Self or cut off from your body and environment – like you’re going through the motions
  • Having flashbacks of scenes or reliving the past event
  • Having dreams or nightmares about the past
  • Experiencing insomnia
  • Experiencing panic attacks

Post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) is not uncommon among codependents who experienced trauma either as a child or adult. Diagnosis requires a specific number of symptoms that last for at least 30 days and may start long after the triggering event. Core symptoms include:

  • Intrusive thoughts in the form of dreams, waking flashbacks, or recurring negative thoughts
  • Avoidance of reminders of the trauma, including forgetting or avoiding sleep and shutting down feelings or numbness
  • Hyperarousal putting your nervous system on alert, creating irritability, exhaustion, and difficulty relaxing and sleeping

Trauma is debilitating and robs you of your life. Often a person has experienced several traumas, resulting in more severe symptoms, such as mood swings, depression, high blood pressure, and chronic pain.

The ACE Study of trauma

The ACE (“Adverse Childhood Experiences”) study found a direct correlation between adult symptoms of negative health and childhood trauma. ACE incidents that they measured were:

            Emotional Abuse

            Physical Abuse

            Sexual Abuse

            Mother Treated Violently

            Household Substance Abuse

            Household Mental Illness

            Parental Separation or Divorce

            Incarcerated Household Member

            Emotional Neglect

            Physical Neglect

 Other examples of traumatic occurrences are:

  • Betrayal
  • Addiction or living with an addict (usually includes emotional abuse)
  • Death of a loved one or physical or emotional abandonment (can follow divorce)
  • Severe or chronic pain or illness
  • Helplessness
  • Poverty (if accompanied by shame, neglect, or emotional abuse)
  • Real or threatened loss of anything of value
  • Witnessing a trauma to someone else, including survivor guilt

Effects of Childhood Trauma in ACE Study

Almost two-thirds of the participants reported at least one ACE and over 20 percent reported three or more ACEs. (You can take the ACE quiz here.) The higher the ACE score, the higher were the participants’ vulnerability to the following conditions:

  • Alcoholism and alcohol abuse
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
  • Depression
  • Fetal death
  • Health-related quality of life
  • Illicit drug use
  • Ischemic heart disease
  • Liver disease
  • Poor work performance
  • Financial stress
  • Risk for intimate partner violence
  • Multiple sexual partners
  • Sexually transmitted diseases
  • Smoking
  • Suicide attempts
  • Unintended pregnancies
  • Early initiation of smoking
  • Early initiation of sexual activity
  • Adolescent pregnancy
  • Risk for sexual violence
  • Poor academic achievement

Treatment of Trauma

Trauma can be emotional, physical, or environmental, and can range from experiencing a fire to emotional neglect. Healing trauma is like going back in time and feeling what was unexpressed, re-evaluating unhealthy beliefs and decisions, and getting acquainted with missing parts of yourself. Facing what happened is the first step in healing. Many people are in denial of trauma they experienced in childhood, particularly if they grew up in a stable environment. If parents weren’t abusive, but were emotionally unresponsive, you would still experience loneliness, rejection, and shame about yourself and feelings that you may have denied or completely repressed. This is emotional abandonment.

Re-experiencing, feeling, and talking about what happened are significant parts of the healing process. Another step in recovery is grieving what you’ve lost. Stages of grief include anger, depression, bargaining, sometimes guilt, and finally acceptance. Acceptance doesn’t mean you approve of what happened, but you’re more objective about it without resentment or strong emotions. As you release pent-up emotion from your past, you have more energy and motivation to invest in your future.

In this process, it’s essential – and too often omitted – that you discern false beliefs you may have adopted as a result of the trauma and substitute healthier ones. Usually, these are shame-based beliefs stemming from childhood shaming messages and experiences. Recovery also entails identifying and changing how you relate and talk to yourself that leads to undesirable outcomes and behavior and outcomes.

PTSD and trauma do not resolve on their own. It’s important to get treatment as soon as possible. There are several treatment modalities recommended for healing trauma, including CBT, EMDR, Somatic Experiencing, and Exposure Therapy.

*From Codependency for Dummies, John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

©Darlene Lancer 2016

Posted in abuse, Codependency, Parenting, self-esteem,

What is Narcissistic Abuse?

abuse, narcissistic abuse, shame, low self-esteemNarcissists 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:

  • Clearly identifying it;
  • Building a support system; and
  • Learning how to strengthen and protect yourself.

What is Narcissistic Abuse
Abuse may be emotional, mental, physical, financial, spiritual, or sexual. Here are a few examples of abuse you may not have identified:

  1. Verbal abuse: Includes belittling, bullying, accusing, blaming, shaming, demanding, ordering, threatening, criticizing, sarcasm, raging, opposing, undermining, interrupting, blocking, and name-calling. Note that many people occasionally make demands, use sarcasm, interrupt, oppose, criticize, blame, or block you. Consider the context, malice, and frequency of the behavior before labeling it narcissistic abuse.
  2. Manipulation: Generally, manipulation is indirect influence on someone to behave in a way that furthers the goals of the manipulator. Often, it expresses covert aggression. Think of a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” On the surface, the words seem harmless – even complimentary; but underneath you feel demeaned or sense a hostile intent. If you experienced manipulation growing up, you may not recognize it as such. See my blog on spotting manipulation.
  3. Emotional blackmail: Emotional blackmail may include threats, anger, warnings, intimidation, or punishment. It’s a form of manipulation that provokes doubt in you. You feel fear, obligation, and or guilt, sometimes referred to as “FOG”
  4. Gaslighting: Intentionally making you distrust your perceptions of reality or believe that you’re mentally incompetent.
  5. Competition: Competing and one-upping to always be on top, sometimes through unethical means. E.g. cheating in a game.
  6. Negative contrasting: Unnecessarily making comparisons to negatively contrast you with the narcissist or other people.
  7. Sabotage: Disruptive interference with your endeavors or relationships for the purpose of revenge or personal advantage.
  8. Exploitation and objectification: Using or taking advantage of you for personal ends without regard for your feelings or needs.
  9. Lying: Persistent deception to avoid responsibility or to achieve the narcissist’s own ends.
  10. Withholding: Withholding such things as money, sex, communication or affection from you.
  11. Neglect: Ignoring the needs of a child for whom the abuser is responsible. Includes child endangerment; i.e., placing or leaving a child in a dangerous situation.
  12. Privacy invasion: Ignoring your boundaries by looking through your things, phone, mail; denying your physical privacy or stalking or following you; ignoring privacy you’ve requested.
  13. Character assassination or slander: Spreading malicious gossip or lies about you to other people.
  14. Violence: This includes blocking your movement, pulling hair, throwing things, or destroying your property.
  15. Financial abuse: Financial abuse might include controlling you through economic domination or draining your finances through extortion, theft, manipulation, or gambling, or by accruing debt in your name or selling your personal property.
  16. Isolation: Isolating you from friends, family, or access to outside services and support through control, manipulation, verbal abuse, character assassination, or other means of abuse.

Narcissism and the severity of abuse exist on a continuum. It may range from ignoring your feelings to violent aggression. Typically, narcissists don’t take responsibility for their behavior and shift the blame to you or others; however, some do and are capable of feeling guilt and self-reflection.

Malignant Narcissism and Sociopathy
Someone with more narcissistic traits who behaves in a malicious, hostile manner is considered to have “malignant narcissism.” Malignant narcissists aren’t bothered by guilt. They can be sadistic and take pleasure in inflicting pain. They can be so competitive and unprincipled that they engage in anti-social behavior. Paranoia puts them in a defensive-attack mode as a means of self-protection.

Malignant narcissism can resemble sociopathy. Sociopaths have malformed or damaged brains. They display narcissistic traits, but not all narcissists are sociopathic. Their motivations differ. Whereas narcissists prop up an ideal persona to be admired, sociopaths change who they are in order to achieve their self-serving agenda. They need to win at all costs and think nothing of breaking social norms and laws. They don’t attach to people as narcissists do. Narcissists don’t want to be abandoned. They’re codependent on others’ approval, but sociopaths can easily walk away from relationships that don’t serve them. Although some narcissists will occasionally plot to obtain their objectives,  they’re usually more reactive than sociopaths, who coldly calculate their plans.

Get Help
If you’re in a relationship with a narcissist, it’s important to get outside support to understand clearly what’s going on, to rebuild your self-esteem and confidence, and to learn to communicate effectively and set boundaries. Doing the exercises in my books and e-workbooks, particularly Dealing with a Narcissist: 8 Steps to Raise Self-Esteem and Set Boundaries with Difficult People will help you make changes. If you feel in danger, don’t believe broken promises. Get immediate help, and read, “The Truth about Domestic Violence and Abusive Relationships.”

© Darlene Lancer, 2016

Posted in abuse, Codependency, communication, Narcissism, relationships, self-esteem,

Codependency, Self-Esteem & Relationships

couple-FrommResearch 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.[1] 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.[2]

How Self-Esteem Affects Relationships

Self-esteem suffers when you grow up in a dysfunctional family. Often you don’t have a voice. Your opinions and desires aren’t taken seriously. Parents usually have low self-esteem and are unhappy with each other. They themselves neither have nor model good relationship skills, including cooperation, healthy boundaries, assertiveness, and conflict resolution. They may be abusive, or just indifferent, preoccupied, controlling, interfering, manipulative, or inconsistent. Their children’s feelings and personal traits and needs tend to be shamed. As a result, a child feels emotionally abandoned and concludes that he or she is at fault–not good enough to be acceptable to both parents. This is how toxic shame becomes internalized. Children feel insecure, anxious, and/or angry. They don’t feel safe to be, to trust, and to like themselves. They grow up codependent with low self-esteem and learn to hide their feelings, walk on eggshells, withdraw, and try to please or become aggressive.

Attachment style reflects self-esteem

As a result of their insecurity, shame, and impaired self-esteem, children develop an attachment style that, to varying degrees, is anxious or avoidant. They develop anxious and avoidant attachment styles and behave like pursuers and distancers described in “The Dance of Intimacy.” At the extreme ends, some individuals cannot tolerate either being alone or too close; either one creates intolerable pain.

Anxiety can lead you to sacrifice your needs and please and accommodate your partner. Due to basic insecurity, you’re preoccupied with the relationship and highly attuned to your partner, worrying that he or she wants less closeness. But because you don’t get your needs met, you become unhappy. Adding to this, you take things personally with a negative twist, projecting negative outcomes. Low self-esteem makes you hide your truth so as not to “make waves,” which compromises real intimacy. You may also be jealous of your partner’s attention to others and call or text frequently, even when asked not to. By repeated attempts to seek reassurance, you unintentionally push your partner away even further. Both of you end up unhappy.

Avoiders, as the term implies, avoid closeness and intimacy through distancing behaviors, such as flirting, making unilateral decisions, addiction, ignoring their partner, or dismissing his or her feelings and needs. This creates tension in the relationship, usually voiced by the anxious partner. Because avoiders are hypervigilant about their partner’s attempts to control or limit their autonomy in any way, they then distance themselves even more. Neither style contributes to satisfying relationships.

Communication reveals self-esteem

Dysfunctional families lack good communication skills that intimate relationships require. Not only are they important to any relationship, they also reflect self-esteem. They involve speaking clearly, honestly, concisely, and assertively, and the ability to listen, as well. They require that you know and are able to clearly communicate your needs, wants, and feelings, including the ability to set boundaries. The more intimate the relationship, the more important and more difficult practicing these skills becomes.

Codependents generally have problems with assertiveness. At the same time, they deny their feelings and needs, due to the fact that they were shamed or ignored in their childhood. They also consciously suppress what they think and feel so as not to anger or alienate their partner and risk criticism or emotional abandonment. Instead, they rely on mindreading, asking questions, caretaking, blaming, lying, criticizing, avoiding problems or ignoring or controlling their partner. They learn these strategies from the dysfunctional communication witnessed in their families growing up. But these behaviors are problematic in themselves and can lead to escalating conflict, characterized by attacks, blame, and withdrawal. Walls get erected that block openness, closeness, and happiness.  Sometimes, a partner seeks closeness with a third person, threatening the stability of the relationship.

Boundaries protect self-esteem

Dysfunctional families have dysfunctional boundaries, which get handed down through parents’ behavior and example. They may be controlling, invasive, disrespectful, use their children for their own needs, or project their feelings onto them. This undermines children’s self-esteem. As adults, they too, have dysfunctional boundaries. They have trouble accepting other people’s differences or allowing others’ space, particularly in intimate relationships. Without boundaries, they can’t say no or protect themselves when necessary and take personally what others say. They tend to feel responsible for others’ stated or imagined feelings, needs, and actions, to which they react, contributing to escalating conflict. Their partner feels that he or she can’t express themselves without triggering a defensive reaction.

Intimacy requires self-esteem

We all have needs for both separateness and individuality as well as for being close and connected. Autonomy requires self-esteem – both necessary in relationships. It’s an ability to stand on your own and trust and motivate yourself. But when you don’t like yourself, you’re in miserable company spending time alone. It takes courage to communicate assertively in an intimate relationship—courage that comes with self-acceptance, which enables you to value and honor your feelings and needs and risk criticism or rejection in voicing them. This also means you feel deserving of love and are comfortable receiving it. You wouldn’t waste your time pursuing someone unavailable or push away someone who loved you and met your needs.

Solutions

Healing toxic shame from childhood takes working with a skilled therapist; however, shame can be diminished, self-esteem raised, and attachment style changed by altering the way you interact with yourself and others. In fact, self-esteem is learned, which is why I wrote 10 Steps to Self-Esteem and Conquering Shame and Codependency. Both books contain lots of self-help exercises. Sharing at 12-Step meetings is also very beneficial. Because assertiveness can be learned and also raises self-esteem, I wrote How to Speak Your Mind – Become Assertive and Set Limits, which guides you in learning those skills.

Couples therapy is an ideal way to achieve greater relationship satisfaction. When one partner refuses to participate, it’s nonetheless helpful if one willing partner does. Research confirms that the improved self-esteem of one partner increases relationship satisfaction for both.[3] Often, when only one person enters therapy, the relationship changes for the better and happiness increases for the couple. If not, the client’s mood improves and he or she is more able to accept the status quo or leave the relationship.

©Darlene Lancer 2016

[1] Lavner, J. A., Bradbury, T. N., & Karney, B. R. (2012).  “Incremental change or initial differences? Testing two models of marital deterioration.” Journal of Family Psychology, 26, 606–616.

[2] Bradbury, T. N., & Lavner, J. A. (2012). “How can we improve preventive and educational interventions for intimate relationships?” Behavior Therapy, 43, 113–122.

[3] Erol, Ruth Yasemin; Orth, Ulrich, “Development of self-esteem and relationship satisfaction in couples: Two longitudinal studies.” Developmental Psychology,” 2014, Vol. 50, No. 9, 2291–2303

 

Posted in Codependency, communication, Divorce, Intimacy, Parenting, relationships, self-esteem, therapy, Welcome To My Blog,

Recovery from Rejection and Break-Ups

rejectionBecause 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.“)

Most people start to feel better 11 weeks following rejection and report a sense of personal growth; similarly after divorce, partners start to feel better after months, not years.  However, up to 15 percent of people suffer longer than three months. (“It’s Over,” Psychology Today, May-June, 2015) Rejection can feed depression, especially if we’re already even mildly depressed or have suffered depression and other losses in the past. (See “Chronic Depression and Codependency.”)

Factors Affecting Resiliency

Other factors that impact how we feel in the aftermath of a break-up are:

  • The duration of the relationship
  • Our attachment style
  • The degree of intimacy and commitment
  • Whether problems were acknowledged and discussed
  • Foreseeability of the break-up
  • Cultural and family disapproval
  • Other current or past losses
  • Self-Worth

If we have an anxious attachment style, we’re prone to obsess, and have negative feelings, and attempt to restore the relationship. If we have a secure, healthy attachment style (unusual for codependents), we’re more resilient and able to self-soothe. (See “How to Change Your Attachment Style.”)

If the relationship lacked true intimacy, pseudo-intimacy may have substituted for a real, binding connection. In some relationships, intimacy is tenuous, because one or both partners is emotionally unavailable. For example, a partner of a narcissist frequently feels unimportant or unloved, yet strives to win love and approval to validate that he or she is. (See Dealing with a Narcissist.) Lack of intimacy can be a warning sign that the relationship is troubled. Read 20 “Signs of Relationships Problems.”

The Effect of Shame and Low Self-Esteem

Rejection can devastate us if our self-worth is low. Our self-esteem affects how personally we interpret our partner’s behavior and how dependent we are upon the relationship for our sense of self and self-esteem. Codependents are more prone to being reactive to signs of disfavor by their partner, and tend to take their words and actions as a comment on themselves and their value. Additionally, many codependents give up personal interests, aspirations, and friends once they’re romantically involved. They adapt to their partner and their life revolves around the relationship. Losing it can make their world crumble if they’re left without hobbies, goals, and a support system. Often the lack self-definition and autonomy beforehand prompted them to seek someone to fill their inner emptiness, which not only can lead to relationship problems, but it resurfaces once they’re alone. (See “Why Break-ups a Hard for Codependents.”)

Internalized shame causes us to blame ourselves and/or blame our partner. (See “What is Toxic Shame.”)  It can foster feelings of failure and unlovability that are hard to shake. We might feel guilty and responsible not only for our own shortcomings and actions, but also the feelings and actions of our partner; i.e., blaming ourselves for our partner’s affair. Toxic shame usually starts in childhood.

Break-ups can also trigger grief that more appropriately pertains to early parental abandonment. Many people enter relationships looking for unconditional love, hoping to salve unmet needs and wounds from childhood. We can get caught in a negative Cycle of Abandonment” that breeds shame, fear, and abandoning relationships. If we feel unworthy and expect rejection, we’re even liable to provoke it. Healing our past allows us to live in present time and respond appropriately to others. (Read how shame can kill relationships and how to heal in Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You.)

