18 Jan One Simple Exercise to get to Codependent No More!
Healing Toxic Shame Can Heal Your Life
As a Twelve-Step recovery coach I’ve found the journals I kept during the years I dated a narcissist (whom I sometimes delightfully refer to as an Asshat) to be an incredibly helpful tool for coaching clients who’re also in love with narcissists/asshats.
If you frequently feel toxic shame in your relationship, you might be in love with a toxic man. I offer you Exhibit A from this October, 25, 1997 journal entry:
“Last night I got caught in full-blown codependent behavior. I realize that I’m in fear every time I’m separate from Quinn. Fear of when we’ll hook up. Why?”
(Six months earlier I’d caught him cheating with another woman, which was an excellent reason for “why” I had fears when we were apart.
(Returning to the relationship demolished my self-esteem and made me fight with my intuition he might still cheat.)
“Also, I’m beginning to understand why he has all these rules about me not being allowed to come over without calling first. Instinctively, he must feel I would abuse my rights if these rules weren’t intact.”
(Undoubtedly Quinn set these “rules” so he could see other woman. But I was fearful he’d leave if I brought it up. So I shamed myself for being suspicious and worried.)
“Last night, I drove all the way to our friend Frank’s late, in the hopes I could hook up with Quinn and make sure he hadn’t met some beautiful femme fatale (like when he met me) and end up in some bar with her all night.”
(Or her bed.)
“So I get there about 10 p.m. and Quinn has already left to come home so he can be with me. When I call him he asks why I went to Frank’s. He’s caught me red-handed. I have to admit I was checking up on him.
“I felt completely ashamed of myself and vowed (once again), no more checking up on him. No wonder he’s dragging his heels.”
(I’m blaming myself for his inconsistent behavior in the hopes that if I can twist myself into the perfect pretzel shape, he’ll stop “dragging his heels” in the relationship.)
“The shame I felt was so intense … it’s so awful to see my weakness so blatantly exposed. Living with this fear is tiresome. I just want it to go away. Quinn has been quite sweet and even when he withdrew this last time, there was very little animosity.”
(I’m giving him credit for being “sweet” even as he continues withdrawing, being inconsistent and acting suspiciously around his need for privacy. Every time I behave codependently by “checking up on him,” I drown in toxic shame.)
I didn’t have a coach in my life at that time that could help me in healing toxic shame so I could invite a much healthier, more loving relationship.
Toxic shame is always learned in childhood.
One or both of our parents either neglected us, or abused us, or made us feel we were somehow wrong or that we should never express or even have negative emotions like anger, sadness or fear.
To heal toxic shame we must heal the inner child that suffered the original pain.
It’s important when we behave codependently that we try to locate the source of the original pain and shame.
In my case, I remembered an incident that occurred when I was eight-years-old.
My mom and stepdad were unhappily married; my mom reacted by drinking too much on a nightly basis; often erupting into rageful rants at and even being violent toward my stepdad.
She sometimes went missing for stretches of time and because of the volatility in the home and my caretaking relationship with her, I worried that she might be dead.
One day I came home after school to find my mom wasn’t home and hadn’t left a note. At first I didn’t worry, but as the hours ticked by and night fell, with still no word from her, I became increasingly certain something terrible had happened.
In a panic, I went into the dark and from house to house to see if I could find my mom. Knocking on the doors of neighbors I didn’t even know.
Finally, I found her drinking with new neighbors in their basement.
When I burst into tears, my mom found it kind of humorous; she told me I was overreacting and too sensitive. Then sent me home, saying she’d be home shortly.
She made light of my fear and ensuing sadness, which taught me it was not okay to have these feelings. That I was mistaken and foolish to feel abandoned, and afraid for my mother’s life.
These types of incidences occurred throughout my childhood, so I had a river of frozen pain I’d never addressed when I became an adult. I’d never grieved those childhood wounds, which set me up for adulthood codependency.
John Bradshaw, author of the seminal, Homecoming; Reclaiming and Championing Your Inner Child says,
“Grief work is the legitimate suffering we’ve been avoiding with our neuroses … if you are in an active addiction (as I was with my toxic boyfriend) you are out of control and out of touch with your true feelings.
“One way adult children avoid their legitimate suffering is by staying in their heads. This involves obsessing about things, analyzing, discussing, reading and spending lots of energy on trying to figure things out.
“By obsessing on things, one does not have to feel. To feel anything is to tap into the immense reservoir of frozen feelings that are bound by your wounded child’s toxic shame.
“To put it very simply, our emotions are our most fundamental powers. We have them in order to guard our basic needs. When one of our needs is being threatened our emotional energy signals us.
“You have to be angry, (afraid, sad) if you want to heal your inner child … The feeling of feelings is what is crucial. You can’t heal what you can’t feel.”
A Simple, Yet Profound Exercise
When I work with codependent clients in healing toxic shame and they’re obsessing about, analyzing, discussing and spending lots of energy on trying to figure out their man, I ask them to find a quiet safe space where no one will interrupt them.
I ask them to get in touch with the “true feelings” they’re having, which are often anger, fear and sadness.
Then I ask them to think of a time in their childhood when they felt these feelings.
- What age were they?
- Where were they?
- Who caused these feelings?
- Were they told things like, “Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about!”?
- Or were they told they were too sensitive, acting “like a baby,” or misinterpreting the situation?
- Were they made to feel ashamed about their feelings so they learned to deny and shove them down?
Finally I suggest that they go into the feelings – rather than trying to shove them down — and allow themselves to truly feel them.
This might result in angry yelling, or a well of unshed tears, but it’s important to feel the feelings until they are spent.
(If you were sexually molested or physically abused as a child this exercise should be done under the guidance of a trained professional.)
What usually happens is an emotional sobriety descends that can last for several hours and even days.
Much of the codependent behavior subsides in the toxic relationship and for many clients this is the beginning of reclaiming themselves and their lives from their addiction to the narcissist.
It’s not a quick fix. (And extreme anger should be released privately, never in order to hurt another person.)
Clients may need to do this exercise many times over many months in order to resolve their frozen emotional pain. But, it is an incredible exercise for shedding neuroses, and the addiction of codependency they inspire.