I have been thinking about the empath’s contract with the narcissist: it come from one’s early experiences with other people’s minds–usually your parents’ minds. There are two parts to this: the narcissist’s mind and the way the empath understands the narcissist.

I don’t have a handle on this fully, but I do think the narcissist’s experiences are simply very loud. Other people can’t really compete and the narcissist is also very impulsive, very vindictive.

There are these different attachment styles, and if you don’t have a secure attachment, you work out how best to have your attachment needs met in lieu of that. If your parent is preoccupied–busy, sick, depressed or lacking in warmth, you find the best way to get your parents’ attention is to occupy yourself and wait for the parent to need you, so you become avoidant or detached. If your parent responds to your sense of vulnerability and need, it’s best to go with an anxious style and continually cling.

I think with a narcissistic parent, the most effective way for the child to manage that relationship is to be loud. Meet the parents’ unmet attachment needs by appealing to their own need for warmth or affection or specialness. Satiate their desire for safety by offering control. Or even play on their fears of abandonment or social exile by placing yourself at risk.

Pretzel yourself, and you might get lucky enough to penetrate their self-absorption. But step wrong, and their wrath comes down on you.

I think these are C’s assumptions about relationships.

I am starting to realize I am not that familiar with them. My mother, in my inexpert assessment, was a narcissist or had lots of narcissistic traits with a histrionic streak either from borderline issues or actually being histrionic. But my dad was a sociopath, and that is quite different. Yuri was a sociopath, and I think he functioned as an attachment figure too–since he controlled my life.

Or maybe I am and don’t realize it, but there is this other element that comes with the malevolence: don’t notice me. If you notice me, you can do nothing else other than hurt me.


Codependence and Exploitation

What I see in this diagram are methods of control common in exploitative groups. Punishment, withholding, and bribery (with affection, attention, or kindness) are the only ways to get anything done, because no one does anything except out of self-interest. Fairness doesn’t enter into the question, nor does genuine concern. It’s easy to imagine that fixing whatever problem seems to be at the center of all of this might end the exploitation, but it won’t, because exploitation has become the only way members know how to interact.

Codependency has been in our lexicons for four decades, but I wonder what it means still, and I wonder if we’ve misidentified some of its most important features.

The reason I wonder this is that its most important feature seems to be a lack of appropriate autonomy for individuals in relationships, and yet I’ve spent time in cultures where really no one ever attains the degree of independence that has been normal in mainstream American culture for a long time–and maybe most Western cultures.

Outside of WEIRD societies, people continue to seek their parents’s advice and guidance so long as their parents are alive. The idea of following a career or even entering a marriage your parent doesn’t approve of is unthinkably painful to many people–and although some people might do that anyway, it isn’t common. But these families are quite as happy as any other.

But people in codependent relationships are clearly not happy. And so I wonder if the pain that accompanies codependence has nothing to do with dependence or autonomy at all.

In joint families, individuals have little autonomy and even less privacy. Elders make most important decisions, and with more people living in the house, there is little room for individual preferences to play a role in small decisions.
In joint families, individuals have little autonomy and even less privacy. Elders make most important decisions, and with more people living in the house, there is little room for individual preferences to play a role in small decisions.

If you look back at my post on exploitative groups, what stands out very clearly is that those with the greatest power are able to extract the most value out of other members and are therefore the most harmful to others, but that nearly everyone in the group is engaged in some degree of exploitation with others. Most members are both exploited and exploitative of others.

What seems to arise out of that is a value system organized around exploitation. You might see “good,” as my father did, in being the person who has the most power, is exploiting others the most, and is therefore doing the most harm.

Or, you might see “good” as having the least power, exploiting others the least, and therefore doing the least harm (but being harmed the most).

It seems to me codependence is based on the latter understanding of virtue: Codependent people are usually trying to help others, but they help at their own expense, and they often help more than anyone can reasonably reciprocate. So you don’t see interdependence or reciprocity. You see individuals giving without getting much in return–either giving to someone who only takes, or giving in ways that require a great deal of effort by the giver but don’t actually provide that much benefit to the recipient. In other words, what’s being given is depleting, but the gift doesn’t recharge the recipient to the extent that he or she can return the favor.