The Stages of Grief

One thing that I see over and over is that people expect themselves to just “move on.” Well-meaning friends and relatives may urge you to, only to make you feel worse. Or they devalue the ex you still love and yearn for, which can make you ashamed of your feelings or that you may still want the relationship. Many victims of abuse still miss their ex. It’s more helpful to honor your feelings and recognize that they’re normal. You may find yourself cycling through these stages of grief:

Denial – can’t believe it’s over, the reason given, or that your ex doesn’t want or love you

Anger – angry or resentful toward your ex, and maybe jealous of someone taking your place

Bargaining – trying to get your ex back, even if just in your head

Guilt – about your behavior – can be tied to shame of feeling not enough

Depression (including sadness)

Acceptance

You might feel angry in the morning and believe you’ve moved on, only to breakdown in tears by the afternoon. This is normal, as you process your emotions. It’s natural to long for your ex more when you’re lonely, so balance alone time with activities with friends.

Healing Tips

For optimal results, start making changes in your relationship with yourself and with others; first, with your ex. Experts agree that although it’s difficult and may be more painful in the short-run, no contact with your former partner will help you recover sooner. Avoid calling, texting, asking others about or checking up on your ex in social media. Doing so might give momentary relief, but reinforces obsessive-compulsive behavior and ties to the relationship. (If you’re engaged in divorce proceedings, necessary messages can be written or conveyed through attorneys. They should not be delivered by your children. SeeParenting After Divorce.”) Read about “Growing Through Divorce” and “After Divorce – Letting Go and Moving On. Here are 10 more suggestions:

  1. Meditate with healing recordings, such as exercises for self-love, self-soothing, and confidence in my YouTube.
  2. Practice the “14 Tips for Letting Go,” available free on my website.
  3. Prolonged feelings of guilt can limit your enjoyment of life and your ability to find love again. Forgive yourself for mistakes you made in the relationship with the e-workbook Freedom from Guilt and Blame – Finding Self-Forgiveness.
  4. Write about the benefits of that the relationship is over. Research has proven this technique to be effective.
  5. Challenge false beliefs and assumptions, such as “I’m a failure (loser),” “I’ll never meet anyone else,” or “I’m damaged goods (or unlovable).” For a 10-step plan to overcome negative self-talk, read 10 Steps to Self-Esteem.
  6. Set boundaries with your ex. This is especially important if you will continue to co-parent. Establish rules for co-parenting. If you tend toward accommodation, defensiveness, or aggression, learn to be assertive and how to set boundaries with the techniques provided in How To Speak Your Mind – Become Assertive and Set Limits.
  7. If you think you may be codependent or have trouble letting go, attend a few Codependents Anonymous meetings, where you can get information and support for free. Visit www.coda.org. There are also online forums and chats, as well as telephone meetings nationwide, but in-person meetings are preferable. Do the exercises in Codependency for Dummies.
  8. Although mourning is normal, continued depression is unhealthy for the health of your body and brain. If depression is hindering your work or daily activities, get a medical evaluation for a course of anti-depressants lasting at least six months.
  9. Avoid triggers, like going to places you frequented together or listening to “your song” or love melodies. There’s a tendency to want to do this as a way to feel connected to your beloved, but it unnecessary brings up painful feelings.
  10. Write letters you DON’T mail to your ex to express your feelings. If you were rejected, write a dialogue with your ex. Write with your left hand to “channel” what your ex would say. This can help you see things for his or her perspective, have empathy, and accept the new reality.

You will recover, but your actions play a considerable role in how long it takes, as well as whether you grow and better yourself from your experience. For a free PDF with 15 additional strategies to deal with rejection and break-ups, email me at info@darlenelancer.com. Download the seminar Breakup Recovery on to learn more about healing from breakups and relationships with unavailable partners.

©Darlene Lancer 2016

 

Posted in Codependency, Divorce, Making Change, relationships, self-esteem,

How to Change Your Attachment Style

attachmentWe’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.

Attachment Styles

We seek or avoid intimacy along a continuum, but one of the following three styles is generally predominant whether we’re dating or in a long term marriage:

Secure – 50 percent of the population
Anxious – 20 percent of the population
Avoidant – 25 percent of the population

Combinations, such as Secure-Anxious or Anxious-Avoidant are 3-5 percent of the population. To determine your style, take this quiz designed by researcher R. Chris Fraley, PhD.

Secure Attachment. Warmth and loving come naturally, and you’re able to be intimate without worrying about the relationship or little misunderstandings. You accept your partner’s minor shortcomings and treat him or her with love and respect. You don’t play games or manipulate, but are direct and able to openly and assertively share your wins and losses, needs, and feelings. You’re also responsive to those of your partner and try to meet your partner’s needs. Because you have good self-esteem, you don’t take things personally and aren’t reactive to criticism. Thus, you don’t become defensive in conflicts. Instead, you de-escalate them by problem-solving, forgiving, and apologizing.

Anxious Attachment. You want to be close and are able to be intimate. To maintain a positive connection, you give up your needs to please and accommodate your partner. But because you don’t get your needs met, you become unhappy. You’re preoccupied with the relationship and highly attuned to your partner, worrying that he or she wants less closeness. You often take things personally with a negative twist and project negative outcomes. This could be explained by brain differences that have been detected among people with anxious attachments.

To alleviate your anxiety, you may play games or manipulate your partner to get attention and reassurance by withdrawing, acting out emotionally, not returning calls, provoking jealousy, or by threatening to leave. You may also become jealous of his or her attention to others and call or text frequently, even when asked not to.

Avoidant Attachment. If you avoid closeness, your independence and self-sufficiency are more important to you than intimacy. You can enjoy closeness – to a limit. In relationships, you act self-sufficient and self-reliant and aren’t comfortable sharing feelings. (For example, in one study of partners saying goodbye in an airport, avoiders didn’t display much contact, anxiety, or sadness in contrast to others.) You protect your freedom and delay commitment. Once committed, you create mental distance with ongoing dissatisfaction about your relationship, focusing on your partner’s minor flaws or reminiscing about your single days or another idealized relationship.

Just as the anxiously attached person is hypervigilant for signs of distance, you’re hypervigilant about your partner’s attempts to control you or limit your autonomy and freedom in any way. You engage in distancing behaviors, such as flirting, making unilateral decisions, ignoring your partner, or dismissing his or her feelings and needs. Your partner may complain that you don’t seem to need him or her or that you’re not open enough, because you keep secrets or don’t share feelings. In fact, he or she often appears needy to you, but this makes you feel strong and self-sufficient by comparison. You don’t worry about a relationship ending. But if the relationship is threatened, you pretend to yourself that you don’t have attachment needs and bury your feelings of distress. It’s not that the needs don’t exist, they’re repressed. Alternatively, you may become anxious because the possibility of closeness no longer threatens you.

Relationships

Even people who feel independent when on their own are often surprised that they become dependent once they’re romantically involved. This is because intimate relationships unconsciously stimulate your attachment style and either trust or fear from your past experiences. It’s normal to become dependent on your partner to a healthy degree. When your needs are met, you feel secure.

You can assess your partner’s style by their behavior and by their reaction to a direct request for more closeness. Does he or she try to meet your needs or become defensive and uncomfortable or accommodate you once and the return to distancing behavior? Someone who is secure won’t play games, communicates well, and can compromise. A person with an anxious attachment style would welcome more closeness, but still need assurance and worry about the relationship.

Anxious and avoidant attachment styles look like codependency in relationships. They characterize the feelings and behavior of pursuers and distancers described in my blog, The Dance of Intimacy and book, Conquering Shame and Codependency. Each one is unconscious of their needs, which are expressed by the other. This is one reason for their mutual attraction. Pursuers with an anxious style are usually disinterested in someone available with a secure style. They usually attract someone who is avoidant. The anxiety of an insecure attachment is enlivening and familiar though it’s uncomfortable and makes them more anxious. It validates their abandonment fears about relationships and beliefs about not being enough, lovable, or securely loved. Distancers need someone pursuing them to sustain their emotional needs that they largely disown and which wouldn’t be met by another avoider. Unlike those securely attached, pursuers and distancers aren’t skilled at resolving disagreements. They tend to become defensive and attack or withdraw, escalating conflict.
Without the chase, conflict, or compulsive behavior, both pursuers and distancers begin to feel depressed and empty due to their painful early attachments.

Changing Styles

Although most people don’t change their attachment style, you can alter yours to be more or less secure depending upon experiences and conscious effort. To change your style to be more secure, seek therapy as well as relationships with others who are capable of a secure attachment. If you have an anxious attachment style, you will feel more stable in a committed relationship with someone who has a secure attachment style. This helps you become more secure. Changing your attachment style and healing from codependency go hand-in-hand. Both involve the following:

  • Heal your shame and raise your self-esteem. (See my books on shame and self-esteem.)This enables you to not take things personally.
  • Learn to be assertive. See How to Speak Your Mind: Become Assertive and Set Limits.
  • Learn to identify, honor, and assertively express your emotional needs.
  • Risk being authentic and direct. Don’t play games or try to manipulate your partner’s interest.
  • Practice acceptance of yourself and others to become less faultfinding – a tall order for codependents and distancers.
  • Stop reacting. This can be a challenge, because our nervous system is used to reacting automatically. It often entails being able to identify your triggers, unhook the causes of them, and learning to self-soothe – all which is hard to do on your own. Listen to some Youtube exercises and read 10 tips on self-nurturing. 
  • learn to resolve conflict and compromise from a “we” perspective.

Pursuers need to become more responsible for themselves and distancers more responsible to their partners. The result is a more secure interdependent relationship, rather than a codependent relationship or solitude with a false sense of self-sufficiency.

Among singles, statistically there are more avoiders, since people with a secure attachment are more likely to be in a relationship. Unlike avoiders, they’re not searching for an ideal, so when a relationship ends, they aren’t single too long. This increases the probability that daters who anxiously attach will date avoiders, reinforcing their negative spin on relationship outcomes. Moreover, anxious types tend to bond quickly and don’t take time to assess whether their partner can or wants to meet their needs. They tend to see things they share in common with each new, idealized partner and overlook potential problems. In trying to make the relationship work, they suppress their needs, sending the wrong signals to their partner in the long run. All of this behavior makes attaching to an avoider more probable. When he or she withdraws, their anxiety is aroused, pursuers confuse their longing and anxiety for love rather than realizing it’s their partner’s unavailability that is the problem, not themselves or anything they did or could do in the future to change that. They hang in and try harder, instead of facing the truth and cutting their losses.

Particularly after leaving an unhappy codependent relationship, people fear that being dependent on someone will make them more dependent. That may be true in codependent relationships when there isn’t a secure attachment. However, in a secure relationship, healthy dependency allows you to be more interdependent. You have a safe and secure base from which to explore the world. This is also what gives toddlers the courage to individuate, express their true self, and become more autonomous.

Similarly, people in therapy often fear becoming dependent upon their therapist and leave when they begin to feel a little better. This is when their dependency fears arise and should be addressed – the same fears that keep them from having secure attachments in relationships and propels them to seek someone avoidant. In fact, good therapy provides a secure attachment to allow people to grow and become more autonomous, not less. Herein lays the paradox: We can be more independent when we’re dependent on someone else – provided it’s a secure attachment. This is another reason why it’s hard to change on your own or in an insecure relationship without outside support.

Suggested reading on attachment:
The many books by John Bowlby
Mikulincer and Shaver, Attachment Adulthood Structure, Dynamics, and Change (2007)
Levine and Heller, Attached (2010)

©Darlene Lancer 2014

 

 

Posted in communication, Intimacy, marriage, relationships, Welcome To My Blog,

Emotional Abuse: Beneath Your Radar?

Verbal abuseThere are three million cases of domestic violence reported each year. Many more go unreported.  Emotional abuse precedes violence, but is rarely discussed. Although both men and women may abuse others, an enormous number of women are subjected to emotional abuse. Unfortunately, many don’t even know it.

Why is Emotional Abuse Hard to Recognize?

Emotional abuse may be hard to recognize, because it can be subtle, and abusers often blame their victims.  They may act like they have no idea why you are upset. Additionally, you may have been treated this way in past relationships, so that it’s familiar and harder to recognize. Over time, the abuser will chip away at your self-esteem, causing you to feel guilty, doubt yourself, and distrust your perceptions.

Other aspects of the relationship may work well. The abuser may be loving between abusive episodes, so that you deny or forget them. You may not have had a healthy relationship for comparison, and when the abuse takes place in private, there are no witnesses to validate your experience.

Personality of an Abuser

Abusers typically want to control and dominate. They use verbal abuse to accomplish this. They are self-centered, impatient, unreasonable, insensitive, unforgiving, lack empathy, and are often jealous, suspicious, and withholding. In order to maintain control, some abusers take hostages, meaning that they may try to isolate you from your friends and family. Their moods can shift from fun-loving and romantic to sullen and angry. Some punish with anger, others with silence – or both. It’s usually “their way or the highway.”

Are You Being Abused?

Emotional abuse may start out innocuously, but grows as the abuser becomes more assured that you won’t leave the relationship. It may not begin until after an engagement, marriage, or pregnancy. If you look back, you may recall tell-tale signs of control or jealousy. Eventually, you and the entire family “walk on eggshells” and adapt so as not to upset the abuser. Being subjected to emotional abuse over time can lead to anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, inhibited sexual desire, chronic pain, or other physical symptoms.

People who respect and honor themselves won’t allow someone to abuse them. Many people allow abuse to continue because they fear confrontations. Usually, they are martyrs, caretakers, or pleasers. They feel guilty and blame themselves. Some aren’t able to access their anger and power in order to stand up for themselves, while others ineffectively argue, blame, and are abusive themselves, but they still don’t know how to set appropriate boundaries.

If you’ve allowed abuse to continue, there’s a good chance that you were abused by someone in your past, although you may not recognize it as such. It could have been a strict or alcoholic dad, an invasive mom, or a teasing sibling. Healing involves understanding how you’ve been abused, forgiving yourself, and rebuilding your self-esteem and confidence.

What is Emotional Abuse?

If you’re wondering if your relationship is abusive, it probably is. Emotional abuse, distinct from physical violence (including shoving, cornering, breaking, and throwing things), is speech and/or behavior that’s derogating, controlling, punishing, or manipulative. Withholding love, communication, support, or money are indirect methods of control and maintaining power. Passive-Aggressive behavior is covert hostility. The passive-aggressor is “A wolf in sheep’s clothing.” To learn more and get tips in how to respond, read, “Dealing with a Passive-Aggressive Partner.

Behavior that controls where you go, to whom you talk, or what you think is abusive. It’s one thing to say, “If you buy the dining room set, we cannot afford a vacation,” verses cutting up your credit cards. Spying, stalking, invading your person, space, or belongings is also abusive, because it disregards personal boundaries.

Verbal abuse is the most common forms of emotional abuse, but it’s often unrecognized, because it may be subtle and insidious. It may be said in a loving, quiet voice, or may be indirect – even concealed as a joke. Whether disguised as play or jokes, sarcasm or teasing that is hurtful is abusive. Obvious and direct verbal abuse, such as threats, judging, criticizing, lying, blaming, name-calling, ordering, and raging, are easy to recognize. Below are some more subtle types of verbal abuse that are just as damaging as overt forms, particularly because they are harder to detect. When experienced over time, they have an insidious, deleterious effect, because you begin to doubt and distrust yourself.

Opposing: The abuser will argue against anything you say, challenging your perceptions, opinions, and thoughts. The abuser doesn’t listen or volunteer thoughts or feelings, but treats you as an adversary, in effect saying “No” to everything, so a constructive conversation is impossible.

Blocking: This is another tactic used to abort conversation. The abuser may switch topics, accuse you, or use words that in effect say, “Shut Up.”

Discounting & Belittling: This is verbal abuse that minimizes or trivializes your feelings, thoughts, or experiences. It’s a way of saying that your feelings don’t matter or are wrong.

Undermining & Interrupting: These words are meant to undermine your self-esteem and confidence, such as, “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” finishing your sentences, or speaking on your behalf without your permission.

Denying: An abuser may deny that agreements or promises were made or that a conversation or events or took place, including prior abuse. The abuser instead may express affection or make declarations of love and caring. This is crazy-making and manipulative behavior, which leads you to gradually doubt your own memory, perceptions, and experience. In the extreme, a persistent pattern is called gas-lighting, named after the classic Ingrid Bergman movie, Gaslight. In it, her husband used denial in a plot to make her believe she was losing her grip on reality.

Confronting Abuse

In order to confront the abuse, it’s important to understand that the intent of the abuser is to control you and avoid meaningful conversation. Abuse is a used as a tactic to manipulate and have power over you. (See “How to Spot Manipulation.“) If you focus on the content, you’ll fall into the trap of trying to respond rationally, denying accusations and explaining yourself, and lose your power. The abuser has won at that point and deflected responsibility for the verbal abuse.

Sometimes, you can deflect verbal abuse with humor. It puts you on equal footing and deprives the abuser of the power they seek in belittling you. Repeating back what is said to you also has an impact, followed by a calm boundary. For example, “Did you say you think that I don’t know what doing?” You may get a defiant repetition of the insult. Then follow up with, “I disagree,” or “I don’t see it that way,” or “I know exactly what I’m doing.”

In some cases, verbal abuse is best addressed with forceful statements, such as, “Stop, it,” “Don’t talk to me that way,” “That’s demeaning,” “Don’t call me names,” “Don’t raise your voice at me,” “Don’t use that tone with me,” “I don’t respond to orders,” etc. In this way, you set a boundary of how you want to be treated and take back your power. The abuser may respond with, “Or what?”, and you can say, “I will not continue this conversation.”

Typically, a verbal abuser may become more abusive, in which case, you continue to address the abuse in the same manner. You might say, “If you continue, I’ll leave the room,” and do so if the abuse continues. If you keep setting boundaries, the abuser will get the message that manipulation and abuse won’t be effective. The relationship may or may not change for the better, or deeper issues may surface. Either way, you’re rebuilding your self-confidence and self-esteem, and are learning important skills about setting boundaries. (See “The Power of Personal Boundaries.”)

