There was a time when I was quite afraid of myself. It was when I first learned about the fawn response and codependency.
As psychotherapist Pete Walker writes in Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving:
A fawn response is triggered when a person responds to threat by trying to be pleasing or helpful in order to appease and forestall an attacker.
According to Melodie Beattie, author of the classic Codependent No More:
A codependent person is one who has let another person’s behavior affect them and who is obsessed with controlling that other person’s behavior.
Is my caring a trauma response?
Is it empathy, or is it hypervigilance?
Am I helping others only to avoid helping myself?
Am I helping, or am I enabling?
Black-and-white thinking is easy – and a sign of emotional immaturity.
Luckily, I also enjoy learning and experimenting. So I did a ‘helping detox’.
For a good number of months in 2022, I focused on helping myself (and grieving, among other trauma recovery work). Didn’t help anyone who didn’t explicitly ask for it or couldn’t tell me exactly what they needed help with. Stopped anticipating other people’s needs. Started asking myself ‘Do I want to do this?’ before ‘Can I do this?’ Paid attention to my intentions and my sense of safety: Am I doing this because I don’t feel safe otherwise?
I remember hearing Dr. Gabor Maté say something along the lines of ‘Are you being driven, or is it a calling?’ Being driven implies a lack of control, whereas a calling is something you can choose to answer or not. Compulsion versus choice.
Some of the tough pills I’ve swallowed include admitting that by trying to help someone who doesn’t want help, I’m essentially saying, ‘Clearly you can’t be trusted to make your own decisions about your life.’ However nice or noble we make it sound, it’s still a form of ‘I know what’s best for you’ or ‘Let me save you from yourself’ – just like the kind of grandiosity and control that I see in highly narcissistic people.
What else is really the flip side of the narcissistic coin? The idea that ‘If you stepped up or stopped being so X, I wouldn’t be so Y either.’ It’s still waiting for the other person to change to ‘solve’ the issue.
Framed in these terms, it’s easy for me to see how my codependent behaviour was not congruent with my values. I have a number of flaws, but being a hypocrite is not one of them. I value people’s right to make their own decisions. I believe in treating adults as adults, which includes taking responsibility for the consequences of our own actions.
Thanks to my practice of self-compassion and my increasing knowledge of the complex trauma associated with narcissistic family systems, I didn’t beat myself up too much as I came to terms with my role in maintaining the dysfunction. It’s understandable how and why the codependency developed.
What I often concern myself with now, whether it’s codependency or other issues, is this: I may not have created the monster, but am I feeding it? I don’t want to feed the monster. I don’t want to go against my conscience and my values.
Living my values includes the ‘recognition and acceptance of reality: of how things really were in our family of origin, of the effects of that experience on our development, and that while as children we were not responsible for what happened to us then, as adults we are responsible for our own recovery now’ (Stephanie Donaldson-Pressman and Robert M. Pressman, The Narcissistic Family: Diagnosis and Treatment).
Once I accepted reality – and extracted myself from harm – my healing and growth accelerated. I like psychotherapist Ross Rosenberg’s re-conceptualisation of codependency as Self-Love Deficit Disorder. Its opposite is Self-Love Abundance, which I’m happy to report 2023 has been for me.
With my own baggage out of the way, I’ve been far more effective as a coach (and as a trainee therapist). I’m more able to be empathic and boundaried, supportive and challenging, more being than doing. Life is also just more peaceful and enjoyable when I stop allowing myself to be cast in other people’s drama.
I look forward to another year of growth!