I am often inspired and educated by my coaching clients whose life experiences model what does and doesn’t work in life. As fellow humans, my clients struggle with many of the same issues I too have struggled with. In my own journey to inner freedom and peace, I have enjoyed a large degree of healing and continue to grow. My clients often remind me of the lessons learned along the way as well as opportunities for deeper healing.
The following is a fictional story based on experiences of many of my clients over the past ten years. Something I see often in my coaching practice are the frustrating and limiting effects of codependent relationships. There are strategies to mediate the impact of codependency such as expanding your support group and setting healthy boundaries, but they don’t actually solve the problem. For those of us who have struggled with codependency, applying these strategies can feel nearly impossible.
That’s because if we don’t get what we think we need from our codependent relationships, we have little or no capacity for applying new strategies. Codependency is an over-reliance on another person for our sense of value. A codependent person goes through life seeking love, approval, and appreciation from others.
I believe that early emotional wounds are usually the cause of codependent behavior. In an effort to explain the cause of the emotional injury, the codependent sufferer assumes for the rest of their lives that they deserve to be hurt or that they don’t deserve love. For example, a child who feels hurt, scared, alone, or embarrassed may conclude that they are stupid, unlovable, not worthy of good things, or unsafe.
I suspect that seeking love and approval from others in an effort to counter the pain of the emotional injury is the true cause of codependency. Dealing with and healing that original wound is the real solution for codependent behavior.
In this fictional story about Mark, his adult son Seth, and Mark’s wife Denise, you will see that Mark is codependent in both relationships.
Mark is a very successful business owner who often feels trapped in the middle of the acrimonious relationship between his wife, Denise and his adult son, Seth.
Mark received a text from Seth after the Memorial Day weekend. In the text Seth told his dad that he missed spending time with family over the holidays. Mark was on edge when he started our session. He recounted that he had exchanged holiday cards, text messages, and phone calls with his son, hoping to keep the peace. He reported that Seth’s text message was an early signal that his son was “circling the drain” once again. Mark worried that a crisis was brewing.
In the past, Seth made it clear that he didn’t want Mark to treat him like a child by giving him advice or telling him how he should feel. Seth often rebelled at being controlled by his father and reacted with anger if he believed that Mark didn’t respect his autonomy and independence.
But Seth isn’t autonomous or independent. He suffers from paranoia, depression, and anxiety, and relies on social services to live. Although he qualifies for independent housing benefits, Seth’s sometimes aggressive and disruptive behavior gets him in trouble. When that happens, he is in danger of being institutionalized. Mark is the emergency contact for his son and, once or twice a year, hears from social services, Seth’s landlord, or the police when Seth acts out.
Although not legally obligated, Mark feels responsible for Seth who moved across the country years ago to get married. Seth’s marriage only lasted a short time before it ended in divorce. Mark married Denise after Seth had moved away. Seth resents Denise and has been vocal in his criticism of her. Denise wants to support Mark’s efforts to have a relationship with his son, but finds it difficult because she feels hurt and angry by the way Seth treats her. She doesn’t believe that Mark has her back when Seth makes critical remarks about her.
When Seth acts out or needs Mark’s support, Mark is faced with some difficult decisions. Should he risk upsetting his wife to help Seth? Should he bail Seth out again or let social services deal with him? What can he do to help Seth get a grip on reality without alienating him? How should he respond to complaints about his son’s behavior, to the arrests, and to the court dates? How involved should he be in his son’s life?
Following guidance from friends, from the internet, books, podcasts, and his counselor, Mark works hard to surrender and let go. He meditates daily and releases responsibility for his son any time there is tension related to Seth.
Things had been going well for several months. But after getting the text from his son, Mark felt triggered again. He was frustrated and confused during our coaching session. Mark has done some great work in coaching and with his counselor who helps him with strategies for dealing with the tension between Seth and Denise. Despite years of this repeating cycle, Mark continues to hope for a lasting peace and was disappointed that he could be so easily triggered. He was confused and wondered if he would ever resolve the conflict.
As I do in every session, I asked Mark what he wished to accomplish during our session. The question interrupted Mark’s venting and seemed to surprise him.
I waited as Mark reset his perspective and carefully considered his answer. After a moment, he said, “I just want to figure out how to stop getting anxious every time Seth or Denise get upset. I want to let them have their own experiences without getting dragged into their stuff. I’ve been trying to figure this out for years.”
I explained that there are three ways to deal with codependent relationships.
- Try to control the other person,
- Try to control yourself, or
- Work on healing yourself.
I asked Mark which of these strategies he thought he was using with Seth.
I waited as Mark thought it over. Finally, he said, “I don’t think I try to control Seth. In fact, I try not to because I don’t want to upset him.”
“So,” I suggested “you try to control yourself to make sure you don’t upset him.”
“Exactly!” he agreed.
“What about your wife? Do you try to control her?” I asked.
“No!” He almost shouted. “I try to control myself. I don’t want her to be upset either, so I am careful about my tone of voice, and what I do and don’t say around her.”