Abuse can slowly chip away at self-esteem. Usually, both the abuser and the victim in a relationship have experienced shaming in childhood and already have impaired self-esteem. Confronting an abuser, especially in a long term relationship can be challenging. It usually takes the support and validation of a group, therapist, or counselor to be able to consistently stand-up to abuse. Without it, you may doubt your reality, feel guilty, and fear loss of the relationship or reprisal. If it feels daunting, you can try a different, educative approach outlined in Dealing with a Narcissist: How to Raise Self-Esteem and Set boundaries with Difficult People.

Once you take back your power and regain your self-esteem, you won’t allow someone to abuse you. If the abuse stops, the relationship will improve, but for positive change, both of you must be willing to risk change. Build your self-esteem and learn to be assertive by using the tools in my ebooks, 10 Steps to Self-Esteem and How to Speak Your Mind: Become Assertive and Set Limits and webinar, How to be Assertive. To go deeper and explore the seeds of low-self-esteem, see Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You.

Copyright Darlene Lancer, MFT 2010, 2017

Posted in abuse, relationships, women's issues,

The Biggest Cause of Anxiety

chaosAnxiety 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.

Symptoms

Physical symptoms can still include any of the following:

Increased heart rate

Numbness or tingling in hands or feet

Perspiration

Shortness of breath

Tunnel vision

Nausea or diarrhea

Dry mouth

Dizziness

Restlessness

Muscle tension

When excessive, unrealistic worry persists about two or more things for at least six months and is accompanied by at least three of these symptoms: irritability, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, sleep problems, or the last two listed above. In some cases, anxiety can manifest in specific phobias that are inappropriate to the specific situation, or in a panic disorder, where we feel sudden, unprovoked terror that can cause chest pain and a choking sensation and be mistaken for a heart attack.

When I was hit while driving by an oncoming car, in the moments before impact, I felt terror and didn’t expect to survive the crash. For about a month afterward, I felt anxiety about driving and drove slower and more cautiously. This was a traumatic event, but eventually my anxiety passed.

Shame anxiety

Abuse and trauma, including major losses, are considered foremost causes of anxiety. We can feel anxiety about our finances or serious medical diagnosis, but most anxiety is shame anxiety, which is apprehension about experiencing shame. It’s caused by traumatic shame that has been internalized from the past, usually from childhood. Shame anxiety affects our self-esteem. We worry about what we say, how well we perform, and how we’re perceived by others. It can make us very sensitive to real or imagined criticism from ourselves or others. Shame anxiety may manifest as social phobia, or in symptoms of codependency, such as controlling behavior, people-pleasing, perfectionism, fear of abandonment, or obsessions about another person or addiction. Worry about our performance on the job, an exam, or speaking before a group is apprehension about how we’ll be evaluated or judged. Whereas men are more vulnerable to shame anxiety about loss of work, women worry more about their appearance and relationships. Men in particular, have shame anxiety about failing or not being a good provider. Perfectionism, too, is an attempt to achieve an imaginary ideal in an attempt to be accepted by others.

Emotional abandonment

Shame anxiety and abandonment go hand-in-hand. Loss of physical closeness due to death, divorce, or illness is also felt as an emotional abandonment. When we’re physically left, even briefly, we can blame ourselves and believe it’s due to something we did “wrong.” Yet, shame anxiety about abandonment has nothing to do with proximity. It happens whenever we perceive that someone we care about may not like or love us. We assume that we’re being rejected because in some way we’re inadequate or inferior, triggering deep beliefs that we’re basically unlovable. Even the passing of a loved one can activate feelings of emotional abandonment from childhood and cause shame about how our behavior prior to the death.

If we’ve suffered emotional abandonment in the past, particularly in childhood, we can have anxiety about experiencing it in the future. We worry others are judging us or upset with us. If we have an emotionally or physically abusive partner, we’re liable to be “walking on eggshells,” anxious about displeasing him or her. This reaction is typical when living with a practicing addict, narcissist, or someone bipolar or with a borderline disorder. It’s also common among children of addicts or those who grew up in a dysfunctional family where emotional abuse, including control or criticism, was common. When we live in such an environment for years, we may not realize we’re anxious. The state of hypervigilance becomes so constant, we can take it for granted. Anxiety and accompanying depression are characteristic of codependents.

Treating Anxiety

Early intervention yields the best results. Psychotherapy empowers patients to reduce anxiety by changing beliefs, thoughts, and behavior throughout their lives without the side-effects of prescription drugs. Effective therapies include various forms of cognitive-behavioral techniques, such as exposure therapy, CBT, and dialectical behavioral therapy. Other options include anti-anxiety medication and natural alternatives, such as non-drug supplements, relaxation techniques, hypnotherapy, and mindful meditation. Whereas drugs provide fast relief, the effect is mostly analgesic. Healing shame and freeing the true self provide long lasting reduction of anxiety by allowing us to be authentic and not worry about others’ opinion of us. See Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You.

© DarleneLancer 2015

 

Posted in abuse, Codependency, self-esteem, therapy, Welcome To My Blog,

Dealing with a Passive-Aggressive Partner

angry smilePassive-aggressive people act passive, but express aggression covertly. They’re basically obstructionist, and try to block whatever it is you want. Their unconscious anger gets transferred onto you, and you become frustrated and furious. Your fury is theirs, while they may calmly ask, “Why are you getting so angry?” and blame you for the anger they’re provoking.

Passive-aggressive partners are generally codependent, and like codependents, suffer from shame and low self-esteem. Their behavior is designed to please to appease and counter to control. You may be experiencing abuse, but not realize it, because their strategy of expressing hostility is covert and manipulative, leading to conflict and intimacy problems.

Personality Disorder

Personality disorders are persistent and enduring. According to the American Psychological Association passive-aggression was considered a personality disorder in the DSM-IV:

This behavior commonly reflects hostility which the individual feels he dare not express openly. Often the behavior is one expression of the patient’s resentment at failing to find gratification in a relationship with an individual or institution upon which he is over-dependent. (APA, 1968, p. 44, code 301.81)

The DSM-IV ascribed the disorder to someone with negative attitudes and passive resistance to requests for adequate performance, indicated by at least 4 of these traits not due to depression:

• Passively resists fulfilling routine tasks

• Complains of being misunderstood and unappreciated

• Is sullen and argumentative

• Scorns and criticizes authority

• Expresses envy and resentment toward those seeming more fortunate

• Frequently makes exaggerated complaints of misfortune

• Shows alternating hostile defiance and contrition

After nearly 40 years it was dropped in 1994. There’s renewed interest in studying passive-aggression. See a 2009 study. Passive-aggression was found to be related to borderline and narcissistic personality disorders, negative childhood experiences, and substance abuse.

Characteristics of Passive-Aggression

Because you can’t have an honest, direct conversation with a passive-aggressive partner, nothing ever gets resolved. They say yes, and then their behavior screams NO. They try to sabotage your wants, needs, and plans using a variety of tactics. We all engage in some of these behaviors some of the time, but when there’s a pervasive pattern of multiple symptoms, it’s likely that you’re dealing with passive-aggression.

Denial: Like all codependents, they’re in denial of the impact of their behavior. This is why they blame others, unaware of the problems they’re causing. They refuse to take responsibility for anything, and distort reality, rationalize, blame, make excuses, minimize, deny, or flat out lie about their behavior or the promises or agreements they’ve made.

Forgetting: Rather than say no or address their anger, they forget your birthday or the plans you’ve discussed, or forget to put gas in the car, pickup your prescription, or fix the leaky toilet. You end up feeling hurt and angry.

Procrastinating: They’re avoidant and don’t like schedules or deadlines. It’s another form of rebellion, so they delay and delay with endless excuses. They don’t follow through on responsibilities, promises, or agreements. If they’re unemployed, they drag their feet looking for work. You may do more job-searching on their behalf than they do.

Obstructing: This is another nonverbal form of saying NO. When you try to decide on where or when to go on vacation, pick out an apartment, or make plans, they find fault with each suggestion and won’t offer any of their own.

Ambiguity: They hate to take a stand. They don’t say what they want or mean. However, their behavior tells the truth, which is usually NO. This way they retain control and blame you for being controlling. As you might expect, negotiating agreements, such as in a divorce or child visitation plan, is exasperating. In addition to procrastinating, they avoid being pinned down. They may insist on “reasonable visitation,” and label your attempts to specify a predictable plan as controlling. Don’t be fooled. This only postpones negotiation when repetitive arguments can occur over every exchange of the children. Alternatively, they might agree to terms, but not abide by them. You can expect to be back in court.

Never angry: They don’t express their anger openly. In childhood, they may have been punished or scolded for showing anger, or were never permitted to object. Their only outlet is passive-aggressive, oppositional behavior.

Incompetency: When they finally do what you ask, you likely have to redo it. If they make a repair, it might not last or you’ll have to clean the mess they made. If they’re helping with house cleaning, their inefficiency may drive you to do it yourself. At work, they make careless errors.

Lateness: Chronic lateness is a half-hearted way of saying NO. They agree to a time, but show up late. You’re dressed-up, waiting to go out, and they’re “stuck at the office,” on the Internet, or watching the game and not ready. Lateness at work or delivering assignments is a self-sabotaging form of rebellion that can get them dismissed.

Negativity: Their personality may include pouting or acting sullen, stubborn, or argumentative. They feel misunderstood and unappreciated and scorn and criticize authority. They frequently complain and envy and resent those more fortunate.

Playing the Victim: The problem is always someone else’s fault. Their denial, shame, and lack of responsibility cause them to play the victim and blame others. You or their boss become the controlling, demanding one. They always have an excuse, but it’s their own self-destructive behaviors that cause them problems.

Dependency: While fearing domination, they’re dependent, nonassertive, indecisive, and unsure of themselves. They’re unaware of their dependency and fight it whenever they can. Their obstructionism is a pseudo attempt at independence. They don’t leave, but withdraw or withhold intimacy instead. An autonomous person has healthy self-esteem, is assertive, and can take a stand and keep commitments. Not so for someone passive-aggressive. Their behavior is designed to avoid responsibility for themselves and family, and sometimes they depend unfairly on their partner for support.

Withholding: Withholding communication is another form of expressing anger and asserting power passively. They may walk away, refusing to talk things over, or play the victim and say, “You’re always right,” shutting down the discussion. They’re unable to articulate what they want, feel, or need. Instead, they retain their power using the silent treatment or withholding material/financial support, affection, or sex. This undermines intimacy as a way to fight against their dependency.

There are a myriad of other things they might do, like slamming doors, giving away something of yours, or offering you dessert that you’re allergic to or when you’re dieting.

What You Can Do

Because a passive-aggressive person is indirect, it may be hard to recognize what’s going on, but it’s essential that you recognize whom you’re dealing with. Look for a pervasive pattern of several of the above symptom, and monitor your feelings. You may feel angry, confused, or powerless when trying to get cooperation. If this is a common pattern, you’re likely dealing with passive-aggression.

It’s important not to react. When you nag, scold, or get angry, you escalate conflict and give your partner more excuses and ammunition to deny responsibility. Not only that, you step into the role of parent – the very one your partner is rebelling against. Don’t be vague, drop hints, blame, or allow yourself to pay-back in kind.

Neither be passive, nor aggressive. Instead, be assertive. It’s far better to address noncompliance and problems in the relationship directly. Frame it in terms of “We have a problem,” not “You are the problem,” which is shaming. Don’t blame or judge your partner, but describe the behavior you don’t like, how it affects you and the relationship, and what you want. If you let your partner come up with a solution to a problem, there’s a better chance of resolution.

When you go along with your partner’s tactics or take on his or her responsibilities, you enable and encourage more passive-aggressive behavior. It would be similar to nagging your child, but allowing the youngster not to do his or her chores. This takes practice and requires being assertive. Be prepared to set boundaries with consequences. See my blog, “10 Reasons Why Boundaries Don’t Work.” For suggestions on dealing with passive-aggression, write me at info@darlenelancer.com for “12 Strategies for Handling Manipulators.” Practice the tools in How to Speak Your Mind- Become Assertive and Set Limits.

© Darlene Lancer, 2015, 2016

Posted in Welcome To My Blog,

10 Reasons Why Boundaries Don’t Work

boundaryHas 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.

Why Assertiveness is Difficult

Learning assertiveness takes self-awareness and practice. Often due to underlying shame and low self-esteem, codependents, especially, find this difficult, because:

  1. They don’t know what they need or feel.
  2. Even when they do, they don’t value their needs, feelings, and wants, and put others’ needs and feelings first. They feel anxious and guilty asking for what they want or need.
  3. They don’t believe that they have rights.
  4. They fear someone’s anger or judgment (e.g., being called selfish or self-centered).
  5. They’re ashamed of being vulnerable, showing feelings or asking for what they want and need.
  6. They fear losing someone’s love, friendship, or approval.
  7. They don’t want to be a burden.

Instead of being assertive, codependents communicate dysfunctionally, as they learned from their parents, often being passive, nagging, aggressive, or critical or blaming. If you nag, attack, blame, or criticize someone, he or she will react defensively or tune you out. Assertiveness can be learned with practice.

Why Boundaries Don’t Work

If you’ve repeatedly communicated your boundaries assertively and it’s not working, it’s likely because:

  1. Your tone is not firm or is blaming or critical.
  2. There’s no consequence for violating your boundary.
  3. You back down when challenged with reason, anger, threats, name-calling, the silent treatment, or responses such as:
    • “Who do you think you are, telling me what to do?”
    • “That’s selfish of you.”
    • “Stop controlling me.”
  4. You make threats too frightening or unrealistic to carry out, such as “If you do that again, I’ll leave.”
  5. You don’t sufficiently appreciate the importance of your needs and values.
  6. You don’t exercise consequences on a consistent basis – every time your boundary is violated.
  7. You back down because you sympathize with the other person’s pain, and you place his or her feelings and needs above your own.
  8. You’re insisting that someone else change. Consequences aren’t meant to punish someone or change his or her behavior, but rather require you to change your behavior.
  9. You don’t have a support system to reinforce your new behavior.
  10. Your words and actions are contradictory. Actions speak louder. Actions that reward someone for violating your limit prove that you aren’t serious. Here are some examples:
  • Telling your neighbor not to come over without calling first, and then allowing her to come into your apartment uninvited.
  • Telling your boyfriend “no contact,” and then texting or seeing him nonetheless.
  • Telling someone not to call after 9pm, but answering the phone.
  • Giving attention that reinforces negative behavior, such as nagging or complaining about the unwanted behavior, but not taking any action. In the preceding example, answering the phone and saying, “I told you not to call,” still reinforces the unwanted behavior, albeit with negative attention, because you took the call.

Things You Can Do

In “The Power of Personal Boundaries,” I underscore the importance of boundaries for you and your relationships in order to ensure respect, safety, and trust. In formulating boundaries, it’s critical that you identify your feelings, needs, values (e.g. honesty, fidelity, privacy, and mutual respect). Do you honor or over-ride them? Once you know your comfort zone, you can determine your boundaries. Assess your current boundaries in all areas? Codependency for Dummies has self-healing exercises that take you through these steps. Think about:

  1. What specific behaviors have you participated in or allowed that violate your values or compromise your needs and wants?
  2. How does it affect you and the relationship?
  3. Are you willing to put in the risk and effort to maintain your boundaries?
  4. What rights do you believe you have? What’s your bottom line?
  5. What have you said or done that hasn’t worked and why?
  6. What are consequences that you can live with? Always mean what you say, and never make threats you won’t keep. Remember, all your effort is undone if you don’t maintain your boundary and consequences.
  7. How you will handle the other person’s reaction.
  8. Learn the 6 C’s of assertiveness and how to set effective boundaries in How to Speak Your Mind – Become Assertive and Set Limits.

It’s important to take baby steps, get support, and practice, practice, practice. Consider the wise words of Randi Kreger:

      “To maintain your limits over the long haul, you need to have conviction that the limit is necessary and appropriate. Conviction comes when you know how much it costs not have the limit in place. The longer you wait, the more it costs.” (Author of Splitting: Protecting Yourself While Divorcing Someone with Borderline or Narcissistic Personality Disorder, see www.BPDcentral.com)

©Darlene Lancer, 2015

Posted in abuse, Codependency, communication, relationships, self-esteem, Welcome To My Blog,

Living with an Addict – Alcoholic

Alcohol_desgracia RayNata 2008 wikiLiving with an addict can be a living hell. Unpredictable and dangerous, yet sometimes exciting and romantic. Never knowing when we’ll be blamed or accused. Not being able to dependably plan social events. As the addict becomes more irresponsible, we pick up the slack and do more, often becoming the sole functioning parent or even the sole provider; yet we’re unable to lean on our partner for comfort or support. Meanwhile, we rescue him or her from disasters, medical emergencies, accidents, or jail, make excuses for no-shows at work and family gatherings, and patch up damaged property, relationships, and self-inflicted mishaps. We may also endure financial hardship, criminality, domestic violence, or infidelity due to the addict’s behavior.

We worry, feel angry, afraid, and alone. We hide our private lives from friends, co-workers, and even family to cover up the problems created by addiction or alcoholism. Our shame isn’t warranted; nonetheless, we feel responsible for the actions of the addict. Our self-esteem deteriorates from the addict’s lies, verbal abuse, and blame. Our sense of safety and trust erodes as our isolation and despair grow. My focus is on alcoholism, but many of the feelings partner’s experience are the same, regardless of the type of addiction.

Alcoholism is considered a disease. Like other addiction, it’s a compulsion that worsens over time. Alcoholics drink to ease their emotional pain and emptiness. Some try to control their drinking and may be able to stop for a while, but once alcohol dependency takes hold, most find it impossible to drink like non-alcoholics. When they try to curb their drinking, they eventually end up drinking more than they intend despite their best efforts not to. No matter what they say, they aren’t drinking because of you, nor because they’re immoral or lack willpower. They drink because they have a disease and an addiction. They deny this reality and rationalize or blame their drinking on anything or anyone else. Denial is the hallmark of addiction.

