How some pennies can drop
Sometimes I describe a certain scene to a person, couple or family I am working with and I can almost hear the pennies drop as it offers them a way to understand the hurt and dissatisfaction they have been feeling within their relationships.
It goes like this.
Imagine you are playing on a fruit machine, the kind of thing that sometimes gets called a “one-armed bandit”. It might have colours and lights, jingles and rhythms and three wheels that spin and stop. And spin again and stop again. You are inserting coins into it. Pulling on the handle that sets the wheels turning. Pushing and nudging buttons to try to manoeuvre some advantage.
And somewhere in the back of your mind you can remember that there was once a big pay-out from this thing, when coins fell down in a clatter of what felt like reward for all that investment of time, attention, effort and resources. Jackpot!
So you keep finding more coins and sliding them into the slot, keep pulling the lever, keep pushing and nudging because you are sure that if you just get it right again you’re bound to get another hit.
And keep dropping….
As it goes on and on, as you dig deeper and deeper into your pockets, you get frustrated, resentful, confused, stressed. You wrack your brains for a better way to crack the method of how to play this game. For brief moments you think you understand and a short-lived wave of relief comes over you. But pretty soon the fruit machine seems to have cottoned on to your “system” and has changed the way it was behaving before.
You start to calculate what you are losing and the shame and loss of that makes you try even harder to figure how to make this darn thing respond to you.
Every now and then the despair becomes too much and you slow down, take stock, and make one last attempt at getting something back. And suddenly – there! In a loud clatter, some coins drop down and you have just enough hope, and pennies, to try again. Surely this time you have cracked how to get back what you have put in.
But it is only a matter of time before you hit broke, despair and resignation again, only to be pulled back in by ever decreasing scoops of clattering coins that the fruit machine reluctantly spits out whenever you say “I’m done. No more. This isn’t working for me.”
And is it really the fruit machine’s fault? After all, it’s just doing what it always does. Who said that putting enough effort and money into this thing was going to bring you a sense of a balanced investment and return?
Love is a different currency.
When I describe this scenario, you may very quickly recognise that the behaviour is not working. That continuing in this way will only cause more loss, resentment and shame. Somehow it is easier for most people to recognise this when the investment is money and the recipient is an insentient machine.
So what has that got to do with the investment of love in our relationships? Love is not a course currency and people are not machines designed to fleece us of everything we have. People are responsive to each other, surely.
But when the patterns of codependency have taken hold in a person’s life they have started to unconsciously become like that person, shoving money into a heartless slot machine, unable to stop. Trying again and again, in infinite combinations, to give enough, in the right way, so that finally, surely one day, they will get back from other people what they have been endlessly putting in since, well, it may may seem like, since forever.
I hear “Maybe it’s me who’s a loser, unlovable, unworthy. Why else do I not get loved back when I give so much and try so hard.”
Sometimes we have to stop to consider, is it really the “slot machine” of the system of people in our life that is doing bad to us? Or are our behaviour, feelings and needs keeping us trapped in an addictive cycle of pain and disappointment in how we relate to people? Perhaps more crucially, maybe this pattern is dictated by how we recognise, communicate and satisfy our deepest needs for love, connection, respect and security.
Damn It! We don’t live in a perfect world.
So how did it get to be like this?
In future posts I will offer insights through various models of developmental psychology, such as Attachment Theory and Adult Attachment Styles, Recovery and 12 Step Psychology, to Evolutionary Psychology and Neuroscience as to how people develop codependent patterns in their relating behaviours and states.
For now, let me tell you about the sort of person who is likely to develop codependent patterns.
When we are very young, we depend on other human beings to have all of our needs met. These are food, warmth and physical safety and, to the developing child, essential needs also include positive attention, affection and soothing when we become afraid, confused or lonely.
Now, maybe our parents were great or maybe far from it, but no parents or caregivers are going to get it right all the time. They are juggling their child’s needs with their own needs as a person. Depending on how good they are at taking care of their own genuine needs, the more capable and available they will be in recognising and responding to those of their child.
If we lived in a perfect world, we’d learn from adults as we grew up about how to know, name, respect and meet our needs, so that we could also healthily know, name, respect and support these in others.
Codependency is not for wimps!
If a child’s caregivers are not able to recognise and respond to the growing child when they need care and soothing then the child has to start to develop ways to manage these themselves in the best way they know how.
Some will learn to do this by freezing out feelings, possibly developing compulsive patterns later on such as using drugs, drink, work, success, sex, to drown out the uncomfortable emotions that are part of every day life.
