….. Oh, my! Back Burner behavior (where WE always seem to be on the back burner), also known as codependency, can be one of life’s biggest behavioral challenges. Are you already feeling anxious about this post, just by the title? Do you already have questions? Do you already KNOW this post might target some of YOUR behaviors? My last post was all about some of the ‘hallmarks of narcissistic behavior’, a worthy albeit difficult topic. Today, I’d like to discuss a very real and difficult behavior pattern that many of us may have, or had in the past to varying degrees: Codependence. If you are codependent, I can nearly guarantee you have had difficult relationships in your life. In fact, the trait of codependence likely led to and prolonged toxic relationships with difficult people. And yes, we’ll talk about FEAR also.
First, let’s start with Codependence. The way I interpret this word is behavior WE may exhibit that allows others to come before what is good for US, too much of the time (if not all of the time). All too often, we may tend to put ourselves on the BACK burner, always last on the list, if on the list at all. There are many reasons for this of course ranging from early childhood upbringing, insecure parental attachments, to fear of upsetting others or making them mad, fear that these same people will leave us if we DO take care of ourselves and our needs/wants, to people-pleasing behavior, to FEAR, to thinking putting others first (even to our own detriment) is what a GOOD person would do…. oh, and FEAR. Did I mention FEAR? I believe I did. Yes, the reasons may vary, the source and origin of this behavior pattern may be different for all of us, but at the root I believe is conditioning, AND FEAR. Often, codependents live in a constant state of fear of ABANDONMENT, the fear that if one were to stand up for themselves, make their own care a priority, that others would high tail it out of the relationship never to be seen again. In a healthy and balanced relationship, this is not the case.
The fear of abandonment is STRONG in the codependent, and interestingly, it is strong with a narcissist also – just for different reasons. The codependent believes standing up for his/herself will cause others to get mad, angry, frustrated, and therefore acts in ways to make sure everyone is getting THEIR needs met before their own. While sacrificing our own needs and wants is to be expected (and perfectly okay) at times, it should not be a permanent nor consistent relationship standard. The codependent may in fact be so conditioned, so used to living this way, to think of getting their own needs and wants met feels like some far-away dream meant for other people. This philosophy, this faulty concept MUST be challenged and changed to overcome codependency. Simply stated, this is NOT an us vs. them issue; no one needs to forgo their genuine wants and needs all the time for another person. Harmony and mutual reciprocity of having our (and their) needs met CAN coexist and is a consistent component in a healthy relationship.
Now, let’s talk specifically about what codependence may look like in our every day lives. I will use a very simple, yet important example from my own life. I went a year listening to country music, at the exclusion of ALL OTHER MUSIC. My ex is a huge country music fan and while I’m not opposed to this music, I am at the bottom of my soul a classic and alternative rock kinda gal. Did I ask to change the music from time to time in the car and at home? Of course. Did we? No. Did I make an issue out of it? NO. I was codependent. I let the FEAR of making my ex mad or upset (I was conditioned to NEVER do that you see, or else I would be punished) keep me quiet. I didn’t stand up for myself and MY desires, because of FEAR. Now, choosing music may or may not be a big deal to some, but this dynamic indicates IMBALANCE. I was willing (if not happy about it) to allow the ex to always have their way in selecting music – always. The creation of the relationship imbalance, the awarding of power to another person in this case, is partially my own fault. I did not own up to my needs and wants; I let myself down. Yes, I was willing to keep the ex happy and put my wants aside. This is just one SMALL example, but it allowed the balance of power to SHIFT, and just like a good little narc, the ex took this obvious sign of compliance from ME (which is was), and transferred it to many other areas of the relationship. I thought I was being a giving partner – I thought I was being a good person; my ex took it as the indication of growing POWER over me, on their side. One person simply should NOT overrule, or be in control of all things, all the time. The music choice dynamic is a very small issue all in all, but on a larger scale, can impact ALL areas of a toxic relationship. When one person HAS power, the other cannot. Power has no place in a healthy relationship. If you have been in a toxic relationship, you will relate to these words and feelings of fear.
The following list summarizes some of the characteristics a codependent struggles with:
- Accepting responsibility for others’ feelings or actions
- Strong desire to please others
- Unable to break free of controlling or abusive relationships
- Consistently putting the needs of others before their own
- Can no longer separate their own wishes and desires from those of their partner
- Disconnected from their own thoughts, feelings and needs
- Lost touch with who they are as an individual
- Difficulty setting realistic personal boundaries
- Resentful, often feeling like a victim
- Fear rejection or fear of feeling abandoned and alone
- Attempts to control and manipulate variables in their environment
- Depends on the approval of others for their sense of self worth
- Makes extreme sacrifices to meet their partner’s needs
Sadly, there is no narc / toxic person on the planet who GENUINELY wants you to have your needs met; to do so means giving up power and control over you and that is unacceptable to a toxic / narc. They NEED you to give up all you are to have their power and control needs met. Codependents are often willing to do just that. Can you see how this unbalanced toxic power / relationship dynamic is a recipe for disaster? Codependents OFTEN find themselves with toxic narcissists / abusers; narcs just LOVE the power a codependent allows. A narcissist (aka narc), or someone with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), or Histrionic Personality Disorder (HPD) will take the fear of the codependent for EVERYTHING they can, and then stand in line for more; plowing over the codependent regularly, consistently, and loving every minute of it. The toxic person KNOWS and can even sense the fear in a codependent, and they count on it. They exploit that fear, and use it to keep the codependent silent, or quiet, or at least compliant. Anyone rebuking another person, or extolling punishment when another person asks for their needs and wants to ALSO be met, is likely a dangerous person indeed.
This is an interesting paradox, as anyone in an abusive relationship will know. Eventually, we simply MUST take back our own control and power to change the relationship dynamic, and eventually get out, and STAY OUT. This takes time of course, and may be supremely uncomfortable for the codependent. We learn through conditioning due to resulting punishment (the silent treatment, withholding affection, attention, name calling, verbal/physical abuse, etc.) to NEVER stand up for ourselves, for to do so is to ask for the wrath of the abuser. This dynamic also serves to STRENGTHEN the abusers behavior; our codependence is THEIR ripe field and playground, showing them ‘we will take it’ and often, come back for more. Our codependence REINFORCES a narcissists behavior; we allow abusive, power laden behavior, a narc / toxic understands we will allow it, and eventually, will exploit the codependent more and more. (Please be on the lookout for an upcoming post about setting boundaries; an important component for the codependent.)
Finally, I’ll ask: Is this an area of your life that needs adjustment? Do you recognize any faulty patterns of your own behavior? While much of what we talk about here will deal with other people, namely personality disordered people, there is NOTHING (please, oh please believe this!!) more important that our OWN responsibilities in a relationship. It all STARTS and ends with us; our perceptions, beliefs, values, emotions, thoughts, actions, and reactions. Might be time to really take a look at some of our own patterns of behavior, and make adjustments to move THROUGH patterns of codependency, to THRIVING.
Book recommendation: “Codependent No More” by Melodie Beattie; there is also a companion workbook that is excellent.