Drinking is considered an “Alcohol Use Disorder,” when there’s a pattern of use causing impairment or distress manifested by at least two of the following signs within a year, when the person:

        1. Drinks alcohol in greater amounts or for a longer period than was intended
        2. Has a persistent desire or has made failed attempts to reduce or control drinking
        3. Spends great time in activities to obtain or use alcohol or to recover from its effects
        4. Has a strong desire to drink alcohol
        5. Fails to meet obligations at work, school, or home due to recurrent drinking
        6. Drinks despite the recurrent social or interpersonal problems caused or worsened as a result
        7. Stops or reduces important activities due to drinking
        8. Drinks when it’s physically hazardous to do so
        9. Drinks despite a recurrent physical or psychological problem caused or worsened as a result
        10. Develops tolerance (needs increased amounts to achieve desired effect)
        11. Has withdrawal symptoms from disuse, such as tremor, insomnia, nausea, anxiety, agitation

Alcoholism is “a family disease.” It’s said that at least five other people experience the effects of each drinker’s alcoholism, coined “secondhand drinking,” by Lisa Frederiksen. We try to control the situation, the drinking, and the alcoholic. If you live with an alcoholic, you’re affected most, and children severely suffer because of their vulnerability and lack of maturity, especially if their mother or both parents are addicts.

It’s painful to helplessly watch someone we love slowly destroy him or herself, our hopes and dreams, and our family. We feel frustrated and resentful from repeatedly believing the addict’s broken promises and from trying to control an uncontrollable situation. This is our denial. In time, we become as obsessed with the alcoholic as he or she is with alcohol. We may look for him or her in bars, count his or her drinks, pour out booze, or search for bottles. As it says in Al-Anon’s “Understanding Ourselves,” “All our thinking becomes directed at what the alcoholic is doing or not doing and how to get the drinker to stop drinking.” Without help, our codependency follows the same downward trajectory of alcoholism.

There is hope, and there is help for the addict and for codependent family members. The first step is to learn as much as you can about alcoholism and codependency. Many of the things we do to help an addict or alcoholic are counterproductive and actually can make things worse. Listen to the experience, strength, and hope of others in recovery. Al-Anon Family Groups can help. You will learn:

• Not to suffer because of the actions or reactions of other people
• Not to allow ourselves to be used or abused by others in the interest of another’s recovery
• Not to do for others what they can do for themselves
• Not to manipulate situations so others will eat, go to bed, get up, pay bills, not drink, or behave as we see fit
• Not to cover up for another’s mistakes or misdeeds
• Not to create a crisis
• Not to prevent a crisis if it is in the natural course of events*

Attend an Al-Anon meeting in your area or online. Read and do the exercises in my book, Codependency for Dummies.

©Darlene Lancer 2014
*Reprinted with permission of Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters, Inc., Virginia Beach, VA.

©Darlene Lancer 2014

Posted in Addiction, Codependency, relationships, Welcome To My Blog,

Do You Love a Narcissist?

Businesswoman Flipping off BusinessmanIt’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.

What it’s Like. In the beginning, you were delighted to be in the narcissist’s aura. Now you’re tense and drained from unpredictable tantrums, attacks, and unjustified indignation at imaginary slights. You begin to doubt yourself, worry what he or she will think, and become as pre-occupied with the narcissist, as he or she is with him or herself.

After a while, you start to lose self-confidence. Your self-esteem may have been intact when you met, but your partner finds you coming up short, and doesn’t fail to point it out. Most narcissists are perfectionists, and nothing you or others do is right or appreciated. Talking about your disappointment or hurt gets turned into your fault or another opportunity to put you down. They can dish it, but not take it, being highly sensitive to any perceived judgment.

Narcissists have no boundaries and see you as an extension of themselves, requiring that you’re on call to meet their needs – regardless of whether you’re ill or in pain. You might get caught-up in trying to please them. This is like trying to fill a bottomless pit. Their needs, whether for admiration, service, love, or purchases, are endless. You might go out of your way to fill their request only to have your efforts devalued because you didn’t read their mind. They expect you to know without having to ask. You end up in a double-blind – damned if you displease them and damned when you do. Narcissists don’t like to hear “No.” Setting boundaries threatens them. They’ll manipulate to get their way make sure you feel guilty if you’re bold enough to risk turning them down. You become afraid that if you don’t please them, you risk an onslaught of blame and punishment, love being withheld, and a rupture in the relationship. All too possible, because the narcissist’s relationship is with him or herself. You just have to fit in. Nevertheless, you stay in the relationship, because periodically the charm, excitement, and loving gestures that first enchanted you return.

Do Narcissists love? In public, narcissists switch on the charm that first drew you in. People gravitate towards them and are enlivened by their energy. You’re proud to bask in their glow, but at home, they’re totally different. They may privately denigrate the person they were just entertaining. You begin to wonder if they have an outward “as if” personality. Maybe you’re reassured of their love when they bestow complimentary and caring words and gestures, are madly possessive, or buy you expensive gifts, then doubt their sincerity and question whether they’re being manipulative or saying what’s appropriate.

Sometimes, you might think they love only themselves. That’s a common misconception. Actually, they dislike themselves immensely. Their inflated self-flattery, perfectionism, and arrogance are merely covers for the self-loathing they don’t admit – usually even to themselves. Instead, it’s projected outwards in their disdain for and criticism of others. This is why they don’t want to look at themselves. They’re too afraid, because they believe that the truth would be devastating. Actually, they don’t have much of a Self at all. Emotionally, they’re dead inside. (See Self-Love.)

Early Beginnings. It’s hard to be empathic with narcissists, but they didn’t choose to be that way. Their natural development was arrested as a toddler due to faulty, early parenting, usually by the mother who didn’t provide sufficient nurturing and opportunity for idealization. They’re left with an unrealistic view of themselves, and at time make you experience what it was like having had to feed the needs of a cold, invasive, or unavailable narcissistic parent. Anne Rice’s vampire Lestat had such an emotionally empty mother, who devotedly bonded with him to survive. The deprivation of real nurturing and lack of boundaries make narcissists dependent on others to feed their insatiable need for validation. Like the mythological Narcissus, they don’t know themselves, but only can love themselves as a reflection in the eyes of others. Poor Narcissus. The gods sentenced him to a life without human love. He fell in love with his reflection by a pool, and died by the water, hungering for a response from his reflection.

Diagnosis. All personality traits, including narcissism, exist on a continuum from mild to severe. Narcissism ranges from self-centeredness and some narcissistic traits to Narcissistic Personality Disorder (“NPD”). NPD wasn’t categorized as a disorder by the American Psychiatric Association until 1987, because it was felt that too many people shared some of the traits and it was difficult to diagnose. The summarized diagnosis is controversial and undergoing further change:
Someone with NPD is grandiose (sometimes only in fantasy), lacks empathy, and needs admiration from others, as indicated by five of these characteristics:

1. A grandiose sense of self-importance and exaggerates achievements and talents
2. Dreams of unlimited power, success, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
3. Lacks empathy for the feelings and needs of others
4. Requires excessive admiration
5. Believes he or she is special and unique, and can only be understood by, or should associate with other special or of high-status people (or institutions)
6. Unreasonably expects special, favorable treatment or compliance with his or her wishes
7. Exploits and takes advantage of others to achieve personal ends
8. Envies others or believes they’re envious of him or her
9. Has “an attitude” of arrogance or acts that way

Of all the narcissists, beware of malignant narcissists, who are the most pernicious, hostile, and destructive. They take traits 6 & 7 to an extreme, and are vindictive and malicious. Avoid them before they destroy you.

Codependency. People with codependency lack a core Self, and define themselves based on others. This is true for all narcissists, whose Self is so weak and insecure, they need constant validation. Stereotypically, they’re not interested in taking care of others – but some narcissists are caretakers. Many narcissistic men do this with money, because it boosts their self-esteem.

When two narcissists get together, they’re miserable needing each other, yet fighting over whose needs come first and pushing away. On the other hand, it can be a perfect fit, albeit painful, for ordinary codependents, because their low self-esteem is boosted by the narcissist’s attributes and aura of success. It also allows them to tolerate the narcissist’s emotional abuse. They feel needless and guilty asserting their needs and caring for a narcissist makes them feel valued. Because they feel undeserving of receiving love, they don’t expect to be loved for who they are – only for what they give or do.

Treatment. Narcissists don’t usually seek help unless a major loss shatters their illusions. But both narcissism and codependency can be healed with courage, time, and a commitment to yourself. Recovery entails improving boundaries and self-acceptance based upon real self-knowledge. Psychotherapy and joining a 12-Step program are beneficial ways to start. Building awareness, doing the exercises, and implementing the strategies in Dealing with a Narcissist – 8 Steps to Raise Self-Esteem and Set Boundaries with Difficult People.

You can email me for a “Checklist of Narcissistic Behaviors.”
© Darlene Lancer, 2011

Posted in abuse, Codependency, Intimacy, marriage, relationships, self-esteem, therapy,

Are you a People-Pleaser?

dilemma1Everyone 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.

Our strategy might create other problems. We may put in extra time at work and try to please the boss but get passed over for a promotion or discover we’re doing work we’re not enjoying at all. We may be very accommodating to family and friends and resent that we’re always the one called upon for help, extra work, or to take care of someone else’s problems.

Our love life might suffer, too. We give and give to our partner, but feel unappreciated or unimportant and that and our needs and desires aren’t considered. We may begin to feel bored, joyless, or mildly depressed. We may miss earlier times when we were happier or more independent. The anger, resentment, hurt, and conflict we always tried to avoid continue to grow. Being alone might appear to be a welcome escape from these challenges, but then we’d end up sacrificing our connection to others, which is what we truly want. Sometimes, it seems like we have to choose between sacrificing ourselves or sacrificing a relationship.

It’s Easier to Just Go Along

We often feel trapped, but don’t know another way to be. Accommodating others is so ingrained in us that stopping is not only difficult, it’s terrifying. If we look around, we might notice other people who are well-liked and don’t people-please. We may even know someone who is kind or admired and is able to say no to requests and invitations. What’s more, they don’t seem to agonize about it with guilt. How they do that is baffling. We might even envy someone quite popular who doesn’t give a hoot about what others think. If we bother to reflect on all this, we may wonder how we got into such a mess and question our fundamental belief that pleasing is the road to acceptance.

Although there are other people who choose to be cooperative and kind, we don’t feel as if we have a choice. It can be as hard to say no to someone who needs us as it is to someone who abuses us. In either case, we fear it will negatively affect our relationship, and the guilt and fear of rejection or disappointing someone is overwhelming. We may have loved ones or friends who would become indignant and even retaliate if we were to say no. Each time, it gets easier to agree when we rather not or to go along and not object. We can turn into a human pretzel trying to win the love or approval of someone we care for – especially in a romantic relationship.

Starting in Childhood

The problem is that for many of us, our pleasing is more than kindness. It’s our personality style. Some children decide that accommodating their parents’ wishes is the safest way to survive in a world of powerful adults and best way to win their parents acceptance and love. They try to be good and not make waves. “Good” means what  parents want. Their parents may have had high expectations, been critical, had rigid rules, withheld love or approval, or punished them for “mistakes,” dissent, or showing anger. Some children learn to acquiesce merely by observing their parents’ actions with each other or another sibling. When parental discipline is unfair or unpredictable, children learn to be careful and cooperative to avoid it. Many of us are more sensitive and have a low tolerance for conflict or separation from parents due to genetic makeup, early interactions with parents, or a combination of various factors.

People-Pleasers Pay a Price

Unfortunately, becoming a people-pleaser sets us on a path of becoming alienated from our innate, true self. The underlying belief is that who we are isn’t lovable. Instead, we idealize being loved as a means to self-worth and happiness to the point that we crave it. Our need to be accepted, understood, needed, and loved causes us to be compliant and self-effacing. We conclude, “If you love me, then I’m lovable.” “You” comes to mean just about everyone, including people incapable of love!

Preserving our relationships is our uppermost mandate. We strive to be lovable and charitable and reject character traits that we decide won’t serve that goal. We can end up squelching entire chunks of our personality that are incompatible, like showing anger, winning competitions, exercising power, getting attention, setting boundaries, or disagreeing with others. Even when not asked, we willingly give up separate interests that would mean time away from a loved one. The slightest look of disappointment (which we may inaccurately infer) is enough to deter us from doing something on our own.

Assertiveness feels harsh, setting limits feels rude, and requesting that our needs be met sounds demanding. Some of us don’t believe we have any rights at all. We feel guilty expressing any needs, if we’re even aware of them. We consider it selfish to act in our self-interest. We may even have been called selfish by a selfish parent or spouse. Our guilt and fear of abandonment may be so strong that we stay in an abusive relationship rather than leave.

It’s not surprising that we’re often attracted to someone who is the opposite of us – whose power, independence, and certitude we admire. Over time, we can start to think that unlike us, they’re selfish. In fact, we probably wouldn’t be attracted to someone of the opposite sex who is as kind and pleasing as we are. We would consider them weak, because deep down we dislike ourselves for being so compliant. Moreover, getting our needs met doesn’t rank high on our list. We’d rather be submissive – but eventually pay a price for it.

We’re not aware that each time we hide who we are to please someone else, we give up a little self-respect. In the process, our true self (what we really feel, think, need, and want) retreats a bit more. We become accustomed to sacrificing our needs and wants for so long that we may not know what they are. Decades of conveniently accommodating “just this time” whittles away at our connection to our true self, and our lives and relationships begin to feel empty of joy and passion.

We can change!

It’s possible to change and find our voice, our power, and our passion. It requires getting reacquainted with that Self we’ve hidden, discovering our feelings and needs, and risking asserting and acting on them. It’s a process of raising our sense of self-worth and self-esteem and healing the shame we may not even know that we carry, but it’s a worthy adventure of self-reclamation. Learn more about the steps you can take in my books and ebooks on my website, www.whatiscodependency.com.
©Darlene Lancer 2014

Posted in Codependency, communication, relationships, self-esteem,

Trapped in an Unhappy Relationship?

Woman Confined Behind a Chain-Link FenceDo 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.

Unconscious Fear

Despite the abundance of reasons, many of which are realistic, there are deeper, unconscious ones that keep people trapped – usually fears of separation and loneliness that they want to avoid. Often in longer relationships, spouses don’t develop individual activities or support networks other than their mate. In the past, an extended family used to serve that function. Whereas women tend to have girlfriends in whom they confide and are usually closer with their parents, traditionally, men focus on work, but disregard their emotional needs and rely exclusively on their wife for support. Yet, both men and women often neglect developing individual interests. Some codependent women give up their friends, hobbies, and activities and adopt those of their male companions. The combined effect of this adds to fears of loneliness and isolation people that they envisage being on their own.

For spouses married a number of years, their identity may be as a “husband” or “wife” – a “provider” or “homemaker.” The loneliness experienced upon divorce is tinged with feeling lost. It’s an identity crisis. This also may be significant for a noncustodial parent, for whom parenting is a major source of self-esteem.

Some people have never lived alone. They left home or their college roommate for a marriage or romantic partner. The relationship helped them leave home – physically. Yet, they’ve never completed the developmental milestone of “leaving home” psychologically, meaning becoming an autonomous adult. They are as tied to their mate as they once were to their parents. Going through divorce or separation brings with it all of the unfinished work of becoming an independent “adult.” Fears about leaving their spouse and children may be reiterations of the fears and guilt that they would have had upon separating from their parents, which were avoided by quickly getting into a relationship or marriage. Guilt about leaving a spouse may be due to the fact that their parents didn’t appropriately encourage emotional separation. Although the negative impact of divorce upon children is real, their worries may also be projections of fears for themselves. This is compounded if they suffered from their parents’ divorce.

Denial

Denial of problems, including addiction, is another reason why people can get stuck in a relationship. They may rationalized, minimize, or excuse their partner’s behavior and cling to hope or occasional “good times” or expressions of love. They believe broken promises and hope things will improve . . . “if only” often, denying their own pain, which might motivate them to get help and change.

Lack of Autonomy

Autonomy implies being an emotionally secure, separate, and independent person. The lack of autonomy not only makes separation difficult, it naturally also makes people more dependent upon their partner. The consequence is that people feel trapped or “on the fence” and racked with ambivalence. On one hand they crave freedom and independence; on the other hand, they want the security of a relationship – even a bad one. Autonomy doesn’t mean you don’t need others, but in fact allows you to experience healthy dependence on others without the fear of suffocation. Examples of psychological autonomy include:

  1. You don’t feel lost and empty when you’re alone.
  2. You don’t feel responsible for others’ feelings and actions.
  3. You don’t take things personally.
  4. You can make decisions on your own.
  5. You have your own opinions and values and aren’t easily suggestible.
  6. You can initiate and do things on your own.
  7. You can say “no” and ask for space.
  8. You have your own friends.

Often, it’s this lack of autonomy that makes people unhappy in relationships or unable to commit. Because they can’t leave, they fear getting close. They’re afraid of even more dependence – of losing themselves completely. They may people-please or sacrifice their needs, interests, and friends, and then build resentments toward their partner.

A Way Out

The way out may not require leaving the relationship. Freedom is an inside job. Develop a support system and become more independent and assertive. Take responsibility for your happiness by developing your passions instead of focusing on the relationship.  Perhaps you’re unsure, and need help in asking for the changes that your want. Learn to be assertive in my ebook, How to Speak Your Mind – Become Assertive and Set Limits. If you feel guilty leaving, see my e-workbook, Freedom from Guilt.