Basically, codependence starts out as a leech problem. But the exploitative pattern of relating continues even after you rip off the leech.
Basically, codependence starts out as a leech problem. But the exploitative pattern of relating continues even after you rip off the leech.

Sometimes, what’s being nurtured in these relationships is a grandiose self-image or someone’s desire for constant attention. Other times, it is the tremendous demands of an untreated and possibly undiagnosed disease–like alcoholism or borderline personality disorder. But maybe that isn’t the problem either. The problem is exploitation and that far more is being given to someone or something than anyone is getting back.

Exploitative relationships are exhausting. They don’t meet your basic human needs and they don’t leave you with time or energy to meet your own.

And that is why, in Western societies, we notice the absence of meeting one’s own needs first. That isn’t really the defining feature of these relationships. Their defining feature is the drain on the time and energy. In more interdependent cultures, you would notice the failure of other supportive, nurturing relationships as codependent people lose the time and energy to maintain these relationships in the way they normally would.

I don’t know, but I wonder.

New Rules

the_rulesDysfunctional families of all kinds are rule-oriented families. They rely on rules instead of principles. Cults are the same way.

If you look up the 2x2s–the cult I was raised in–you’ll see a reference to all kinds of rules, although the rules varied from place to place, region to region. But there were most definitely rules. Rules replaced compassion and common sense. Rules were there to help you settle things without needing to feel or think.

It can be helpful to devise new rules for oneself as a part of the healing process. These are mine.

1) Don’t hurt people (or animals). Especially not on purpose or when you can help it.

2) Try your best.

3) Know when to let go.

4) Know when to quit.

5) Feel.

6) Stay in touch.

7) Speak up. But use “the three gates.” (Is it necessary? Is it kind? Is it true?)

8) Take care.

You’ll notice some contradictions. That’s because there’s a time and place for everything.

What are your rules?

The Housekeeping 8-year-old: Failure in the Codependent Family

get-children-cleaning-250x150If you grew up with any kind of dysfunction in the family–untreated mental illness, addiction, or simply codependence–most likely you grew up with a very distorted sense of responsibility.  At least one adult in a dysfunctional systems typically fails to take appropriate responsibility for his or her life, and displaces those responsibilities onto others.  The remaining members of the family most often collude with this, adopting responsibilities that are not rightfully theirs, including responsibility for tasks they have no control over.  These tasks, partly because they are so impossible, tend to become all-consuming, which means that those family members trying to do them also fail to manage their own responsibilities.

If you grew up in a system like this, it is likely that you held accountable for carrying out responsibilities that were beyond you developmentally.  It is not uncommon for young children in these households to be expected to carry out not just a few simple chores, but to make full meals regularly or do a large part of the housework.  And the reality is that, while you may have had the mechanical ability to do them, you didn’t have the necessary executive function to do so.   Even an 8-year-old is unlikely to be able to keep his room clean if regular time is not set aside in the day’s schedule for making the bed, putting away clothes, and tidying up the toys.  The ability to plan is just not well enough developed until later.  And then if it wasn’t set aside in early childhood, the habit isn’t there when the child is older.

When 8-year-olds try to supervise 6-year-olds, it can look a little like this.
When 8-year-olds try to supervise 6-year-olds, it can look a little like this.

For most of what I remember of my later childhood–say, after 7–I was in charge of most of the housework in the ground floor of our house.  I recall taking out the trash from every room except the kitchen, cleaning the bathroom, dusting and keeping the livingroom tidy, and washing the dishes.  I don’t really remember when this degree of responsibility happened.  It may have occurred gradually, with chores accumulating over the years.  But I do know that I was so responsible for the house I felt like the housekeeper, and it pained me greatly when my housekeeping fell below par.  Which was, actually, most of the time.

There were a few reasons for this: One, I lacked the executive function to plan and execute the tasks involved, and cleaning ended up taking up most of my weekend.  Which I resented.  And then rebelled against.  And ran off from the chiding voice of my more responsible self to go play.