“You try to control yourself so you don’t upset your son or your wife. You’re trying to control how they feel by controlling what you say or do. Do I have that right?” I asked.
Mark mulled this over and I waited for a response.
“I see. So, I try to control myself so I can control them,” he conceded.
“You have been using these strategies to manage a very difficult situation. You want your son to feel supported and loved by you. You want your wife to feel supported and loved by you. You measure how loved and supported they feel by whether or not they are upset. So it makes sense that you would do what you can to manage that. But there is something about this strategy that isn’t working for you Mark. What is that?” I asked.
“My efforts to manage their emotions only have temporary success, I have been doing this for Mark’s entire life and ever since I met Denise. I’m constantly trying to put out fires or trying to prevent a fire from starting. It’s exhausting and most of the time it doesn’t work. They both end up mad at me,” he said, clearly grasping the impossibility of the situation.
“Are you ready to try something new Mark?” I asked.
“Of course!” he responded.
“The third way to deal with a codependent relationship is to work on healing yourself,” I reminded him.
“And how do I do that?” He asked, unable or unwilling to hide his despair.
“By doing a U-Turn and getting curious about yourself and your reactions. Doing a U-turn means shifting your focus away from others and getting curious about yourself. For example, rather than focusing on what Seth or Denise are thinking, feeling, or doing, you would get curious about your own thoughts, feelings, and reactions. Does that make sense?” I asked, pausing until I was sure he understood.
“It makes sense,” he admitted. “I mean, I understand what you’re saying, but I’m not sure what difference that would make.”
“Getting curious about your own experience is the beginning of real change. You don’t have any control over Seth or Denise. But you do have control over where you place your conscious attention. Notice how it feels to focus on what they might be thinking or feeling or what they might do. Powerless, right? It feels powerless because you have no power over them. Not really. You may be able to influence them. You may know them well enough to predict how they will react. But the only reason you would want to predict their reactions would be to know how to control them. And the reason you want to control their reactions is to minimize your own pain or discomfort.” I stopped talking to let these ideas sink in.
“That sounds so…selfish,” Mark said.
“Most of us react to pain and fear in ways that we hope will relieve our pain or manage what we are afraid of. Your reactions don’t mean anything about who you are. If anything, they are responses to fear and pain. Labeling yourself as selfish is just another way to try to control yourself and how others perceive you. Can you see that?” I asked.
“Yes. I can see that. I never thought of it that way,” he responded.
“Your coaching request today was to figure out a way to remain calm even if Denise or Seth are upset. What if, somehow, you lost the ability to focus on their thoughts, feelings, and actions? What are you afraid might happen?” I asked.
“I’m afraid I would say and do things that would upset them,” he said.
“And if that happened?” I pressed.
Mark studied the floor and admitted, “I’m afraid I would lose them. They wouldn’t want me in their lives if I upset them.”
“You’re careful with them so you aren’t alone.” I summarized Mark’s thoughts.
“Yes.” He said, looking tired and defeated.
“Here’s why that is a problem, Mark. As long as you believe you have to be careful around Seth and Denise, you can’t just be yourself. How could you ever just authentically show up for them and for yourself if you’re trying to manage their perception of you?” I asked, building on his dawning awareness.
“I can’t. If I’m constantly stressed and trying to read their minds and control their reactions to me, I can never be calm around them. It’s so strange. I am so afraid of losing either of them, but when I am interacting with them I’m on edge and trying to be who I think they want me to be. I completely lose myself in the process,” he said, flooded with insight.
“Does it make sense that without the concern that they would leave you, you might be calm and authentic around them? Can you imagine that?” I tested the depth of his awareness.
“It’s hard to imagine. But it makes sense that I’m the one making myself feel upset. So, how do I get rid of the fear?” he asked.
“Rather than trying to get rid of your fear, let’s see if you can get curious about it,” I suggested. “Are you willing to do some work between now and our next session?”
“If it will help me get past this fear, you bet!” he agreed.
“Here’s what I have in mind. I’d like you to do some research by making what has been unconscious conscious,” I told him.
“How do I do that?” he asked, grabbing his pen and notebook.
“Over the next week, I’d like you to answer some questions about at least one uncomfortable interaction with Denise or Seth. I’m not asking you to change anything. Don’t modify your behavior or your reactions to them. I won’t be judging or grading you on any of this. Just make some notes about what you experience.
Once you’ve interacted with one of them, answer these questions.
- Describe the circumstance within which you interacted.
- How did you feel during the interaction?
- How did you react? What did you do?
- How did you feel after the interaction?
I suggested that he document the experience as soon as possible remember as much as he could about all that happened.
Our time was almost up. “What have you gotten from our conversation today, Mark?” I asked.
“This has been a lot to digest,” Mark said. “But, I’m starting to understand that I play a role in feeling the way I do around Seth and Denise. I guess I’ve been blaming them for how I feel. It’s like I’ve been at their mercy. I’m hoping you can help me take my power back.”
I knew that this could be a turning point for Mark and made myself a note to start here during our next coaching session.