©Darlene Lancer 2013

Posted in abuse, Codependency, communication, depression, Divorce, Intimacy, Making Change, marriage, relationships,

The Perfectionist’s Trap

perfect smPerfectionism 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. Perfectionists expect what is humanly impossible. Hence, they don’t accept themselves or their own humanity. Self-acceptance is a foreign concept. The thought of being average is horrifying and would mean being inferior, what they fear, but also what they actually believe. They never feel good enough and live with a harsh inner judge that tyrannizes them with how they should act, what they should have done differently or should be doing that they’re not. They’re sensitive to criticism, because it mirrors the doubts perfectionists have about themselves and their work. A negative reaction from someone overshadows positive feedback they receive. Dreading criticism, some perfectionists hide their mistakes and only take credit for the positive they do.

Their behavior reflects underlying shame – not feeling good enough as a person in some way, such as looks, character, physical prowess, or intelligence. They unconsciously imagine that achieving perfection would make them feel worthwhile. This compensates for deep-seated shame about which perfectionists are generally unaware.

Because perfection is relative and an illusion, a perfectionist is always chasing it. Hence, a perfectionist is continually failing and unable to enjoy the results of their efforts. When success is achieved, pride of accomplishment is only fleetingly enjoyed, if at all, because there is always a flaw or higher bar to surpass. For example gratification from receiving an “A” on a test can be spoiled if they made a mistake or a teacher’s comments were anything but complimentary. Upon winning the highly coveted Oscar for Best Actor, Matthew McConaughey aptly described his perfectionism as always chasing his future self, knowing he’ll never catch up. He proudly declared, “My hero is always 10 years away . . .  to keep on chasing.” In actuality, perfectionists are constantly running away from their inner critic, and the pursuit of their imaginary ideal provides ongoing ammunition for self-criticism. This is the perfectionists’ trap. Their defensive solution to shame creates more of it.

The seeds of shame and perfectionism lie in childhood and often accompany codependency. Parents who are overcorrecting, controlling, abusive, punitive, or unpredictable can create insecurity and doubt in their children. Children imagine that if they perform flawlessly or are perfectly good, they will be accepted or that their parents won’t argue, that Mommy will be happy or Daddy won’t drink. Other parents encourage perfectionism by pressuring their children to perform, achieve unrealistic goals, or only approve of them based upon their performance. Even bright children, as well as perfectionist adults, quit or avoid learning new things to avoid feeling like a failure during the learning process when mistakes are unavoidable. Parents should empathize with their children’s sense of failure when they make mistakes.

Perfectionists fear exposing mistakes or a sloppy or inferior performance or appearance. Several decades ago, the plaster of my living room wall had to be patched due to earthquake damage. (I live in California, so this literally goes with the territory.) The plasterer did his best to match the rest of the wall, but the original plaster had a variegated, mottled texture, and the new plaster didn’t match. Probably no one else would have noticed, but I did. It wasn’t perfect, and I was frustrated. It occurred to me that my fixation on the plaster symbolized my concerns about exposing my own imperfections. With that awareness, I was able to let it go.

As with any addiction, changing habits and compulsive behavior isn’t always so easy. But it’s entirely possible to have high standards and realistic goals without the compulsive, driven quality of perfectionism and without the destructive side effects, as well. My ebook 10 Steps to Self-Esteem: The Ultimate Guide to Stop Self-Criticism gives you simple steps to raise your self-esteem and end self-criticism. Look for my coming ebook on overcoming perfectionism.

©Darlene Lancer, 2014

 

Posted in Addiction, Codependency, Parenting, self-esteem, Welcome To My Blog,

Symptoms of Codependency

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.

*   Low self-esteem

Not feeling that you’re good enough or comparing yourself to others is a sign of low self-esteem. The tricky thing about self-esteem is that some people think highly of themselves, but it’s only a camouflage for really feeling unlovable or inadequate. Underneath, usually hidden from consciousness, are feelings of shame. Some of the things that go along with low self-esteem are guilt feelings and perfectionism. If everything is perfect, you don’t feel bad about yourself.

*   People pleasing

It’s fine to want to please someone you care about, but codependents usually don’t think they have a choice. Saying “No” causes them anxiety. Some codependents have a hard time saying “No” to anyone. They go out of their way and sacrifice their own needs to accommodate other people.

*   Poor Boundaries

Boundaries are sort of an imaginary line between you and others. It divides up what’s yours and somebody else’s, and that applies not only to your body, money, and belongings, but also to your feelings, thoughts and needs. That’s especially where codependents get into trouble. They have blurry or weak boundaries between themselves and others. They feel responsible for other people’s feelings and problems or blame their own on someone else.

Some codependents have rigid boundaries. They are closed off and withdrawn, making it hard for other people to get close to them. Sometimes, people flip back and forth between having weak boundaries and rigid ones.

*   Reactivity

A consequence of poor boundaries is that you react to everyone’s thoughts and feelings. If someone says something you disagree with, you either believe it or become defensive. You absorb their words, because there’s no boundary. With a boundary, you’d realize it was just their opinion and not a reflection of you and not feel threatened by disagreements.

*   Caretaking

Another effect of poor boundaries is that if someone else has a problem, you want to help them to the point that you give up yourself. It’s natural to feel empathy and sympathy for someone, but codependents start putting other people ahead of themselves. In fact, they need to help and might feel rejected if another person doesn’t want help. Moreover, they keep trying to help and fix the other person, even when that person clearly isn’t taking their advice.

*   Control

Control helps codependents feel safe and secure. Everyone needs some control over events in their life. You wouldn’t want to live in constant uncertainty and chaos, but for codependents, control limits their ability to take risks and share their feelings. Sometimes they have an addiction that either helps them loosen up, like alcoholism, or helps them hold their feelings down, like workaholism, so that they don’t feel out of control.

Codependents also need to control those close to them, because they need other people to behave in a certain way to feel okay. In fact, people pleasing and caretaking can be used to control and manipulate people. Alternatively, codependents are bossy and tell you what you should or shouldn’t do. This is a violation of someone else’s boundary.

*   Dysfunctional communication

Codependents have trouble when it comes to communicating their thoughts, feelings and needs. Of course, if you don’t know what you think, feel or need, this becomes a problem. Other times, you know, but you won’t own up to your truth. You’re afraid to be truthful, because you don’t want to upset someone else. Instead of saying, “I don’t like that,” you might pretend that it’s okay or tell someone what to do. Communication becomes dishonest and confusing when you try to manipulate the other person out of fear.

*   Obsessions

Codependents have a tendency to spend their time thinking about other people or relationships. This is caused by their dependency and anxieties and fears. They can also become obsessed when they think they’ve made or might make a “mistake.”

Sometimes you can lapse into fantasy about how you’d like things to be or about someone you love as a way to avoid the pain of the present. This is one way to stay in denial, discussed below, but it keeps you from living your life.

*   Dependency

Codependents need other people to like them to feel okay about themselves and they’re afraid of being rejected or abandoned – even if they can function on their own. Others need to always be in a relationship, because they feel depressed or lonely when they’re by themselves for too long. This trait makes it hard for them to end a relationship, even when the relationship is painful or abusive. They end up feeling trapped.

*   Denial

One of the problems people face in getting help for codependency is that they’re in denial about it, meaning that they don’t face their problem. Usually they think the problem is someone else or the situation. They either keep complaining or trying to fix the other person, or go from one relationship or job to another and never own up the fact that they have a problem.

Codependents also deny their feelings and needs. Often times, they don’t know what they’re feeling and are instead focused on what others are feeling. The same thing goes for their needs. They pay attention to other people’s needs and not their own. They might be in denial of their need for space and autonomy. Although some codependents seem needy, others act like they’re self-sufficient when it comes to needing help. They won’t reach out and have trouble receiving. They are in denial of their vulnerability and need for love and intimacy.

*   Problems with intimacy

By this I’m not referring to sex, although sexual dysfunction is often a reflection of an intimacy problem. I’m talking about being open and close with someone in an intimate relationship. Because of the shame and weak boundaries, you might fear that you’ll be judged, rejected, or left. On the other hand, you may fear smothered in a relationship and losing your autonomy. You might deny your need for closeness and feel that your partner wants too much of your time; your partner complains that you’re unavailable, but he or she is denying his or her need for separateness.

*   Painful emotions

Codependency creates stress and leads to painful emotions. Shame and low self-esteem create anxiety and fear about:

Being judged

Being rejected or abandoned

Making mistakes

Being a failure

Being close and feeling trapped

Being alone

The other symptoms lead to feelings of anger and resentment, depression, hopelessness, and despair. When the feelings are too much, you can feel numb.

There is help for recovery and change. The first step is getting guidance and support. These symptoms are deeply ingrained habits and difficult to identify and change on your own. Join a Twelve Step program, such as Codependents Anonymous or seek counseling. Get my handy ebooks, 10 Steps to Self-Esteem and How to Speak Your Mind – Become Assertive and Set Limits to build self-esteem and become more assertive.

©Darlene Lancer, MFT 2012

Posted in Codependency, communication, depression, Intimacy, marriage, relationships, self-esteem,

Warning Signs of Relationship Problems

un-couple

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.

Here are some warning signs that your relationship may be in trouble. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s not salvageable or that you can’t get the love connection back, but it does mean you both need to have honest communication and may need the assistance of a marriage counseling. The following list of relationship problems applies to either you or your partner. They’re also common characteristics of codependent relationships, and codependency may be the underlying issue.

1. Inflexibility or repeated unwillingness to compromise on decisions, such as social activities, chores, moving, and having children.

2. Selfishness or self-involvement with your own feelings and needs, without concern and support for those of your partner.

3. Meddling by parents.

4. Repeated deference to a friend or relative over your partner’s  objection.

5.  Repeated instances of critical, undermining, blaming, sarcastic, disrespectful, or manipulative comments. This is verbal abuse. See my blog, “Emotional Abuse – Beneath Your Radar.”

6. A pattern of withholding communication, affection, or sex. This is often a sign of veiled anger.

7. Arguments or problems that don’t get resolved.

8. Raging or name-calling.

9. Keeping Secrets.

10. Passive-aggressive or aggressive behavior, including shoving or breaking objects.

11. Controlling behavior, including giving unwanted advice, ordering, or withholding money for affordable expenses in order control.

12. A secret romantic relationship or pattern of flirting.

13. Use of drugs or alcohol that impacts the relationship or work.

14. Too much time apart if it causes your partner dissatisfaction.

15. Persistent resentments, judgments, or disappointments.

16. Lack of open communication generally, or communication that lacks personal content. Note that this may not be a problem for some couples with low intimacy needs, where their relationship functions well like a business partnership.

17. Breakdown of trust. This can be caused by numerous things, such as dishonesty, using personal information against your partner, unreliability, broken promises or agreements violating personal boundaries, or infidelity.

18. You need constant attention, validation, or reassurance – whatever’s given is never fulfilling for very long.

19. There are subjects that are off-limits or you’re afraid to talk about.

20. Violating personal boundaries, such as, disrespecting your request to not be called at work, to not have confidential information repeated to others, to not be criticized about something, or to not read your mail.

This purpose of this checklist is not to score your relationship or your partner, but to raise issues that you may need to address personally and talk openly about with him or her. Many of these relationship problems revolve around lack of healthy, assertive communication – communication that is open, direct, respectful, honest, and personal. Couples get into problems when they’re afraid to be honest – usually because they think the truth will upset their partner and might jeopardize the relationship. They don’t express their hurt or to ask for the love or support they want, or they do so in a way that’s critical or blaming. People learn to communicate and problem-solve with others in their family growing up. Without good role models, some never learned how to be assertive. Assertiveness can be learned, but takes practice.

Other relationship problems are created by an imbalance of power, where one partner attempts to dominate the other through aggression, control, or emotional or verbal abuse. This is damaging to the relationship and the self-esteem of the other partner. It’s not uncommon in relationships with an addict or narcissist. One partner can control the other through neediness, demands for attention or validation, or playing the victim, with the expectation that the other person make him or her happy.

Repetitive negative relationship patterns stem from problems originating in childhood, such as disrespectful communication, lack of nurturing or free emotional expression, a controlling parent, violation of boundaries, neglect, witnessing parental conflict, mental illness, addiction, or abuse. A variety of dysfunctional parenting styles cause shame and undermine a child’s self-esteem, which continue into adulthood. Shame and low self-esteem thwart love, intimacy, and assertive communication. Individuals with shame and low self-esteem don’t feel worthy of love and/or respect, and either withdraw emotionally or push their partner away directly or indirectly. They abuse or allow abuse, imagine they’re being criticized when they’re not, and are so afraid of losing the relationship that they smother or control their partner or withhold negative feelings and build resentments.

The struggle for intimacy requires the courage to face unhealthy behavior and attitudes and be vulnerable. It entails overcoming defenses of denial, withdrawal, control, or placating to avoid a real connection.  Because relationships are dynamic systems, when one partner behaves in a manner listed above, it damages the relationship. Similarly, when he or she improves his or her self-esteem and communication skills, the relationship improves. Many times, one spouse in individual therapy makes positive changes, and the marriage changes for the better.

Because assertiveness and good self-esteem are so important to both happiness and relationships, I wrote ebooks, 10 Steps to Self-Esteem and How to Speak Your Mind – Become Assertive and Set Limits. Many of my blogs are helpful to deal with these problems, including, “Rebuilding Trust,” “Your Intimacy Index,” “The Power of Personal Boundaries,” “The Truth about Abusive Relationships,” and “24 Tips to Positive Conflict.”

©Darlene Lancer 2013

Posted in Codependency, communication, Divorce, Intimacy, marriage, relationships, self-esteem,

Obsessions and Love Addiction

Resting on the Couch --- Image by © Royalty-Free/CorbisWhen an obsession dominates us, it steals our will and saps all the pleasure out of life. We become numb to people and events, while our mind replays the same dialogue images, or words. In a conversation, we have little interest in what the other person is saying and soon talk about our obsession, oblivious to the impact on our listener.

Obsessions vary in their power. When they’re mild, we’re able to work and distract ourselves, but when intense, our thoughts are laser-focused on our obsession. As with compulsions, they operate outside our conscious control and are rarely abated with reasoning. Obsessions can possess our mind. Our thoughts race or run in circles, feeding incessant worry, fantasy, or a search for answers. They can take over our life, so that we lose hours, sleep, or even days or weeks of enjoyment and productive activity.

Obsessions can paralyze us. Other times, they can lead to compulsive behavior like repeatedly checking our email, our weight, or whether the doors are locked. We lose touch with ourselves, our feelings, and our ability to reason and solve problems. Obsessions like this are usually driven by fear.

Obsessions and Addiction

Codependents (which includes addicts) focus on the external. Addicts obsess about the object of their addiction – alcoholics about drinking, sex addicts about sex, food addicts about food. Our thinking and behavior revolves around the object of our addiction, while our true self is cloaked with shame. But we can obsess about anyone or anything.

Because of shame, we’re preoccupied with how we’re perceived by others, leading to anxiety and obsessions concerning what other people think about us, including our past, present, and future actions, particularly before or after any type of performance or behavior where others are watching and during dating or after a break-up. Shame also creates insecurity, doubt, self-criticism, indecision, and irrational guilt. Normal guilt can turn into an obsession that leads to self-shaming that can last for days or months. Normal guilt is alleviated by making amends or by taking corrective action, but shame endures because it is “we” who are bad, not our actions.

Obsessions and Relationships

Codependents typically obsess about people they love and care for, including their problems. They might obsess and worry about an alcoholic’s behavior, not realizing they have become as preoccupied with him or her as the alcoholic is with alcohol. Obsessions can feed compulsive attempts to control others, such as following someone, reading another person’s diary, emails, or texts, diluting bottles of liquor, hiding keys, or searching for drugs. None of this helps, but only causes more chaos and conflict. The more we’re obsessed with someone else, the more of ourselves we lose. When asked how we are, we may quickly change the subject to the person we’re obsessed with.

In a new romantic relationship, it’s normal to think about our loved one to a degree–but for codependents, it often doesn’t stop there. When not worrying about the relationship, we may become obsessed with our partner’s whereabouts or create jealous scripts that damage the relationship. Our obsessions may also be pleasurable, such as fantasies about romance, sex, or power. We may imagine how we’d like our relationship to be or how we want someone to act. A big discrepancy between our fantasy and reality may reveal what we’re missing in our life.

Some codependents are consumed by obsessive love. They might call their loved one many times a day, demand attention and responses, and feel easily hurt, rejected, or abandoned. Actually, this isn’t really love at all, but an expression of a desperate need to bond and escape loneliness and inner emptiness. It usually pushes the other person away. Real love accepts the other person and respects their needs.

What Causes Obsession?

Denial is a major symptom of codependency – denial of painful realities, of addiction (ours and other’s), and denial of our needs and feelings. A great many codependents are unable to identify their feelings, or they may be able to name them, but not feel them. This inability to tolerate painful emotions is another reason why as codependents we tend to obsess. Obsession serves the function of protecting us from painful feelings. Thus, it can be looked at as a defense to pain. As uncomfortable as an obsession can be, it keeps at bay underlying emotions, such as grief, loneliness, anger, emptiness, shame, and fear. It may be the fear of rejection or the fear of losing a loved one to a drug addiction.

Often certain feelings are shame-bound because they were shamed in childhood. When they arise in adulthood, we might obsess instead. If we believe we shouldn’t feel anger or express it, we might not be able to let go of resentment about someone rather than allow ourselves to feel angry. If sadness was shamed, we might obsess about a romantic interest to avoid feeling the pain of loneliness or rejection.

Of course, sometimes, we really are obsessing because we’re very afraid that a loved one will commit suicide, get arrested, overdose, or die or kill someone while driving drunk. Yet, we might also obsess about a small problem to avoid facing a larger one. For example, a mother of a drug addict might obsess about her son’s sloppiness, but not confront or even admit to herself that he could die from his addiction. A perfectionist might obsess about a minor flaw in his or her appearance, but not acknowledge feelings of inferiority or unlovability.

