By Samantha S Hall
Recently, Dan Oestreich wrote an enlightening post called Leadership and Shame. Shame happens to be one of the most destructive core issues we have in society. In one of the books I’m currently reading, Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach, she recounts a visit the Dalai Lama had with a small group of teachers and psychologists in the US and Europe. The topics they were covering had to do with emotions and health. Then they brought up the topic of self-hatred and the Dalai Lama didn’t understand what it was.
Tara Brach further wrote:
‘While all humans feel ashamed of weakness and afraid of rejection, our Western culture is a breeding ground for the kind of shame and self-hatred the Dalai Lama couldn’t comprehend.’
Much of this is due to living in a chronic, shame-based culture where many families don’t have the tools and skills necessary to genuinely connect and acknowledge legitimate needs. Validate them. Let alone meet them for one another in healthy ways. As a result, we become disconnected from our true selves and legitimate needs. This turns into a vicious shame-based identity and destructive cycle where people experience feelings of shame for having needs and learn how to shame others for having needs in return.
Shame based systems breed shame based people.
One of the most insidious offshoots of shame is what has been labeled co-dependency. It is a term used to describe the behaviors of people who learned to cope within a shame-based system. This system can include varying degrees of dysfunction, addiction, and abuse. The behaviors and roles created as a result of having to survive and function in these type of systems is an attempt to bring balance by compensating for the dysfunction.
Co-dependency was first introduced as a reaction formation of the people who lived with those struggling with alcoholism. Since then, we can see the same patterns in ANY type of dysfunctional system. From families, to churches, to business organizations.
One of the best books that I’ve read on the subject is Codependent No More by Melody Beattie. In fact, in the past 15 or 20 years or so I’ve been through two copies. I read the first copy so many times that eventually the pages started falling out.
My Attempts to Balance a Dysfunctional System
My own co-dependent tendencies were a result of growing up in an abusive home.
- Having to walk on eggshells most of the time, I quickly learned to ‘check the mood temperature’ of the adults I lived with.
- I learned ways to try to prevent and control anger and bad moods due to fear of punishment and abuse. Which only worked for brief periods or not at all.
- I learned to take care of their feelings and emotional needs since I was often sought for comfort when there was a fight between the adults.
- In many ways, I was trained to be a surrogate parent and spouse to either one or the other of my caretakers, depending on who it was and what need they were trying to meet through me. (cross generational bonding)
- And as a result of an extreme fear of punishment and violent abuse, I learned how to be a people pleaser. I tried to be the perfect child, the perfect student, to be as self-sufficient and need free as possible in order to prevent abuse and to finally ‘earn’ the love and approval of my family.
The Karpman Drama Triangle
As I learned more about the nature of co-dependency, I became acquainted with what is called the Karpman Drama Triangle. This triangle gives us a quick illustration of what happens in co-dependent relationships. It has been a great help in becoming more conscious of the ways this can play out in our relationships. By becoming more familiar with how this cycle works, we can either catch ourselves in the act and do what we need to do to re-center. Or to prevent ourselves from getting caught up in this vicious cycle with others to begin with.
Basically, there are three roles that people will take on and occupy at an given point on the triangle. These roles are rescuer, persecutor, and victim.
If one person is taking on the role of the rescuer, then there is obviously a real or ‘imagined’ victim. The person they are trying to rescue. If the rescue is successful, the rescuer is happy for as long as the one rescued stays in line, or in other words, under the control of the rescuer. If the rescuer is unsuccessful in their attempts to rescue, they will generally jump to the persecutor role. Now they will blame the person they so generously tried to help.
‘After all I did for you!’
It doesn’t matter if the other person didn’t ask for it, request it, or seek it out. If someone is deeply entrenched in co-dependency, they will consider any unsolicited help they provide to others as an act of love, sincere benevolence, and generosity and be down-right offended if someone doesn’t LET them perform the rescue. Or tries to resist it if they are already familiar with the signs of co-dependency (they can smell it and see it) and know that it wouldn’t be a healthy kind of ‘help’ to receive. Even if they may have a legitimate need.
As this cycle plays out, the drama peaks at the point where the person perceived as the ‘victim’ either reacts and persecutes the rescuer in return because they don’t like being controlled. Or simply by having or needing some boundaries. Any action on the part of the perceived victim will be taken as an ‘attack’ by the rescuer/persecutor even if the person has either withdrawn from the others persecutions and punishments, or declared a boundary.
