Content warning: Art inspired by religious imagery, codependency and trauma
Those of you who know me know that I’m always processing. Always. I was in the car and my Spotify playlist was going when a song I’ve heard about a million times started to play. Tori Amos is a pretty famous artist who handles some pretty mature topics. The song “Crucify” came on and I started to make connections. I don’t know if Tori meant it to be a treatise on fawning and codependency but it sure fits. (Maybe she did. She’s pretty Cerebral in her art.) So I thought I would use it as an avenue through which to illustrate the issue that is codependency and self-betrayal.
Before we begin I need to define some terms:
The first is one I just used above. Fawning is a trauma response where one chameleons or acts to be what the target wants. It’s actually part of fight/flight and is a way to make oneself not a target. “I’ll be whatever you want me to be if it keeps me from being a target/getting in trouble.” If you find yourself behaving in a way that someone else wants you to in self defense, maybe not even purposefully, it’s fawning.
For example, if you know that your Aunt dislikes the forceful way in which you speak, in order to gain her approval you may soften your words around her. We also see this in dating when young women keep a lot of their thoughts and feelings to themselves in order to please a boy (not necessarily related to trauma.) We, as biological beings, do this naturally in order to fit in, survive, and not be rejected from the pack. It can be a very functional skill. However, it can become extreme.
At its extreme it’s called codependency.
Codependency is a chronic neglect of self in order to gain approval, love, validation, or self identity through another person.
Keep this defenition. Learn it. Know it. Compare your motivations for behaviors to it. If you're acting to EARN, then you may be slipping into codependency.
I felt this such an important topic to discuss because I see it all of the time within and outside of the office, and also because I hear the term constantly but it is rarely cleanly defined. Many people will say that they don’t want to be codependent without even really knowing what that means. Those who are traumatized in relationships often learn what pieces and parts are “unacceptable” or at least things have been offensive to past partners and how to hide them. The hiding takes many forms: people pleasing, conflict avoidance, placating, numbing or hiding emotions, and more. The issue is that the relationship survives, but the core person doesn’t. It’s survival and not living. While a CO dependent relationship requires two, and the roles can move back and forth. In general there is a taker/dominant personality (not necessarily a Narcissist, but when you read about Codependency you’ll see Narcissism spoken about often in the dominant position) and a giver/pleasing/more submissive personality. Without a clear definition, it’s difficult to watch for in self or others. It’s also a major issue in American culture because it’s unfortunately very normalized and passed off as ideal love. We see it everywhere in Hallmark movies and romantic cinema and novels. Rescue dynamics, unequal giving and taking, glossing over abuse or character flaws- all modeled as healthy and desired.
No. Just no. Never, ever love another to your own detriment.
Interdependency is actually what we’re aiming for: Me as an individual- a whole being, authentic and acceptable as I am, You as an individual- a whole being, authentic and acceptable as you are, and Us when we come together. It can look similar to codependency, but in a secure relationship there is little anxiety upon separation whereas in a codependent one there is quite a bit of stress when separated.
I’ve seen many people mistake interdependency and healthy relating as dysfunctional because they’re hyperaware of bonding and are watching to try to not repeat codependent patterns. This can be a problem. In interdependency, each partner is able to fully be themselves, flaws and all and are accepted and loved as such. With codependency, there is little to no identity outside of the relationship and a lack of self soothing skills.
Tori’s song really hit me as a great communication of the internal world of the codependent or people pleasing person. Let’s dive in.
Every finger in the room is pointing at me
People with trauma are often hyperaware of being seen or targeted by others. In extreme forms it can reach paranoia, but is often an internal consistent dialogue of self evaluation and trying to not gain the attention of others. If you aren’t noticed you can’t be a target.
I want to spit in their faces then I get afraid of what that could bring
Contrary to popular belief, even the quietest of us have stuff to say. Very often, those who are timid, traumatized, or codependent have trouble speaking up out of fear of what that may rain down on them. This creates a lot of anxiety, anger, and stress as it is frustrating to be unable to defend yourself or speak up for yourself. Everyone wants to be heard.
I got a bowling ball in my stomach I got a desert in my mouth
Figures that my courage would choose to sell out now
In office, when calm and not in fight or flight and when in a safe environment, my clients will often have brilliant insightful things to say. They may rewrite an argument in a “man! I should have said that!” moment. Fight of flight gets in the way of us really articulating what we feel, need, or are observing. When leaving session, my clients will often feel self assured and better able to speak up only to return the next week, head hanging low, saying “I flaked out. I just don’t know what happened.”