Tips for Dealing with Obsessions

The best way to end an obsession is to “lose our mind and come to our senses!” It follows that if an obsession is to avoid feeling, getting in touch with feelings and allowing them to flow will help dissolve our obsession. If our obsession helps us avoid taking action, we can get support to face our fears and act. When our obsessions are irrational and allowing our feelings doesn’t dispel them, it can be helpful to reason them out with a friend or therapist.

  1. Ask yourself, “What am I feeling?” and wait patiently until you know.
  2. Learn to meditate to quiet your mind.
  3. Do slow movement to evocative music, and allow yourself to feel.
  4. Write about your feelings (ideally with your non-dominant hand) and read it to someone.
  5. Share at a CoDA or Al-Anon meeting.
  6. Spend time in nature.
  7. Read spiritual literature and/or attend spiritual/religious gatherings. (Beware that religion and spirituality can become obsessions, too)
  8. If you’re obsessed with a person, get “14 Tips for Letting Go” at www.whatiscodependency.com.
  9. Put your energy into expanding your social network.
  10. Do something creative.
  11. Develop interests and passions that feed, inspire, and nurture you.
  12. Do what you enjoy. Don’t wait for someone to join you.
  13. If you’re obsessing over a broken relationship, here’s a list of things to do and think about.
  14. Do the exercises in Codependency for Dummies, especially Chapter 9 on nonattachment, and the exercises in Conquering Shame and Codependency.

This article isn’t meant to address obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), which is a mental disorder affecting one percent of adults. It starts in childhood and is believed to have a genetic component. OCD may include only obsessions. Usually, the themes are about:

  • Fear of contamination or dirt
  • Having things orderly and symmetrical
  • Aggressive or horrific thoughts about harming yourself or others
  • Unwanted thoughts, including aggression, or sexual or religious subjects

The Mayo Clinic has developed an Apple app at ($4.99) to cope with persistent anxiety, obsessions, and compulsions. If self-help isn’t enough, seek professional help for overcoming anxiety and obsessions. If you have OCD, seek professional treatment.

©Darlene Lancer 2014

 

Posted in Addiction, Codependency, Intimacy, self-esteem,

The Power of Personal Boundaries

futureLove can’t exist without boundaries, even with your children. It’s easy to understand external boundaries as your bottom line. Think of rules and principles you live by when you say what you will or won’t do or allow. If you have difficulty saying no, override your needs to please others, or are bothered by someone who is demanding, controlling, criticizing, pushy, abusive, invasive, pleading, or even smothering you with kindness, it’s your responsibility to speak-up. Boundaries also are also internal, discussed below.

Types of boundaries

There are several areas where boundaries apply:

  1. Material boundaries determine whether you give or loan things, such as your money, car, clothes, books, food, or toothbrush.
  2. Physical boundaries pertain to your personal space, privacy, and body. Do you give a handshake or a hug – to whom and when? How do you feel about loud music, nudity, and locked doors?
  3. Mental boundaries apply to your thoughts, values, and opinions. Are you easily suggestible? Do you know what you believe, and can you hold onto your opinions? Can you open-mindedly to listen to someone else’s, without becoming rigid? If you become highly emotional, argumentative, or defensive, you may have weak emotional boundaries.
  4. Emotional boundaries distinguish separating your emotions and responsibility for them from someone else’s. It’s like an imaginary line or force field that separates you and others. Healthy boundaries prevent you from giving advice, blaming or accepting blame. They protect you from feeling guilty for someone else’s negative feelings or problems and taking others’ comments personally. High reactivity suggests weak emotional boundaries. Healthy emotional boundaries require clear internal boundaries – knowing your feelings and your responsibilities to yourself and others.
  5. Sexual boundaries protect your comfort level with sexual touch and activity – what, where, when, and with whom.
  6. Spiritual boundaries relate to your beliefs and experiences in connection with God and a higher power.

Why it’s hard

It’s hard for codependents to set boundaries because: 1) They put others’ needs and feelings first; 2) They don’t know themselves; 3) They don’t feel they have rights; 4) They believe setting boundaries jeopardizes the relationship; and 5) They never learned to have healthy boundaries.

Boundaries are learned. You didn’t learn you had rights or boundaries, if yours weren’t valued growing up. Any kind of abuse violates personal boundaries, including teasing. For example, my brother ignored my pleas for him to stop tickling me until I could barely breathe. This made me feel powerless and that I didn’t have a right to say “Stop” when I was uncomfortable. In recovery, I gained the capacity to tell a massage therapist to Stop and use less pressure. In some cases, boundary violations affect a child’s ability to mature into an independent, responsible adult.

You have rights

You may not believe you have any rights if yours weren’t respected growing up. For example, you have a right to privacy, to say “No,” to be addressed with courtesy and respect, to change your mind or cancel commitments, to ask people you hire to work the way you want, to ask for help, to be left alone, to conserve your energy, and to not answer a question, the phone, or an email.

  • Think about all the situations where these rights apply.
  • Write how you feel and how you currently handle them.
  • How often do you say “Yes,” when you’d like to say, “No?”
  • Write want you want to happen.
  • List your personal bill of rights. What prevents you from asserting them?
  • Write statements expressing your bottom line. Be kind. For example, “Please don’t criticize me (or call, or borrow my . . .),” and “Thank you for thinking of me, but I regret I won’t be joining (or able to help) you . . .”

Internal boundaries

Internal boundaries regulate your relationship with yourself. Think of them as self-discipline and healthy management of time, thoughts, emotions, behavior and impulses. If you’re procrastinating, doing things you neither have to nor want to do, or overdoing and not getting enough rest, recreation, or balanced meals, you may be neglecting internal physical boundaries. Learning to manage negative thoughts and feelings empowers you, as does the ability to follow through on goals and commitments to yourself.

Healthy emotional and mental internal boundaries help you not assume responsibility for, or obsess about, other people’s feelings and problems – something codependents commonly do, followed by violating others’ emotional boundaries with unwanted advice. Strong internal boundaries curb suggestibility. You think about yourself, rather than automatically agreeing with others’ criticism or advice. You’re then empowered to set external emotional boundaries if you choose. Similarly, since you’re accountable for your feelings and actions, you don’t blame others. When you’re blamed, if you don’t feel responsible, instead of defending yourself or apologizing, you can say, “I don’t take responsibility for that.”

Guilt and resentment

Anger is often a signal that action is required. If you feel resentful or victimized and are blaming someone or something, it might mean that you haven’t been setting boundaries. If you feel anxious or guilty about setting boundaries, remember, your relationship suffers when you’re unhappy. Once you get practice setting boundaries, you feel empowered and less anxiety, resentment, and guilt. Generally, you receive more respect from others and your relationships improve.

Setting effective boundaries

People often say they set a boundary, but it didn’t help. There’s an art to setting boundaries. If it’s done in anger or by nagging – “I’ve told you 100 times . . .,” you won’t be heard. Boundaries are not meant to punish, but are for your well-being and protection. They’re more effective when you’re assertive, calm, firm, and courteous. If that doesn’t work, you may need to communicate consequences to encourage compliance. It’s essential, however, that you never threaten a consequence you’re not fully prepared to carry out. If your boundary-setting isn’t helping you, read “10 Reasons Why Boundaries Don’t Work.

It takes time, support, and relearning to be able to set effective boundaries. Self-awareness and learning to be assertive are the first steps. Setting boundaries isn’t selfish. It’s self-love – You say “Yes,” to you, each time you say “No.” It builds self-esteem. But it usually takes encouragement to make yourself a priority and to persist, especially when you receive pushback. Read more on setting boundaries in Codependency for Dummies and my ebook, How to Speak Your Mind and Set Limits.

© Darlene Lancer 2013

Posted in Codependency, communication, Making Change, Parenting, relationships, self-esteem,

Are You Codependent?

Codependency for DummiesDo you wonder if you are Codependent?  Do you regularly sacrifice your opinions, needs or wants, and then feel resentful?   Do you feel guilty saying no and resentful when you don’t?  Are you controlled by, or try to control someone else, whom your thoughts and feelings revolve around, as in the Barry Manilow song, “I’m glad when you’re glad, sad when you’re sad?”  Are you afraid of speaking up?  Resentment, guilt, control, and fear are the hallmarks of codependency, a term once used only to describe the enabler of an alcoholic, is now more generally applied to unhealthy dependency.

Codependents live from the outside in, rather than from the inside out. In Codependency for Dummies, I define a codependent as someone whose thinking and behavior revolves around another person, substance or process. (Notice my definition includes addicts.) Codependents can’t access their innate true self that underlies their codependent self created in childhood. Read the Symptoms of Codependency.

The seeds of codependence are planted in dysfunctional families when a child experiences emotional abandonment. He or she learns to either rebel, withdraw from, or accommodate a parent who is controlling, selfish, depressed, addicted, or abusive.  Such children don’t get the sense that their wants or needs matter.  The family may be one of addiction or neglect, where children take on parental responsibilities and loose touch with themselves in the process.  On the other hand, a family may seem perfect.  The parents give their children the best of everything, but they expect perfection or adhere to rigid rules and beliefs, leaving no room for individuality and self-expression to flourish.

Codependents usually do all the giving in relationships.  Caring and helping others is fine, but if it’s at the expense of oneself, or if you don’t believe you have a choice – that it would be selfish not to or you’d risk losing the relationship – then care taking is not just a behavior, it’s an identity and source of self-worth.  Alice has a big heart and a string of failed relationships.  When she likes a man, she gives more than she gets.  She helps her them with whatever their problem is.  The men take her for granted or feel smothered, and eventually leave.

Codependents learn in childhood to attune to the needs and moods of a parent, so much so that they usually don’t know what they want or need.  Others’ needs, desires, and definition of reality take precedence over their own.  Sometimes, they don’t even know what they think or feel and have difficulty describing themselves.  When asked, they shift to talking about family members or their job.

A codependent conversation sounds like this:

Him:  “Where would you like to eat?”

Her:  “What do you feel like?”

Him:  “Whatever you want.”

Her:  “Do you feel like Chinese?”

Him:  “Do you?  Would you like Italian?”

You get the picture.  Neither person will assert a position.  No one will take responsibility for a choice.  Maybe, one doesn’t want to dine out and rather watch a TV show, but doesn’t want to disappoint the other, or is ashamed to admit they can’t afford it.  Other times, neither knows what he or she wants.  Sometimes, an argument starts.  It’s impossible to problem-solve or compromise if you don’t take a position.  Issues and feelings are avoided, problems don’t get resolved, and resentment builds.

Codependents frequently become obsessed with another person.  Their thoughts, motives, and actions begin to revolve around someone else instead of their own feelings and goals.  Cindy was preoccupied with Nick’s health.  She oversaw his diet, managed the marketing, and gave him nutrition articles, oblivious to her own health problems.

Codependents may try to control others’ feelings and reactions with gifts or flattery, like “buttering up” to be loved, to get what they want, or to keep the peace.  They give with an expectation, and when it’s not fulfilled, they are not only hurt, but also resentful and feel owed.  Healthy giving is for the pure joy of it.

Because their boundaries weren’t respected as children, codependents don’t set functional limits with themselves and others.  They may be overly invested in someone else’s problem or work long hours on the job to the detriment of their family or themselves. They never say no.  They may have been taught that it’s selfish or “un-Christian” to assert their will, and don’t notice that someone else doesn’t mind using up their time and resources.

Jane was an accomplished landscape designer, but underbid her projects and spent many uncompensated hours with customers who gabbed away or changed their minds. She was always running behind, and resented that she felt constantly pulled by her customers’ demands.  To her, charging more and setting boundaries was unthinkable.

In an organization, a codependent works harder for less and may be the “go to” person who’ll take the unwanted assignments.  Another may be a martyr at home, never asking for help and never heeding her own needs for rest and rejuvenation.  Both get satisfaction in being needed and relied upon, but eventually at a price.  These women believe they won’t be valued if they don’t do extra work.  Underneath they fear losing a client, job, or relationship.

Sometimes, one partner appears more needy and dependent, because he or she is possessive, jealous, calls frequently, or constantly seeks reassurance and attention.  However, the other partner is also codependent by allowing him or herself to be controlled by these unreasonable demands.

Low-self esteem is characteristic of codependence.  Childhood experiences and messages imprint feelings of being unlovable or unworthy.  Codependents are hard on themselves.  They push and judge themselves, and often are high-achievers and perfectionists.  This sets them up to be in an abusive relationship or one where their needs are not met.  They’ll tolerate it even despite being attractive, smart, or successful at work, because underneath they believe they don’t deserve better.

The first step in change is awareness.  Joining a group or 12-Step Program is effective, because it’s important to share, get feedback, and hear others’ struggles and successes.  Therapy or an assertiveness class can help you to identify your needs and feelings, and to try out new behavior.  It’s hard to change on your own, because it’s difficult to see outside your own mindset, and you’ll need support when risking new behaviors that create guilt and anxiety.  The risks are worth it.  You’re worth it.  Take back yourself!

Darlene Lancer, MFT, Copyright, 2009

Resources:  Al-Anon Family Groups, Codependents Anonymous

Posted in Addiction, Codependency, Intimacy, marriage, relationships, self-esteem, therapy,

What is Emotional Abandonment?

distancingWe may not realize that we’re feeling emotionally abandoned or that we did as a child. We may be unhappy, but can’t put our finger on what it is. People tend to think of abandonment as something physical, like neglect. They also may not realize that loss of physical closeness due to death, divorce, and illness is often felt as an emotional abandonment. However, emotional abandonment has nothing to do with proximity. It can happen when the other person is lying right beside us – when we can’t connect, and our emotional needs aren’t being met in the relationship.

 

Emotional Needs

Often we aren’t aware of our emotional needs and just feel that something’s missing. But we have many emotional needs in intimate relationships. They include the following needs:

  • To be listened to and understood.
  • To be nurtured
  • To be appreciated
  • To be valued
  • To be accepted
  • For affection
  • For love
  • For companionship

Consequently, if there is high conflict, abuse, addiction, or infidelity, these emotional needs go unmet. Sometimes, infidelity is a symptom of emotional abandonment in the relationship – by one or both partners. Additionally, addiction may be used to avoid closeness. If one partner is addicted, the other may feel neglected, because the addiction comes first and consumes the addict’s attention, preventing him or her from being present.

Causes of Emotional Abandonment

Yet even in a healthy relationship, there are periods, days, and even moments of emotional abandonment that may be caused by:

  • Intentionally withholding communication or affection
  • External stressors, including the demands of parenting
  • Illness
  • Conflicting work schedules
  • Lack of mutual interests and time spent together
  • Preoccupation and self-centeredness
  • Lack of healthy communication
  • Unresolved resentment
  • Fear of intimacy

When couples don’t share common interests or work/sleep schedules, one or both may feel abandoned. They have to make an extra effort to spend time talking about their experiences and intimate feelings with each other to keep the relationship fresh and alive.

More harmful are unhealthy communication patterns that may have developed, where one or both partners doesn’t share openly, listen with respect, and respond with interest to the other. When we feel ignored or that our partner doesn’t understand or care about what we’re communicating, then there’s a chance that eventually we stop talking to him or her. Walls begin to build and we can begin living separate lives emotionally. Signs are if we talk more to our friends or a relative than to our partner or are disinterested in sex or spending time together.

Resentments easily develop in relationships especially when hurt or anger isn’t expressed. As a result, we may either pull away emotionally, put up walls, or push our partner away with criticism or undermining comments. Unexpressed hurt and needs lead to more disappointment and resentment. Denial or shame about our feelings and needs usually stems from emotional abandonment in childhood and can cause intimacy problems. Usually, this fear isn’t conscious. In counseling, couples are able to talk about their ambivalence, which allows them to grow closer. Sometimes, abandoning behavior occurs after a period of closeness or sex. One partner may physically withdraw or create distance by not talking or even by talking too much. Either way, it may leave the other person feeling alone and abandoned.

In Childhood

Children need to feel loved and accepted for their unique self by both parents and that each parent wants a relationship with them. Failure to validate their feelings and needs is a form of emotional abandonment. Often clients tell me that they felt that their family didn’t understand them, that they felt different from the rest of the family or like an outsider. What is being described is the trauma of invisibility. This can also happen when parent-child interactions revolve around the parent, the child is serving the parent’s needs, instead of the other way around, which is a form of abandonment. Even if a parent says, “I love you,” the child may still not feel close and accepted for who he or she is as a separate individual, apart from the parent.

Emotional abandonment childhood can happen in infancy if the primary caretaker, usually the mother, is unable to be present emotionally for her baby. It’s often because she’s replicating her own childhood experience, but it may also be due to stress or depression. It’s important for a baby’s emotional development that the mother attunes to her child’s feelings and needs and reflects them back. She may be preoccupied, cold, or unable to empathize with her baby’s success or upsetting emotions. He or she then ends up feeling alone, rejected, or deflated. The reverse is also true – where a parent gives a child a lot of attention, but isn’t attuned to what the child actually needs.

In addition to situations where a parent is physical absent or doesn’t share in parenting, abandonment happens later, too, when children are criticized, controlled, unfairly treated, or otherwise given a message that they or their experience is unimportant or wrong. Children are vulnerable, and it doesn’t take much for a child to feel hurt and “abandoned.” Abandonment can also occur when a parent confides in a child or expects him or her to take on age-inappropriate responsibilities. At those moments, the children must suppress their feelings and needs in order to meet the needs of the adult.

A few incidents of emotional abandonment don’t harm a child’s healthy development, but when they’re common occurrences, they affect the child’s sense of self and security and can cause internalized shame that leads to intimacy issues and codependency in adult relationships. For an in-depth examination of this process and how to heal, see Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You.

Couples counseling can bring couples together to enjoy more closeness, heal from abandonment, and change their behavior.

© Darlene Lancer, 2012, 2014

Posted in Codependency, communication, Divorce, Intimacy, relationships, Welcome To My Blog,

Codependency Relationship Problems

42-15618365Everyone laughs when I tell them that I wrote Codependency for Dummies. But codependency is no laughing matter. It causes serious pain and affects the majority of Americans, both in and out of relationships. I know. I spent decades recovering.