But some little babes are very clever, sensitive, intuitive and persistent. Some little people, even before they can speak sometimes, begin to notice that they can make the adults around them become less stressed, and in turn pay the baby more soothing attention. They learn all kinds of ways to please people. Watching, smiling, cooing. Their nervous systems become finely tuned to those around them, picking up on the stress of adults and experimenting with how they can make themselves feel more safe by making the people around them feel better.
Pretty soon that little baby adds to their repertoire of people-pleasing behaviours. If the parent has exceptional needs or lives their life chaotically the child soon learns how to take more and more responsibility for how people around them feel.
Some people who have codependent patterns have made a deal with life very early on. If it is their job to make people happy around them then any unhappiness is their fault, evidence of that they have done something wrong. And if it is their fault then, if they just try harder, one day the people around them will be happy enough to turn around and notice them and it will be their turn to get love.
Eventually this clever, sensitive, strong, persistent person only knows how they feel by observing other people around them. If anyone is unhappy they feel anxious, worthless and compelled to try to make it better.
They grow up knowing themselves to be perceptive givers, sometimes they even get praise for it, so they become expert at finding and getting involved with people who are ready to be taken care of. The codependent has an almost mystical talent to attract and get involved with people who are so needy themselves that there never seems to be much left over for them.
And to a person who is fixated on their own needs, like some one with alcoholism, workaholism, or some other pressing reason why they must always come first, the codependent is an absolute gift. Some one who not only tries so hard to “fix” the other person by meeting all their needs, but who is also strong enough to stick around, even on the tiniest morsels of thanks or affection. The codependent has learned to give all they can and get by on receiving very little.
Where’s my jackpot?
And it can be pretty cruel, because the codependent person, while trying so hard to be perfect for others and deny that they expect anything in return, is so often perceived as controlling, manipulative and bitter. The codependent person tries more and more desperate ways to stop people from leaving them. If they give out selflessly they are sure to get love back one day, aren’t they? Surely one day it will be jackpot time for them.
Yet to be around a person with codependence can be far from comfortable. People who need to be needed can force their attentions onto others, creating unwanted obligation, conflict and confusion. It’s as if being with that person brings a constant undertow with them, something draining that others may instinctively pull back from.
Because when the codependent made their deal with life, life did not make the deal back. When the child decided “If I’m good enough, give enough, try hard enough, one day it will be my turn to receive love and care” the world and the people in it never shook on it and replied “Agreed”.
If the codependent person is so invested denying and not knowing their own needs, how should anyone else know what they are either, let alone know how or feel inclined to meet those needs?
For now, here is some good news.
For some time, psychotherapy was less optimistic about the possibility of change in our engrained relating styles, that may have been laid down in the earliest days of our life. We now know more about the conditions and processes that continue throughout life to influence brain activity and structure and enable new learning, behaviour and experience.
Even though our patterns of codependent relating may be biologically, socially and behaviourally wired into unconscious compulsions and head-spinning rationalisations, we are able to learn and develop new ways to relate with ourself and others so that we and the people we relate to can be more satisfied, loving and respectful with each other.
Small, simple steps.
Problems in relating are often big and complicated. Solutions therefore often need us to make changes that at first are simple and small.
In Part 1 of “Codependence, Independence and Interdependence” I invited you to recognise different relating states and to raise your awareness of when, where and with which people you experienced different ways of experiencing and being in your relationships with others.
So that we can begin to recognise and understand the small changes that can start to make a big difference in our relating patterns, I’m going to invite you to get even more observant about your interactions that may resemble patterns of codependency. You may experience these with with loved ones, friends, family, or others – neighbours, colleagues, even internet groups.
Identify when you feel most frustrated or dissatisfied in these interactions. Notice when you get that feeling that you are repeatedly giving something and in return you feel disrespected, unnoticed or even abused.
Take a few moments and ask yourself “What is it that I’m trying to give to this person?”
That’s no trick question. You are probably giving time, attention, tolerance, explanation, patience, energy, care, advice, kindness, freedom. Even in your most frustrated state you are probably trying to extend something of humanity to the person or persons you are caught up with in this dynamic that can feel like all-giving, no-receiving.
You might like to make a note of what you try to offer people regularly in your attempts to make things better between you.
My Jackpot Penny
In Part 3, I am going to tell you about a penny that dropped for me about giving and receiving which changed the way I understood myself and my relationships for good. Call it “insight”, “ah-ha” or just a “blinding flash of the obvious”, but when I had this realisation it was like I’d won a jackpot. And it is so very, very simple.
It changed my life and started me on a road to more genuine love, intimacy and co-operation with people in my life, and feeling that I could be genuinely loved for who I am. I have shared this since with many clients in over 20 years of working as a psychotherapist and it is one of the most profound yet simple adjustments I know of that can make lasting and growing change to our actions, thinking, feeling and quality of relationship with self and others.