Vulnerability to manipulation and narcissistic abuse results from an inbalance in focus between internal and external events. To recover you need to bring the arrow of awareness inwards and prioritise the peace of your own inner world. This is not selfish and is not incompatible with loving and caring for others.
Codependents are hyper-attuned to the external world but neglect to take notice and act upon their own inner world. Your own thoughts, feelings, perceptions, bodily sensations, wants and desires are distrusted and negated. Instead you live in an unhealthy state of reactivity to what you perceive that others are thinking and feeling. Ultimately you try to control those things over which ultimately you have no control.
Codependents have experienced extensive “abuse training” for long periods during their lives often beginning in the sensitive developmental years where they have been trained to prioritise and respond to an abusive caregiver to obtain attention and approval. As a result a person who has undergone this abuse training typically has the following characteristics which means they attract further abusive people and situations and then become trapped unsure of themselves and unable to walk away:
- Distrust of your own inner world – your own feelings, thoughts, bodily sensations and feelings are distrusted. Anything to do with yourself is negated.
- Hyper-attunement to other people – you are extremely attuned to verbal and non-verbal signals which indicate pleasure or displeasure in others .
- Longing for approval – not only are you extremely sensitive to cues which indicate how others are feeling but you are very sensitive to perceived signs which might indicate disapproval and rejection. This triggers an overwhelming sense of shame and worthlessness.
- Toxic shame – a pervasive feeling that there is something wrong with you. You feel ashamed easily and when you have a shame attack you feel powerless as if your whole person is dissolving. You feel consistently worthless and as if you are “not standing on solid ground”.
- Guilt – circumscribing your sense of toxic shame is a sense of guilt that prevents you from focussing on your own feelings and taking action in your own best interests. You easily blame yourself for events which are not your fault. The sense of guilt over prioritising yourself keeps you stuck.
- Dissociation – you are not really aware of yourself or how you feel. Dissociation is the last line of defense when a person experiences extreme, sustained and unresolvable relational trauma or otherwise when the only defense against emotional pain is “psychic death”. In other words, on the unconscious level you have been subjected to so much abuse that you pay the ultimate psychological price for safety. You disappear from your own life. You can’t hurt me because I’m not here to hurt.
- High tolerance for inappropriate behaviour – you under-react to inappropriate or abusive behaviour in others which is related to the next point
- High tolerance for states of cognitive dissonance – cognitive dissonance is the state of mind you experience when you hold two conflicting beliefs. Commonly for the codependent this is something like he/she is good and has my interests at heart along with he/she is bad and means me harm. Codependents attempt to remain in connection with abusive people. There is a gut feeling that this person is bad for you or even dangerous, but you also maintain the belief that they mean well. You have a very high tolerance for this conflicted mental state because this was required during your developmental years when you had no choice but to remain in emotional connection with abusive caregivers.
You are hyper-attuned to other people and neglect you own inner world. You are not able to trust that if you move away from an abusive person there will be anyone else to fill the void of loneliness. You doubt that anyone would want you because your self-esteem is so low. When you suffer with codependency you are caught contorting yourself trying to fix and control situations and people that in reality you have no control over to maintain your connection to people who are bad for you.
These characteristics often play out most strongly in intimate relationships. As a codependent you are likely to get involved with people who initially bombard you with attention which plays to your need for approval. Then when red flags start to arise you distrust your internal discomfort and are able to tolerate the resulting states of cognitive dissonance. Your self-esteem is low and you feel like you need to cling to this person as you feel fortunate to have found someone who wants you so you have great difficulty walking away even though the relationship may be extremely destructive for you.
Codependents have been trained from a young age to tolerate situations and relationships that healthy individuals would walk away from at a much earlier stage.
To make positive changes to your life you need to address the fundamental issue and bring your focus, attention and love inwards towards yourself and your own inner world. By increasing your self-awareness and self-trust you will eventually start to prioritise you inner peace over all other considerations. If you can leave an abusive relationship then do so. If you can’t leave then withdraw your attention from your partner and focus it on yourself. The journey is long and arduous but unlike a long-distance race the most difficult part is getting started. At first you are weighed down by toxic shame, guilt and loneliness. The shame may be so intense that it feels like you as a person dissolve in its presence. It may seem virtuous to stay in this state of being overly focused on other people but in reality by being more in touch with yourself you will have more love and compassion for others not less. You will eventually realise how much suffering you were living with for your entire life and will feel great relief.
“Knowing others is intelligence;
knowing yourself is true wisdom.
Mastering others is strength;
mastering yourself is true power. “
Lao Tzu – Tao Te Ching
To realign your focus inwards I found it useful to establish a meditation practice. In particular the Theravada Buddhist system of Insight Meditation is an ancient practice refined over centuries that provides you with a means to create the concentration to shine the light of awareness necessary to probe your inner world. I found it was especially helpful for me to have a system that I could research and a process to follow that would help me when beginning this inwards journey. Through mindfulness you begin to take care of yourself shining the light necessary to do begin the work of unravelling dysfunctional patterns. When you begin to care for yourself in the light of awareness you can begin the inward journey.
I found the following resources to be extremely valuable in beginning to heal from codependency in helping me to realign my focus inwards:
Meredith Miller’s YouTube channel Inner Integration.
Bhante Gunarantana – Mindfulness in Plain English
Pema Chondron – Start Where You Are
Mindah-Lee Kumar’s YouTube channel The Enthusiastic Buddhist
John Friel PhD and Linda Friel MA- An Adult Child’s Guide to What’s Normal
Christopher Germer – The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion – Freeing Yourself from Destructive Thoughts and Emotions
Vappole YouTube channel – Narcisismo/codipendenza (in Italian)