There are all types of codependents, including caretakers, addicts, pleasers, and workaholics, to name a few. They all have one thing in common: They’ve lost the connection to their core. Their thoughts and behavior revolve around someone or something external, whether it’s a person or an addiction.

It’s as if they’re turned inside out. Instead of self-esteem, they have other esteem, based upon what others think and feel. Instead of meeting their own needs, they meet the needs of others, and instead of responding to their own thoughts and feelings, they react to those of others. Hence, they have to control others to feel okay, but that just makes matters worse. It’s a haywire system that leads to conflict and pain and makes emotional intimacy difficult. (Also see my blog about symptoms of codependency.)

Relationship Problems

Some people criticize the codependency movement and say that it’s created more loneliness. They argue that relationships are nurturing and that we’re naturally meant to be dependent. I couldn’t agree more, but the point is that codependent relationships are not only painful, but are sometimes destructive. Codependents have problems receiving the good stuff that relationships can potentially offer. Many choose partners who are unhealthy.

Codependency for Dummies explains the differences between codependent and healthy interdependent relationships, between healthy care-giving and codependent caretaking, and understanding the boundaries between responsibility for yourself and responsibility to others, something that eludes codependents.

Not all codependents are caretakers, but if you are, you have a hard time listening to other people’s problems without trying to help, sometimes even feeling responsible and guilty for their feelings. This creates high reactivity and arguments of blame and guilt. Couples blame each other for their own feelings and defend themselves when their partner shares his or her feelings.

Boundaries and Intimacy

What’s missing is a sense of separateness between them – called emotional boundaries – that your thoughts and feelings belong to you. “I’m not responsible for your feelings, and I didn’t make you feel them.” Weak boundaries make real intimacy difficult, if not impossible. For that to happen, you need to first have a sense of separate identify and feel safe enough to express your true feelings without feeling afraid of being criticized or rejected.

This is where the codependent core issue of low self-esteem comes in. When your sense of self is weak, you’re afraid of rejection and abandonment, but on the flip-side you fear losing yourself when you get attached in a relationship. You tend to give up your needs to accommodate your partner, sometimes letting go of outside friends and activities you used to enjoy. Even when your relationship isn’t working, you feel stuck or trapped. Contrary to common belief, many codependents aren’t even in relationships, because they’re afraid of losing their independence.

If you’re dating, you might have to dance a tightrope of pursuing partners, but never really commitment, or distancing yourself, but never really leaving. It’s a two-step that’s even done in marriages, but creates constant pain in the relationships, highlighted by fleeting moments of closeness – just enough to keep the dance going. Some couples give up on intimacy entirely.

Communication

Codependents have a dilemma. If you can’t say “No” without feeling guilty, you end up resentful from agreeing to things you rather not. Due to fears of rejection, you avoid taking positions at all costs – like a clever politician, you’re indirect and don’t want to say anything that might upset someone else. Additionally, due to guilt and low self-esteem, codependents are always explaining and justifying themselves.

Improving your communication by learning how to be assertive, how to set boundaries, and how to handle verbal abuse is a vital part of recovery.

Start Healing

Codependents spend their precious lives worrying about things and people over which they have no control. Healing from codependency starts with getting to know yourself better, honoring yourself, and expressing yourself. Here are some tips:

  • Practice on saying “No.” Remember, “No” is a complete sentence.
  • When someone tells you a problem, just listen. Say, “I understand. That’s a real problem.” Period!
  • Identify your feelings throughout the day. Journal and share them.
  • When you don’t feel great, ask yourself what you need. Try to meet that need, and reach out if necessary.
  • Do things that make you happy. Don’t wait for someone else.

Building a relationship with yourself leaves you no time to worry about someone you can’t control. That’s how you heal codependency.

©Darlene Lancer, 2012

 

Posted in Codependency, Intimacy, marriage, relationships, self-esteem,

The Dance of Intimacy

Couple in Formal AttireThe relationship duet is the dance of intimacy all couples do. One partner moves in, the other backs-up. Partners may reverse roles, but always maintain a certain space between them. The unspoken agreement is that the Pursuer chase the Distancer forever, but never catch-up, and that the Distancer keep running, but never really get away. They’re negotiating the emotional space between them. We all have needs for both autonomy and intimacy – independence and dependency, yet simultaneously fear both being abandoned (acted by the Pursuer), and being too close (acted by the Distancer). Thus, we have the dilemma of intimacy: How can we be close enough to feel secure and safe, without feeling threatened by too much closeness?

The less room there is to navigate this distance, more difficult the relationship. There is less anxiety, and hence less demand on the relationship to accommodate a narrow comfort zone.

ORIGINS: Research suggests that intimacy problems originate in the relationship between the mother and infant. Babies and toddlers are dependent on the mothers’ empathy and regard for their needs and emotions in order to sense their “selves,” to feel whole. To an infant or toddler, emotional or physical abandonment, whether through neglect, illness, divorce or death, threatens its existence, because of its dependency on the mother for validation and development of wholeness. Later, as an adult, being separations in intimate relationships are experienced as painful reminders of the earlier loss.

If the mother is ill, depressed, or lacks wholeness and self-esteem herself, there are no boundaries between her and her child. Rather than responding to her child, she projects, and sees her child only as an extension of herself, as an object to meet her own needs and feelings. She can’t value her child as a separate “self.” The child’s boundaries are violated, and its autonomy, feelings, thoughts, and/or body, are disrespected. Consequently, the child does not develop a healthy sense of self. Instead, the child discovers that love and approval comes with meeting the mother’s needs, and tunes into the mother’s responses and expectations. The child learns to please, perform and/or rebel, but in either case gradually tunes out its own thoughts, needs and/or feelings. Later, intimacy may threaten the adult’s sense of autonomy or identity, or he or she may feel invaded, engulfed, controlled, shamed and/or rejected. A person may feel both abandoned if his or her feelings and needs are not responded to, and at the same time, engulfed by the needs of his or her partner. In co-dependent relationships where there aren’t two separate, whole people coming together, true intimacy isn’t possible, because the fears of nonexistence and dissolution are strong.

COPING STRATEGIES: We learned defenses as children in order to feel safe. As adults these behaviors create problems and result in miscommunication. For instance, if you repress your anger to ensure closeness, you stand a good chance of alienating your partner, unaware that you may be expressing your anger indirectly. If you ignore your partner in order to create distance, you inadvertently devalue him or her, creating another problem.

Change and growth come in discovering your coping strategies, and learning new responses and behaviors. Ask yourself: How do I create space in my relationships? How do I protect my autonomy? Do you criticize, blame, emotionally withdraw or use substances (e.g., food, drugs, alcohol) to create space, be left alone, or lessen intense feelings. Or do you avoid closeness or openness by joking around, showing off, giving advice or by talking about others or impersonal subjects? Do you get overly involved with people outside your partnership (e.g., children, friends, affairs), or activities (e.g., work, sports, gambling, shopping)? These activities dilute the intimacy in the relationship.

On the other hand, ask: How do I create closeness? How do I ensure that I will be loved and not abandoned? Do you try to create closeness by giving up your autonomy, hobbies, friends or interests, by never disagreeing, by being seductive, or by care-taking and pleasing others?

When these behaviors are operating without awareness, you are not coming from a place of choice. When this happens you cannot communicate effectively, nor take into consideration your needs and the needs of your partner. Instead, the relationship is based upon unconscious manipulation of one another, and can trigger your partner’s defensive reactions.

DISOWNED SELVES: Relationships can serve as mirrors for unacknowledged or “disowned” parts of ourselves. Often people attract their opposite into their lives to make them whole. The Pursuer is unconscious that s/he is also afraid of closeness, but relies on the Distancer to achieve enough space for the Pursuer’s needs for autonomy and independence. Similarly, the Distancer is afraid of abandonment, but cannot experience the wish for emotional closeness as his or her own. S/he would feel too vulnerable, so s/he needs a Pursuer to satisfy her or his intimacy needs.
The Distancer says of the Pursuer: “She (or He) is too demanding, too dependent, too emotional, or too needy.” And wonders “Can I love? Am I selfish? What I give seems never enough.”

The Pursuer says about the Distancer: “He (or She) is selfish, inconsiderate, inflexible, emotionally withdrawn, has to have things his way.” And wonders “Is there something wrong with me? Aren’t I lovable (pretty, thin, successful, smart) enough?”

They each blame one another and themselves. The Distancer feels guilty for not meeting the other’s needs, and the Pursuer feels angry for not getting his or her own needs met. In reality, the Distancer judges the part of him or herself that is needy, dependent and vulnerable, and the Pursuer judges the part of him or herself that is selfish and independent, but each sees the part they don’t accept in themselves projected onto the other. Both need to embrace the dependent and independent, feminine and masculine, parts of themselves.

CHANGE: The key to breaking this polarization is by becoming conscious of our needs and feelings, and risking what we fear most. It requires awareness of our coping behaviors and resisting the impulse to withdraw or pursue. It takes tremendous courage not to run when we feel too close, and not to pursue when we feel abandoned, but instead, learn to acknowledge and tolerate the emotions that arise. This may trigger very early feelings of shame, terror, grief, emptiness, despair, and rage. With the help of a therapist, these feelings can be separated from the present circumstance, in which as adults our survival is no long at stake. As the feelings are worked through, a less reactive, stronger sense of self develops, one that is not easily threatened or overwhelmed.
Partners can learn from each other and embrace their disowned needs. The Pursuer can emulate the Distancer’s ability to set limits, to take care of his/her own needs, to prioritize, to be less personally involved. The Distancer can learn from the Pursuer’s flexibility, ability to reach out and ask, to feel others and to blend boundaries. Each person must take responsibility for him or herself, rather than relying on their partner to take care of his or her needs for closeness or distance. The Pursuer must risk saying “No,” and tolerate the anxiety of separation, saying, “I can’t help you – I need to be alone.” The Distancer must risk saying, “I miss you, I need you.” In the movie, “The Doctor,” William Hurt plays a busy, successful doctor, whose wife feels neglected and abandoned. It’s only when Hurt gets brain cancer that he telling his wife that he needs her.

Each must learn to ask for togetherness and space directly, without feeling guilty, or controlling or blaming each other. When each is able to say, “Yes” and say “No,” without the fear of being overwhelmed by intimacy or abandoned by separation, they won’t trigger each other’s defensive reaction. When they are conscious of their individual needs, they can acknowledge their partner’s needs with respect. They can empathetically hear each other, and wait to have their need satisfied: “I understand and hear your need and its importance to you, but this is also important to me — can we find a way to compromise?” As couples do this, they will have more authentic intimacy, instead of being locked into an unconscious duet of approach-avoidance.

Relationship can be an exciting path to the unknown. But it requires courage – courage to open yourself up and to experience pain. The rewards are worth it, because it is a path of self-discovery and ultimately the divine as we open ourselves to one another. Just as the transition from dependence to independence can be frightening, so is the transition from independence to interdependence. Yet, it is an essential process in order to heal our wounds, become free of our past conditioning, and to allow us to truly live in the present.

Copyright, Darlene Lancer, MFT, JD 1992

Posted in Codependency, communication, Intimacy, marriage, relationships,

Narcissistic Relationships

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 uncNarcissistic boyfriend, narcissistic menooperative, 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.

What is Narcissistic Personality Disorder?

The term narcissism is commonly used to describe personality traits among the general population, usually someone who is selfish or seeks attention. Actually, a degree of healthy narcissism makes a well-balanced, strong personality. On the other hand, a narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is much different and requires specific criteria that must be met for a diagnosis. It only affects a small percentage of people – more men than women. As described in “Do You Love a Narcissist?” Someone with NPD is grandiose (sometimes only in fantasy), lacks empathy, and needs admiration from others, as indicated by five of these summarized characteristics:

  1. A grandiose sense of self-importance and exaggerates achievements and talents
  2. Dreams of unlimited power, success, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
  3. Lacks empathy for the feelings and needs of others
  4. Requires excessive admiration
  5. Believes he or she is special and unique, and can only be understood by, or should associate with other special or of high-status people (or institutions)
  6. Unreasonably expects special, favorable treatment or compliance with his or her wishes
  7. Exploits and takes advantage of others to achieve personal ends
  8. Envies others or believes they’re envious of him or her
  9. Has “an attitude” of arrogance or acts that way

The disorder also varies from mild to extreme. But of all the narcissists, beware of malignant narcissists, who are the most pernicious, hostile, and destructive. They take traits 6 & 7 to an extreme and are vindictive and malicious. Avoid them before they destroy you. Email me at info@darlenelancer.com if you would like a free “Checklist of Narcissistic Traits.”

Children of Narcissists

Narcissistic parents usually run the household and can do severe damage to the self-esteem and motivation of their children. Often they attempt to live vicariously through them. These parents expect excellence and/or obedience, and can be competitive, envious, critical, domineering, or needy. Although their personalities differ, the common factor is that their feelings and needs, particularly emotional needs, come first. As a result, their children learn to adapt, become codependent. They bear the responsibility for meeting the parent’s emotional needs, rather than vice versa.

Whereas their parents feel entitled, they feel unentitled and self-sacrifice and deny their own feelings and needs (unless they, too, are narcissistic). They don’t learn to trust and value themselves and grow up alienated from their true selves. They may be driven to prove themselves in order to win their parents’ approval, but find little motivation to pursue their wants and goals when not externally imposed (e.g., by a partner, employer, teacher).

Although they may be unaware of what was missing in their childhood, fear of abandonment and intimacy continues to permeate their adult relationships. They’re afraid of making waves or mistakes and being authentic. Used to seeking external validation, many become pleasers, pretending to feel what they don’t and hiding what they do. By reenacting their family drama, they believe their only choice is to be alone or give up themselves in a relationship.

Often adult children of narcissistic parents are depressed, have unacknowledged anger, and feelings of emptiness. They may attract an addict, a narcissist, or other unavailable partner, repeating the pattern of emotional abandonment from childhood. Healing requires recovery from codependency and overcoming the toxic shame acquired growing up in a narcissistic home.

Partners of Narcissists

Partners of narcissists feel betrayed that the considerate, attentive and romantic person they fell in love with disappeared as time went on. They feel unseen and lonely, and long for emotional connection. In varying degrees, they find it difficult to express their rights, needs, and feelings and to set boundaries. The relationship reflects the emotional abandonment and lack of entitlement they experienced in childhood. Because their boundaries weren’t respected growing up, they’re highly sensitive to criticism and defenseless to narcissistic abuse. As their relationship progresses, partners admit feeling less sure of themselves than they once did. Uniformly, their self-esteem and independence steadily decline. Some give up their studies, career, hobbies, family ties, or friends to appease their partner. For more about narcissistic relationships, listen to my talk.

Occasionally, they experience remembrances of the warmth and caring from the person with whom they first fell in love—often brilliant, creative, talented, successful, handsome or beautiful. They don’t hesitate to say that they’re committed to staying in the relationship, if only they felt more loved and appreciated. For some people, divorce is not an option. They may be co-parenting with an ex, staying with a spouse for parenting or financial reasons, or they want to maintain family ties with a narcissistic or difficult relative. Some want to leave, but lack the courage.

Narcissistic Abuse

Narcissists use defenses to hide their deep and usually unconscious shame. Like bullies, they protect themselves through aggression and by wielding power over others. Malignant narcissists are maliciously hostile and inflict pain without remorse, but most narcissists don’t even realize they’ve injured those closest to them, because they lack empathy. They’re more concerned with avBusinesswoman Flipping off Businessmanerting perceived threats and getting their needs met. Consequently, they aren’t aware of the hurtful impact of their words and actions. For example, one man unbelievably couldn’t understand why his wife, whom he had long cheated on, wasn’t happy for him that he had found joy with his paramour. It was only when I pointed out that most women wouldn’t be pleased to hear that their spouse was enjoying sex and companionship with another woman that he suddenly grasped the error of his thinking. He had been blinded by the fact that he’d unconsciously sought his wife’s blessings, because his narcissistic mother never approved of his girlfriends or choices.

Narcissistic abuse can include any type of abuse, whether physical, sexual, financial, mental, or emotional abuse. Most often it involves some form of emotional abandonment, manipulation, withholding, or other uncaring behavior. Abuse can range from the silent treatment to rage, and typically includes verbal abuse, such as blaming, criticizing, attacking, ordering, lying, and belittling. It may also include emotional blackmail or passive-aggressive behavior. If you’re experiencing domestic or intimate partner violence, read “The Truth about Domestic Violence and Abusive Relationships,” and seek help immediately.

Treatment

Not many narcissists enter therapy unless they’re pressured by a partner or suffer an extreme blow to their image or self-esteem. As described in my peer-reviewed article, treating a narcissist requires considerable skill.

Thumb 125x166However, even if the narcissist refuses to get help or change, your relationship can markedly improve by changing your perspective and behavior. In fact, learning about NPD, raising your self-esteem, and learning to set boundaries are just a few of the many things you can do to significantly better your relationship, as described in Dealing with a Narcissist: 8 Steps to Raise Your Self-Esteem and Set Boundaries with Difficult People. These steps are equally applicable to a relationship with anyone highly defensive or abusive. You’ll strengthen your self-esteem and learn how to communicate effectively. This workbook includes a quiz for narcissism and also sets forth criteria that can help you decide if you’re considering ending a relationship with a narcissist. It’s available on my website here as a PDF, at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and at Smashwords in formats for iPad and other devices.

©Darlene Lancer 2016

Posted in abuse, Codependency, communication, Divorce, Intimacy, Narcissism, Parenting, relationships, self-esteem,

The Dark Side of Loneliness

lonelinessMany 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

Loneliness in Relationships

Although loneliness is greater among people living alone, it can be felt while in a relationship or group. This is because it’s the quality, not the quantity, of social interactions that determines whether we feel connected. As the number of work hours and household television sets has increased, family dinners have declined. Today, although the quantity of interactions has increased, due to the proliferation of cell phones, screen time is replacing face time. People spend more time on their digital devices than in face-to-face conversations, contributing to more loneliness. (Cacioppo, 2012) A UCLA study shows that social skills are declining as a result. There’s a 40 percent decline in empathy among college students due to new technology, and 12-year olds are socially behaving like 8-year-olds. (Turkle, 2015) Recently, Pew Research Center found that 82 percent of adults felt that the way they used their phones in social settings hurt the conversation.