I've been looking for a savior in these dirty streets
Looking for a savior beneath these dirty sheets
People who have trauma will often look for someone to “save” them. They don’t feel capable of protecting or caring for themselves and feel they can’t trust their own feelings or judgement. So, naturally, in that sense a person would look for someone who “knows better” to take over the responsibility of making decisions and righting the situation as well as to protect them. Sex is a common way to achieve or deepen connection as well as get hits of endorphins and neurotransmitters. It’s a common fawning tool as well as a common way to feel connected to others or cope. Not at all unusual in trauma.
I've been raising up my hands
Drive another nail in just what god needs one more victim
People with trauma and in these situations (which are pretty brilliant ways to survive, as frustrating as they are) are often not capable of self compassion until they’re taught how. So their first response is to say “I know. I’m doing it to myself. I keep putting myself in these situations.” They are loathe to identify as victims and blame themselves. If you understand why, this makes perfect sense: The opposite of self blame is admitting that sometimes things are out of our control. For someone who is anxious about being able to protect themselves and navigate the world this is unbearable. So, they blame themselves: If it’s under their control, even with self blame and loathing, it’s more comfortable because they hold the power. It’s dysfunctional but brilliant!
Why do we crucify ourselves
I crucify myself
I think, trauma or not, we all have some level of self-talk that may not be useful. Why do we do this? It’s a pretty good question. (Yes! There’s an answer!) That voice, the critical one, is grown from every time someone criticizes- either overtly verbally or through behaviors or setting expectations. You’ll often hear it referred to as “demons” but it’s actually your friend. If you can police yourself, it keeps you off of the radar of others so that you’re not on their radar/abused. So, your brain takes notes of what is unacceptable and polices itself so as not to be a target.
Nothing I do is good enough for you
In codependent relationships, or really any relationship where abuse or criticism is involved, it can be a nasty cycle of entering into an unhealthy relationship already having low self worth, self criticism, and relational fears which are then fed by the dysfunctional relationships behaviors of criticism, triggering, etc. It isn’t uncommon to hear “I love him/her but nothing I do is good enough. I know I should go. I’m doing this to myself.”
And my heart is sick of being in chains
This is self explanatory. Nobody likes being a captive of another person or their trauma.
Got a kick for a dog beggin' for love
Those who have been abused are often quite thirsty for love. This desperate energy can be off-putting to others and often creates attachment problems (a blog for another day!) The worst part is that the dysfunctional relationships that come with these problems only reinforce that sadness, isolation, and frustration that comes from wanting so desperately to connect and being rejected consistently.
I gotta have my suffering so that I can have my cross
To me, this line is interesting. One can’t carry victimhood without being a victim first. Many of the people who come through my office find the idea of having been a victim distasteful. However, there are others who find some gain from victimhood. It’s called “secondary gain”- any positive advantage that accompanies physical or psychological symptoms. For example, being able to miss work, avoid military duty, or collect disability checks.
I know a cat named Easter he says
Will you ever learn you're just an empty cage girl
If you kill the bird
This, to me, is the crux of the issue that is codependency. There is no YOU if you allow
yourself to simply be what others want you to be. You lose your opinions, your quirks, your otherness. You’re safe, but at the loss of self.
I've been looking for a savior...
Looking for a savior...
I've been raising up my hands...
Got enough guilt to start my own religion
Many people with trauma are fantastic self-guilters and self-shamers. They’ve got massive mental archives of recordings of other’s guilting them. They learn to do it to themselves, again, with the protective voice. Guilt and shame are incredibly good social control mechanisms. They don’t leave a mark and are very hard to prove. They also allow for plausible deniability. “I didn’t say anything, you did that to yourself.” (Disapproval does not have to be verbal to be picked up on.) Once they learn to offload the responsibility they take for other’s emotions this clears up and they are no longer controlled in this way.
Please save me
Why do we...
The difficulties that come with trauma are many and complex. When I started this blog it was about one thing: Codependency. However, this concept has other concepts that go with it: the fight/flight behaviors, attachment difficulties, social and psychological control, and so much more. It’s a lot to handle with guidance and can be nearly impossible to navigate fully and thoroughly without help. There is no hero. You have to ave yourself. Don’t be shy about reaching out for help to heal.