As in, ‘No. That’s NOT the kind of ‘help’ I need…thank you very much.’
The rescuer/persecutor will then jump to the final point on the triangle and now take on the victim role. Thus, completing the cycle.
This drama can be played out endlessly by one or both parties involved until one person either leaves the relationship and the other finds another person to rescue. Or the person becomes aware that there is a problem with co-dependency and deals with it. That said, these behaviors are not something that instantly go away overnight. It takes a great deal of conscious awareness and diligent effort in multiple areas in order to be able to function in a more interdependent manner that doesn’t sabotage self and others.
Characteristics of Co-dependency
There are far too many behavioral characteristics to list here so I will only cover a few. Also, please note that you more then likely will have at least SOME co-dependent tendencies due to living in a predominantly shame-based culture. If you find that you might just be co-dependent, the last thing I would want you to feel is shame. Understand these tendencies stem from BEING shamed in the first place. Love, acceptance, compassion, and self-care are in order. Not additional shaming to heap on top of it all. That will only make it worse. However, unless the web of codependency is untangled, toxic shame and the compensating behaviors will persist and it’s not healthy for anyone.
- Difficulty identifying what you are feeling
- Minimize and/or deny feelings
- Consider yourself to be completely unselfish and altruistic
- Lack empathy for the legitimate feelings and needs of others
- Project own feelings and negative traits onto others
- May exhibit passive aggressive tendencies
- Value the approval of others more then your own approval
- Feel unlovable
- Unable to admit you’ve made a mistake
- Cannot directly ask for what you need or desire
- Feel superior to others.
- Say what you think others want to hear instead of what you really think and feel
- Say yes when you mean no. Say no when you mean yes.
- Believe most people are incapable of taking care of themselves without your help
- Use blame and shame to manipulate and control people
- Pretend to agree with others to get what you want
- May use sex as a weapon; either to manipulate or withhold to punish
- Suppress your own needs and feelings to avoid feeling vulnerable.
- May believe that displays of emotion are a sign of weakness.
- May withhold appreciation
Are You Co-Dependent or Interdependent?
For additional information on characteristics of co-dependency in contrast to interdependency, I found a helpful chart on Webster University.
The shift from codependent to interdependent relationships is not something we should expect to happen instantly or overnight. Some of these behaviors are deeply ingrained habits and patterns that may be operating on autopilot. Many of these tendencies will more then likely be unconscious and remain that way until the spotlight of awareness is shined on them.
In interdependent relationships, we don’t neglect to help others, yet we do so from a much more healthier place. We are more able to help without enabling destructive behaviors in others. We will have more discernment on the difference between meeting legitimate needs and enabling dysfunction. And more importantly, helping one another is about empowerment without the need for power and control tactics. Or the need to keep others in a dependent or one down positions.
It’s a far more healthy system of relating which provides the right kind of soil needed to nourish genuine love.
Questions for Reflection:
- How would you describe your relationships at this time? Are they more co-dependent or interdependent?
- If you struggle with codependent behaviors, which role do you take on most of the time in your relationships?
- Can you see yourself and the people you relate with carrying out the drama in the Karpman triangle?
- If you often take on the role of the rescuer, are you trying to help people who have requested it? Or do you try to push your help onto others because you know you can fix them if the would only do what you want?
- Do you punish people in various ways for not doing what you want or think they should be doing? If so, how do you punish them?
- How difficult is it for you to admit a mistake? How do you generally feel when this happens?
- How easy or difficult is it for you to assertively ask for what you want or need in your relationships?
- Do you say what you mean and mean what you say? Or do you expect other people to guess and read your mind?
- How do you respond to people who may not want or need your help?
- Are you able to see others as equals or do you secretly feel superior to them?
- Do you believe displaying emotions is a sign of weakness?
Additional Related Resources:
The Vulnerability Dilemma by Samantha Hall
Organizational Arson by Scott Mabry
Humanity in the Holocaust by Nic Askew (short Soul Biographies film)
How to Give a Fishing Lesson by Nic Askew
Leadership and Shame by Dan Oestreich
Reflective Love by Blair Glaser
Learn how to create an emotional anchor to feel less vulnerable – A post by LaRae Quy
In Praise of Shame! (an exploration of both healthy and unhealthy shame) by J. Vincent Nix, Phd.
What It Is Now by Crack Your Egg