Codependency and Lack of Intimacy

The absence of someone nurturing to listen, care, and affirm our existence makes us feel isolated or emotionally abandoned. Although intimate connections are the remedy, characteristically, codependent relationships lack of intimacy. Codependents have difficulty with intimacy due to shame and poor communication skills. Often they partner with someone addicted, abusive, or just emotionally unavailable (and they may be, as well.)

Whether alone or in a relationship, codependents may be unable to identify the source of their unhappiness, feeling depressed, sad, or bored, yet not knowing that they’re lonely. Others know, but find it difficult to effectively ask for their needs. Their relationship dynamics and loneliness may seem familiar, like the emotional dysfunction in their childhood. We want and need emotional closeness from our partner and friends, but when an intimate, emotional bond is lacking, we experience disconnection and emptiness. (For more on emptiness and healing, see Chapter 4, “There’s a Hole in My Bucket” in Conquering Shame and Codependency.)

Years ago, I believed that more shared activities would create that missing connection, not realizing it was something less tangible–real intimacy, which was absent in my relationship. (See “Your Intimacy Index”). Instead, like most codependents, I experienced “pseudo-intimacy,” which can take the form of a romantic “fantasy bond,” shared activities, intense sexuality, or a relationship where only one partner is vulnerable, while the other acts as advisor, confidant, provider, or emotional caretaker.

The undercurrent of loneliness and fear of loneliness stem from chronic lack of connectedness and loneliness in childhood. While some children are neglected or abused, the majority grow up in families where parents don’t have the time or sufficient emotional resources to honor their children’s feelings and needs. Children feel ignored, unloved, shamed, or alone. Some feel like an outsider, that “No one gets me,” even though their family otherwise appears to be normal. To cope, they withdraw, accommodate, rebel, and/or take up addictions, and mask, and eventually deny, what they feel inside.

Loneliness and Shame

Meanwhile, children’s growing sense of separation from themselves and lack of authentic connection with a parent(s) can breed inner loneliness and feelings of unworthiness. “The awareness of human separation, without reunion by love–is a source of shame. It is at the same time the source of guilt and anxiety.” (Fromm, E., The Art of Loving, p. 9) As adults, codependents can get caught in self-defeating cycle of loneliness, shame, and depression. Repeated break-ups and abandoning relationships can foster a worsening cycle of abandonment. (See “Breaking the Cycle of Abandonment.”)

The greater is our loneliness, the less we seek to engage with others, while our anxiety around authentic connection grows. Studies show than prolonged loneliness breeds low self-esteem, introversion, pessimism, disagreeableness, anger, shyness, anxiety, lessened social skills, and neuroticism. We imagine negative evaluations from others, called shame anxiety. This leads to anxious, negative, and self-protective behaviors, to which other people respond negatively, fulfilling our imagined outcome.

The shame associated with loneliness is directed not only against ourselves. Loneliness carries a stigma–so we don’t admit we’re lonely–but is also experienced from others with gender differences. Lonely men are perceived more negatively than women, and more negatively by women, even though more women than men report feeling lonely. (Lau, 1992)

Health Risks

The strong association between loneliness and depression is well documented; but, loneliness also triggers serious health risks, impacting our endocrine, immune, and cardiovascular systems, and accelerating death. According to a recent study, the lonely have increased risk for cancer, neurodegenerative disease, and viral infections. Perceived loneliness triggers a flight-or-fight stress response. Stress hormones and inflammation rise, and exercise and restorative sleep decrease. Norepinephrine surges, shutting down immune functions and ramping up production of white blood cells that cause inflammation. Meanwhile, it makes us less sensitive to cortisol that protects us from inflammation. In commenting on the research, neuroscientist Turhan Canli points out that loneliness one year affects our genetic inflammatory response the following year, confirming the self-reinforcing, negative, emotional spiral discussed above: “Loneliness predicted biological changes, and biological changes predicted changes in loneliness.” (Chen, 2015)

Coping with Loneliness

For many of us, when we’re lonely, we tend to isolate even more. We may not feel like talking to someone, even though it would help. Now we have the data to explain why biological, even genetic changes make loneliness hard to overcome. We may turn to addictive behavior instead of seeking social connection. There is a high correlation between obesity and loneliness.

We really have to fight our natural instinct to withdraw. Try admitting to a friend or neighbor that you’re lonely. To motivate socializing with other people, commit to a class, meet-up, CoDA or other 12-Step meeting. Exercise with a buddy. Volunteer or support a friend in need can to take your mind off of yourself and lift your spirits.

As with all feelings, loneliness is worsened by resistance and self- judgment. We fear experiencing more pain if we allow our heart to open. Often, the reverse is true. Allowing feelings to flow can not only release them, but also the energy expended in suppressing them. Our emotional state shifts, so that we feel invigorated, peaceful, tired, or content in our aloneness. For more suggestions, read “Coping with Loneliness” in Codependency for Dummies.

© DarleneLancer 2015

John T. Cacioppo, Stephanie Cacioppo, “The Phenotype of LonelinessEuropean Journal of Developmental Psychology, 2012 Jul 1; 9(4): 446–452.

John T. Cacioppo and William Patrick, “Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection,” The Wall Street Journal, Nov. 28, 2008.

Angus Chen, “Loneliness May Warp Our Genes, And Our Immune Systems,” NPR, Your Health, November 29, 2015.

Lau, S., & Gruen, G. E. (1992). “The social stigma of loneliness: Effect of target person’s and perceiver’s sex.Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 18, 182-189.

Turkle, Sherry, “Stop Googling. Let’s Talk,” The New York Times, Sept. 26, 2015.

 

Posted in Codependency, communication, depression, Intimacy, relationships, Welcome To My Blog,

Dysthymia, Depression, and Codependency

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. In the Shadow 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.

Symptoms

Dysthymia was renamed “persistent depressive disorder” in the 2013 edition of the Diagnostic Statistical Manual V. (I use the terms “dysthymia,” “persistent depressive disorder,” and “chronic depression” interchangeably.) Symptoms must have persisted for at least two years (one year for children and teens) and includes at least two of the following:
• Low energy or fatigue
• Sleep disturbances
• Increased or decreased appetite
• Irritable or angered easily (for children and teens)
• Low self-esteem
• Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
• Feeling hopeless or pessimistic

The symptoms must create significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, educational or other important areas of functioning. Although mood remains persistently “down,” it may improve for several weeks of feeling better. Untreated, depression soon returns for longer periods. People are usually motivated to seek help in order to cope with a relationship or work problem or a major loss that triggers more intense symptoms. When they rise to the level of major depression, which can often occur in people with dysthymia (persistent depressive disorder), the diagnosis is “double depression” – major depression on top of dysthymia. Unlike chronic depression, an episode of major depression may only last a few weeks, but it makes a subsequent episode more likely.

Cause of Dysthymia

Persistent depressive disorder affects approximately 5.4 percent of the U.S. population age 18 and older. The numbers may be much higher, since it often goes undiagnosed and untreated. Over half of dysthymic patients have a chronic illness or another psychological diagnosis, such as anxiety or drug or alcohol addiction. Dysthymia is more common in women (as is major depression) and after divorce. There may not be an identifiable trigger; however, in cases of onset in childhood or adolescence, research suggests that there is a genetic component.

Although stress can be a factor in depression, some people don’t experience a life event that triggered their depression. There are individuals with chronic depression who blame their mood on their relationship or work, not realizing that their outer circumstances are only exacerbating an internal problem. For example, they may believe that they will feel fine when they achieve a goal or when a loved one changes or returns their love. They’re unaware that the real cause is that they’re striving to prove themselves to compensate for feeling inadequate, or that they have no life of their own, have sacrificed self-care for someone else, or that they feel unlovable and worthy of love. They don’t realize that their depression and emptiness stem from their childhood and codependency.

Codependents, by nature of their addiction to people, substances, or compulsive processes, lose touch with their innate self. This drains their vitality and over time is a source of depression. Denial, the hallmark of addiction, can also lead to depression. Codependents deny their feelings and needs. They also deny problems and abuse and try to control things that they can’t, which add to feelings of hopelessness about their life circumstances. Other codependent symptoms, such as shame, intimacy issues, and lack of assertiveness contribute to chronic depression. Internalized shame from abuse or emotional abandonment in childhood causes low self-esteem and can lead to depression. Untreated, codependency worsens over time, and feelings of hopelessness and despair deepen.

Codependency and depression can be caused by growing up in a dysfunctional family that’s marked by abuse, control, conflict, emotional abandonment, divorce, or illness. The Ace Study demonstrated that adverse childhood experiences lead to chronic depression in adulthood. All subjects with a score of five or more were taking anti-depressants fifty years later. Other causes of dysthymia are isolation, stress, and lack of social support. (Research shows that people in abusive relationships aren’t likely to disclose it.)

Treatment

Psychotherapy is the treatment of choice. It is more effective when combined with antidepressant medication. Cognitive therapy has been shown to be effective be eliminating negative thinking to prevent recurrence of depressive symptoms. It may mean healing trauma and PTSD from prior abuse.

In addition, patients need to develop better coping skills, heal the root cause, and change false shame-based beliefs that lead to feelings of inadequacy and unlovability. Goals should be to increase self-esteem and confidence, self-efficacy, assertiveness, and restructuring of dysfunctional thinking and relationship patterns. Group therapy or support groups, such as Codependents Anonymous or other Twelve-Step Program are effective adjuncts to psychotherapy. Lifestyle changes, such as exercise, maintaining healthy sleep habits, and participating in classes or group activities to overcome isolation are also ameliorative.
©Darlene Lancer 2015

Posted in Codependency, depression, self-esteem, therapy,

Is Your Guilt True or False?

Not guilty concept.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.

Codependency and False Guilt

Codependents, in particular, are easy targets of manipulation and projection of blame from other people that they willingly accept. Many codependents are or were victims of abuse in the past, and the role of victim is familiar and more comfortable than standing up for themselves. In their mind, doing so might risk the other person’s anger or worse, the end of a relationship. They rather take the blame and feel guilty. Thus, they’re always saying “I’m sorry” to keep the peace, but don’t really mean it. Moreover, they’ve learned to abuse themselves with negative inner talk. (To overcome this, see 10 Steps to Self-Esteem-The Ultimate Guide to Stop Self-Criticism.

Codependents feel guilty for not giving or doing enough–not measuring up to their perfectionistic, unrealistic ideals. They feel guilty for their negative feelings and thoughts–sometimes including lustful thoughts and feelings. Moral perfectionism, which may have been instilled by religious shaming, can make people unhealthily obsessive about monitoring their thoughts and feelings. Many codependents idealize love and kindness and attempt to disavow and suppress their anger and unpleasant feelings. The more they try to suppress them the more self-loathing and negative feelings they create.

Another source of false guilt is the habit of feeling responsible for others. They feel guilty for the feelings and thoughts of others –things beyond their control. Codependents take this to an extreme and even feel guilty for others’ actions and behaviors. It’s common for abusers to blame their actions on their victims and for addicts to blame their addiction on their partners, who in both cases accept it as true. Narcissists and borderline personalities typically use projection of blame and criticism to shift responsibility and get their needs met. (See my blog on manipulation and emotional blackmail.) However, codependents can feel guilty without being blamed. They deny their needs and wants and put those of others first. The result is that they take on responsibilities that belong to others and feel guilty saying “no.”

True Guilt

When guilt is false, it’s an unhealthy symptom of shame. We blame ourselves and feel irredeemable. We’re more focused on ourselves and what people think of us than our concern for them. On the other hand, with true guilt, our focus is on the other person–how we’ve harmed them. We’re motivated to make amends and change our behavior in the future.

All religions encourage making amends in order to purge guilt and help repair relationships. The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and Codependents Anonymous also suggest making direct amends wherever possible. (For a detailed explanation with exercises of how to use Twelve Steps, see my ebook, Spiritual Transformation in the Twelve Steps)

Self-Forgiveness

Self-forgiveness starts with self-acceptance and humility. The opposite, ruminating or beating ourselves up, isn’t at all helpful in alleviating guilt. It just makes us feel worse about ourselves, while self-forgiveness builds our self-esteem. On the other hand, denying, rationalizing, or excusing our guilt doesn’t make it go away. We can push our feelings into our unconscious and in their place create irritability or resentment and anger toward the person we believe we’ve harmed. The most productive and effective course is to face reality, and then take specific steps to understand, analyze, and forgive ourselves. As we accept ourselves, we grow in self-compassion.

Freedom from Guilt and Blame – Finding Self-Forgiveness is an e-workbook designed to free you from guilt’s grip. It provides a step-by-step process to overcome guilt and find self-compassion by means of three different methods: cognitive, self-compassion, and spiritual, using practical techniques and exercises. You’ll be able to sort out guilt from other emotions and discover whether your guilt is true or false, healthy or unhealthy. You’ll also uncover the impact and connection between your values, perfectionism, and codependency and guilt, and learn what to do.

©Darlene Lancer 2015

 

 

Posted in Codependency, depression, self-esteem, Welcome To My Blog,

Sons of Narcissistic Fathers

Sad boy, lonely boySons 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):

“What was always incomprehensible to me was your total lack of feeling for the suffering and shame you could inflict on me with your words and judgments. It was as though you had no notion of your power. I too, I am sure, often hurt you with what I said, but then I always knew, and it pained me, but I could not control myself, could not keep the words back, I was sorry even while I was saying them. But you struck out with your words without much ado, you weren’t sorry for anyone, either during or afterwards, one was utterly defenseless against you.”

Arrogant and overly confident, his father listened to no one, but judged everyone without any need to be consistent. His rules and decrees were conveyed in a “frightful, hoarse undertone of anger and utter condemnation … [that] only makes me tremble less today than in my childhood…” The fact that those commandments didn’t apply to himself made them all the more depressing to Kafka, who outlines the three worlds he lived in:

“one in which I, the slave, lived under laws that had been invented only for me and which I could, I did not know why, never completely comply with; then a second world, which was infinitely remote from mine, in which you lived, concerned with government, with the issuing of orders and with the annoyance about their not being obeyed; and finally a third world where everybody else lived happily and free from orders and from having to obey. I was continually in disgrace; either I obeyed your orders, and that was a disgrace, for they applied, after all, only to me; or I was defiant, and that was a disgrace too, for how could I presume to defy you; or I could not obey because I did not, for instance, have your strength, your appetite, your skill, although you expected it of me as a matter of course; this was the greatest disgrace of all.”

As a result, Kafka lacked confidence, courage, and resolve. Like other children of narcissists, he internalized guilt and the projected shame of his father. (See Conquering Shame and Codependency.) He became so insecure and fearful, he was unsure of everything, “even of the thing nearest to me, my own body,” eventually leading to hypochondrias.

When narcissistic fathers get involved with their son’s activities, some take over, micro-manage, or are hypercritical. Frequently, narcissists are perfectionists, so nothing their child does – or who he or she is – is good enough. Seeing their child as an extension of themselves, they become overly involved and control their son’s lives, education, and dreams, as did the father in the movie, “Shine.” Alternatively, other fathers may be physically or emotionally remote and wrapped up in their work, addiction, or own pleasures. They act like giving attention to their son’s needs, feelings, and interests or showing up at their games and activities is unimportant and a burden, even though they might provide for him on a material level. In either case, such fathers are emotionally unavailable. Because they deny and distain their own dependency and vulnerability, they often shame and belittle any sign of distress or weakness in their sons.

Kafka suffered predominantly from emotional abuse. He writes that although he rarely got a whipping, the constant threat of it was worse, as well as the guilt and shame he endured when he received a reprieve from one that he “deserved.” Some narcissists are physically cruel. One father made his son dig a swimming pool; another, cut the grass with a razor blade. (See Allen Wheelis’ How People Change.) Abuse makes a child feel helpless, afraid, humiliated, and enraged due to feelings of injustice and powerlessness. As an adult, he may have conflicts with authority and not manage anger well. He turns it on himself or others and becomes aggressive, passive, or passive-aggressive.

Sons who do not become narcissists themselves, suffer from codependency. The message they’ve received is that they’re somehow inadequate, a burden, and that they don’t measure up to their father’s expectations – basically, that they’re unworthy of love – despite the fact that they may feel loved by their mothers; because children need to feel that both parents accept and love them for who they are. They’re deeply moved receiving an apology or crumbs of love that other people take for granted, as Kafka describes when he was sick. He was overwhelmed with tears when his father merely looked into his room and waved at him. All Kafka wanted was, “a little encouragement, a little friendliness, a little keeping open of my road, instead of which you blocked it for me, though of course with the good intention of making me go another road.” Children of an abusive parent frequently learn to be self-sufficient, guarded, and devalue their dependency and emotional needs, leading to intimacy problems. They may marry a narcissist, abuser, someone cold, critical, or emotionally unavailable. See “Do You Love a Narcissist?” and Dealing with a Narcissist: 8 Steps to Raise Self-Esteem and Set Boundaries with Difficult People.

Sons may be driven to achieve, in an attempt to get validation and the approval of their father, but their success feels hollow. It’s never enough – even for themselves. They need to learn to be assertive and to set boundaries in healthy ways not modeled and unthinkable growing up. They also need to value themselves and raise their self-esteem and confidence. Many have suffered from lifelong inner loneliness due to growing up in a family in constant turmoil and/or lacking emotional closeness. However, healing their shame and learning to comfort, accept, and love themselves and receive love are possible.

©Darlene Lancer 2016

 

Posted in abuse, Codependency, communication, Intimacy, Making Change, Narcissism, Parenting, relationships, Welcome To My Blog,