Trauma bonding is the attachment that we form with somebody who is inflicting abuse on us. Whether that is emotional abuse or physical abuse, those relationships can be very confusing for us and we can constantly seek validation and love from those people and we can really form strong attachments to those people.
Codependency is quite different. For me, learning about co-dependency has been the cornerstone to my own wellness and figuring out how to have healthy and nurturing relationships with other people. One of the definitions that the best-selling author and co-dependency expert, Melody Beattie offers is this:
“A codependent person is one who has let another person’s behaviour affect him or her, and who is obsessed with controlling that person’s behaviour”
None of us likes to think of ourselves as controlling people but I really feel that this battle for control is one that so many of us are fighting on a daily basis. Historically, I associated ‘controlling’ people as abusers who dictate where a person can go, how they can dress, etc. but I came to understand that controlling people are also people who are afraid of conflict and will go out of their way to avoid discord with others. For example, when young people grow up in environments with people who are volatile or unpredictable, they learn very quickly to try to ‘control’ their environments and behaviours.
The wish to control others comes from a deep-rooted wound within and so often people don’t investigate that, instead, we project our fears onto external people and things. Essentially, codependency is a response to trauma:
- Damaged self-esteem
- Having a hard time saying no
- Prioritising the needs of others and denying your own and wants
- Having poor functional boundaries
- Always feeling compelled to take care of people
- A need for control, especially over others
- Never communicating or realising your own needs.
- Fixating on mistakes
- A need to be liked by everyone
- A need to always be in a relationship
- Intimacy issues
- Fear of abandonment
When we have a traumatic experience and we go through a difficult time, if that isn’t acknowledged or validated by the people around us, particularly in childhood, then we internalise a lot of our responses to those traumas and we begin to create a narrative that we are the problem, that our response to that is a problem because everybody else either isn’t acknowledging it or they are fine with it. That then becomes a problem because we unconsciously seek out people and scenarios that allow us to recreate those codependent dynamics and we find that they are re-occurrent and painful themes in our lives. These self-defeating, learned behaviours result in a diminished capacity to initiate or participate in loving relationships, to trust and prevent us from expressing our feelings and needs. We don’t feel confident about our internal voice and what it is that we want from relationships and so we fall into patterns where a relationship becomes about trying to secure somebody’s affection rather than building a mutual bond. We get drawn into very co-dependent patterns of behaviour where we are really focused on
- How can I make sure this person doesn’t leave me?
- How can I make sure that I am totally accommodating to every need that they have so that I don’t seem like I am too much in any way?
That narrative that we’ve developed in our younger years starts to play out in all our relationships. If you choose to try to control someone, the intimacy will disappear. If you choose intimacy, you won’t be in control. Control and intimacy are opposites. You can only ever have one or the other.
So many of us attribute our controlling behaviours to trying to manage our stress and anxiety levels. I ‘need’ to do (fill in the blank) because otherwise I’ll be stressed/overworked/late/unhappy/disorganised etc. Actually, it’s the need to control that fuels our stress and anxiety levels. We resort to trying to control our external worlds when we can’t control our own emotional states. For example, have you ever noticed how you feel compelled to re-organise your whole wardrobe after an argument? Or have you started a full-on exercise regime after missing out on another opportunity? Recognising where these behaviours are showing up in your life is often the first step.
In order to change things, we need to get honest about our own compulsive drive to control the people and situations around us. This might be something seemingly simple like dictating the restaurants we go to with friends, or what time we eat. It might be that we are heavily invested in giving “advice” to friends or family to be ‘helpful’ and then ending up feeling betrayed when others don’t do what we want. Part of the healing comes when we acknowledge the impact that those traumatic experiences have had on us both physically and emotionally and the impact that we’re having. Vulnerability and learning how to be in an intimate relationship is the most challenging thing about the healing journey. It certainly was for me. I found being vulnerable absolutely excruciating. I found it so so painful to do because I’d never done it before and it felt totally alien to me but the more you persist and the more you challenge yourself to show up for yourself and to have a voice to create space to meet your own needs, then the world starts to respond to that and it all gets easier.
Mindfulness is the friend of the recovering codependent. As soon as we become aware of the destructive behaviours that we’re engaged in, we can begin to ‘choose’ to respond differently to people and situations. The most important thing to remember is that while everyone has loved ones and feels responsible for those loved ones, it is crucial to not lose one’s individual sense of identity.
Recovery can be a very healing and rewarding way of letting go of old destructive behaviours, but also of beginning to explore who you are and what you need from your relationships. You can learn to honour your needs and be forgiving toward yourself and to others. Nurturing compassion toward yourself allows you to be self-reflective without being self-critical. When we begin to care for ourselves, our self-confidence begins to grow, we offer communication to others about what we feel that we expect and deserve and we no longer allow others to abuse us or dictate our lives. Instead of manipulating, we become more authentic and assertive and are capable of greater intimacy.
The compulsion to control serves as a defensive and protective function against our own feelings of vulnerability, which we associate with powerlessness and shame. We will avoid feeling vulnerable at all costs and it is this fear that is really driving our controlling behaviours. When we acknowledge this fear, we are able to reflect and change these destructive behavioural patterns. In very basic terms; we cannot possibly control everyone and everything even if we wish to and so we need to let go. Let go of controlling others and ourselves. We can still take responsibility and be free and joyful… control isn’t our only option.