Also, I had no control over certain aspects of how the house was maintained.  And how could I keep the house clean if the older members of the household kept messing it up?

And that brings me to another point: often, as children in dysfunctional families, we are held accountable for things over which we have no control.  Just as I had no control over whether my father put the newspaper away or left it spread all over the livingroom, you may have been expected to keep your parent happy, although your parents’ moods are outside of your control.  Or perhaps your job was to supervise and control your younger siblings, when you lacked either the knowledge, skills, or authority to discipline them.  But placing someone in charge of something they can’t do is a good way to set them up for failure.

So it’s no wonder that some of us defend our bruised psyches against the painful blows of failure.  We have already experienced too much.

Narcissism, Codependence, and Sick Organizational Structures

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

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.

Remain well.


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.

Unsolicited, Bad Advice

“You have to put it behind you.”

“You have to decide you are free of the past.”

“You need to go out and forget all about it.”

“Don’t go internal.”

“You shouldn’t think so much.”

“Keep busy.”


“Let go.” Perhaps my least favorite myth. Your problems are not birds. They won’t fly away and leave you alone.

Bad advice.  All of it.  But these are real phrases I’ve heard–some of them yesterday, some of them 10 years ago.  They have not always been directed at me, but they were always directed at someone who was expressing a painful emotional state.  They were said with good intentions, and were meant to help.

They don’t.  Not unless your real goal is to avoid solving the problems that are troubling you.  They are ways of maintaining a sickness of the soul without either fixing it or being annihilated by it–every last one of them.  They are what you do when you lack the courage or the tools to deal with life as it currently stands for you.

Here is a further list of how to maintain whatever dysfunction you are trying to maintain.

Tip number 1: Numb your feelings.  If you feel something you don’t want to feel, change the emotional subject.  Engage in addicting or artificially happiness-inducing activities, such as excessive social networking, spending time with unnecessarily dramatic friends or having high-conflict relationships that allow you to keep your attention on problems that aren’t really problems.  Use a substance.  Over-eat.  Obsess over a non-issue, like your appearance (which is fine) or your weight (when it isn’t dangerously unhealthy).  Worry about something happening that isn’t happening.

Tip number 2 Avoid thinking about the problem.  If you don’t think about it, you don’t have to solve it.

Tip number 3:  Distract yourself.  As much as necessary.  (See tips 1 & 2).

Tip number 4: Minimize the problem or imagine it has simpler solutions than are realistic.  It is not “that bad.”  You can fix it with herbs and acupuncture, or a new job, a new diet, religion, or a new dress–anything other than making a real change in yourself.

Tip number 5: Deny the problem.  It doesn’t bother you.  You are past it.  It was a long time ago.  You’ve let it go.  Meanwhile, the problem continues to affect how you think, feel, and act, and you continue to live in ways that are causing you further numbness or pain.  But if you say it isn’t real, you may be able to hypnotize yourself into believing it isn’t.

To backpedal a little, we all do those things to some extent from time to time when we are overwhelmed by a problem or when it just isn’t important enough to face at that moment.  When I am unreasonably annoyed at having to wait in line longer than I would like to buy something I need because I am overtired and cranky, distracting myself is a good temporary solution until I can get my suddenly 2-year-old self home for a lie-down.  It can also buy you time to learn real coping skills when life suddenly hands you more than you are prepared to handle.

If you have just been dealt an important loss or subjected to intense trauma, you may need to shift your attention away from your distress and calm down enough to get the bills paid and dinner on for a while.  It can help to numb out just a hair.  After all, life must go on, even if you wish it wouldn’t.

Distracting, avoiding, and numbing can all buy you a bit of a break from a painful emotional state so that you can keep going.  They aren’t techniques you should never use.

But if they become first-line coping strategies, that can become a permanent state.  They lead to a life half-lived.  One in which your usual, baseline state is distracted, avoidant, and numb.

If you want a different kind of life, my advice is to work hard at solving whatever problem is causing you pain.  This will involve feeling; there are feelings embedded in the problem for you, as well as feelings involved in any attempt to change the self.  But hard work is the only effective response I have ever found.