I was raised in a cult, in what might be euphemistically called a “dysfunctional” family, and I work in a school district I’m pretty sure is run by psychopaths.
I have a lot of experience with sick organizational structures.
It’s a topic that’s already been approached–pretty thoroughly, in fact–by other writers and other movements.
The 12-step movements have looked at one manifestation of it–when a group of people are organized around a person with an addiction. Codependency No More readers have looked at a slightly different part of the same problem: the person involved with the addict.
But addicts are only one part of a sick organizational structure, and they aren’t required.
Instead, what is necessary for this kind of system to develop is a narcissist or someone with a very similar illness that includes high degrees of grandiosity, such as psychopathy or borderline personality disorder. The addict is sometimes the narcissist in the alcoholic family. Sometime the addict is simply the person expressing the pain on behalf of the family regarding the harm the narcissist is inflicting on everyone. The sickness in the family is likely to continue even if the addict comes clean if the narcissist remains a part of the group, because it is the narcissist who is the source of the problem.
And that is something the codependence movement does not and cannot account for. Because the pain in the family is not the direct result of the addiction. The addict is the proximate cause, but not the underlying cause. The pain in the family is the direct result of the narcissist.
Codependence information talks about rules that are used to govern an individual’s behavior.
The Rules (from http://www.craiglpc.com/pdf/codependence.pdf)
1. It’s not ok to talk about problems. This results in learning to avoid problems.
2. Feelings are not expressed openly. The result is coming to believe it is better (safer) not to feel. Eventually we get so cut off from self that we are unsure what we feel.
3. Communication is often indirect, with one person acting as a messenger between two others. Using someone else to communicate for you results in confusion, misdirected feelings, and an inability to directly confront personal problems.
4. Unrealistic expectations: be strong, good, right, perfect, make us proud. Doing well and achieving is the most important thing. Enough is never enough. This results in creating an ideal in our head about what is good or right or best that is far removed from what is realistic or possible. This leads us to punish others and/or ourselves from not
meeting our expectations.
5. Don’t be selfish. We view ourselves as wrong for placing our own needs before the needs of others. We end up trying to feel good by taking care of others.
6. Do as I say … not as I do. This rule teaches us not to trust.
7. It’s ok not to play. We begin to believe that the world is a serious place where life is always difficult and painful.
8. Don’t rock the boat. The system seeks to maintain itself. If you grow and change, you’ll be alone.
These are the rules created by someone who uses others in order to bolster their own fragile egos, who wants endless amounts of attention and adoration, and takes no responsibility for his or her own life, needs, or feelings and expects others to do so instead.
If you get a group of people together who are familiar with these rules, who have internalized these rules, they will continue to live by and enforce them, because the rules are not merely rules any longer–they are a moral compass. People who have adopted this moral compass feel guilty when they don’t live by them, and because lack of boundaries is an important part of this way of doing and being, they feel guilty when someone else breaks the moral code as well.
In addition, groups organized around these rules are likely to be focused on external structure, rather than authenticity or integrity, because members who can tolerate being in these groups lack internal structure of their own. They are most often disordered people themselves–who by definition lack a normally developed self–or those who have spent a great deal of time in contact with them, and consequently have been unable to develop a normally functioning self.
The focus on appearance in the cult I grew up is not an accident.
In other words, they are very often attracted to strong ideologies. They may, on the other hand, be obsessed by detail, paperwork, procedure, and policy. Either way, sick organizational structures are typically driven by rules rather than goals.
Sick structures share certain other attributes as well. Open discussion or debate is not allowed. Differences of opinion will either not be expressed at all, or will be heated, unpleasant, uncivil debates that often end in retaliatory actions by whoever has more power.
Sacrifice is expected and praised. Balance, sanity, and self-care will typically be cast as some form of selfishness. Consequently, burn-out is common. You may see high degrees of turnover in organizations with sick structures. Families have massive blow-outs–often over frustration at being asked to give more than members can give–that result in factions that won’t speak to each other. They will later make up.
Lying is not uncommon. Narcissists and similar personalities do not understand that truth has an objective existence outside themselves. They genuinely believe that if they want something to be true, it is true. And because they do not tolerate boundaries, they do not tolerate anyone who contradicts them. No one else can believe something the narcissist doesn’t. So the lies will tend to be perpetuated by others.
If you find yourself in a sick structure, it may be you have some work to do yourself and a sick structure at first seemed comfortable and resonant for you. Or, If it was an accidental placement and you simply did not know, you are in great danger of becoming sick yourself. If you remain well, you can expect to be shunned, fired, or otherwise cast out of the group.
Babiak, P. and R. Hare. (2007). Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work. HarperBusiness: New York.
Beattie, M. (2006). Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself. Turtleback: St. Louis, MO.