Outsourcing Our Emotions: How We Become Addicted & Codependent
Founder and Clinical Director of CHARTER
I’m an addictions therapist. I’m also a recovering addict. I’m a parent and I do a lot of work now in the field of recovery and looking at addiction, looking at mental health, and most importantly, looking at early intervention and what is the one thing that we could really home in on, that will be the best preventative measure. And I think that that falls into those two little words: self-esteem.
But self-esteem is a very well-known phrase, but what actually is it? And I think that in its kind of core, self-esteem is how I feel about myself, and therefore how I treat myself, therefore how I behave.
When I say to people, “I’m a recovering addict,” they say things like, “What were you addicted to?” And I kind of yawn, you know? It’s not about what I’m addicted to or was addicted to, this is about why would I use something outside of myself, in an attempt to fix how I feel, to the detriment of myself?
So my first message to you, really, is that addiction isn’t the drug of choice, of which, I believe, there are probably 15 or 16 regular manifestations of addiction. But it is the pattern of delegating, of outsourcing your emotional process on to something else that backfires.
So there’s nothing more normal than any of you, or indeed anyone who might be sitting next to me at a dinner party who’s having a drink, and they’re having a nice time and relaxing, and they turn to me and say, “What do you do for a living?”
And I say, “You might want to finish your drink first” because my experience is that you will get really defensive when I say, “I’m an addictions therapist!” I either get, “Oh, do you know what? I think that I’ve been drinking quite a lot” or “I’m worried about my daughter,” whatever, or I get, “I don’t usually drink this much, I’ve just had a really big week.”
We’re very defensive about being seen, really being seen. You know, when you walk down the street you trip over, the first thing you don’t do is go “Ow,” the first thing you do is say, “Oh, who saw that?”
But if you’re like me or like millions of other people like me, and you have had, if you like, an upbringing or an experience in your life that means that very early on, your experience of vulnerability was one that left you afraid and uncertain, and actually, what you wanted to do was get out of your skin, leave that behind, and be someone else. And maybe, in that kind of naught to six years, you might want to be a ‘good girl.’ Let’s just say that in the environment where there is a family and there is somebody of high need — it’s nobody’s fault — but there’s somebody who has high need in that family, they’re depressed, or they’re anxious, or they’re angry, or they’re unhappy, or they’re ill in some way.
Let’s say the child has a sibling who is high-maintenance, and they see all the family resources looking after this child, all of them worrying about this child. And the sibling will say, “Do you know what? I don’t want to ask anything of the family system. I’ll give to it; I’ll be a good girl.
So when mum needs help, I’ll say: ‘I’ll lay the table.’ ‘I’ll go and get my brother for supper.’ ‘That’s okay. No, I’ve already done my homework.’
And my mum says, ‘Where would I be without you? Where would I be without you? You’re my good girl.’ And I’m all validated.
And then I go to school, and I do tidy-up time, and when a new girl comes in I show her around. I’m quite happy to do that. And the parents hear: “Such a nice child to have around. Really doesn’t get into all of those cliques.”
And then that child goes to secondary school, and this is when I as a therapist meet the parents, who say, “My daughter’s fallen in with a bad crowd.” I don’t really believe in a bad crowd, by the way. My question to the parents is: why would your daughter feel at home around people who are troubled? Tell me. Tell me something about her family background that would indicate why she might feel comfortable around troubled people. Why is it her role to be an emotional shock absorber, a rock, a good girl, a nice girl — “Don’t worry about me; I’ll be all right. Let’s worry about you.”
And I bet your bottom dollar that later on, she will fall in love with someone who is high-maintenance. She will translate those feelings, about who she is and how she feels about herself, as love. Her eyes will meet across the bar against someone, and of course this person is going to be high-maintenance. And they will demand that she stays in that role of caretaker, that she stays in that role of giving — “Don’t worry about me. Let’s worry about you.”
And as a result, she is likely to end up running on empty, because she doesn’t know how to take for herself, and actually, as a child, she learned that: “I’m not going to take from the family system. I’ll just be a good girl. I’ll get my validation that way.” So her giving is conditional: “If I’m a good girl, will you like me?”
So all my giving, all my comforting when you’re crying is: if you’re crying, and I come and comfort you, and you don’t feel better, I feel like I’ve failed. So as your caretaker in this particular role, you will feel obliged to feel better when I start to comfort you.
Now, you might wonder why I’m talking about this, and the reason I’m talking about this is because high-maintenance individuals will always attract the compulsive caretaker. You must always have this formula of somebody else, if you like, picking up the pieces of the other person. The enablement that allows somebody to be the emotional shock absorber, somebody to be sweeping up the pieces after somebody else’s mistakes.
And when I meet those people later on, and they may have children themselves, and the children treat them with no respect, and they say, “Why? Why? I do everything. After all I’ve done for you, and you treat me like this.”
And I look at them and I think, “You’re running on empty. Why are you running on empty, and why is your giving so conditional?”
And they will often present with depression or anxiety, they will present with symptoms that they feel bad about having. And as a therapist, I am saying to you, I would like to go back to look at what is your ability to receive? What is your ability to say, “I need help”? What is your ability to say “no,”? What is your ability to have self-respect, so that you can look after yourself and therefore give generously from a place of abundance, instead of giving from a place that is running on empty, because your giving has come from there not being enough to go around.
And I’m very interested in looking at addictive processes, often anxiety and depression, and working with these kind of diagnoses — but with the person. Yes, we work with people who might want to take medication alongside, but I’m really interested in the person. There is no point in me telling you techniques of parenting for prevention. I can’t tell you those things, unless you get comfortably in your own shoes, and you have self-respect, and you maintain that, because then, whomever you’re talking to, cannot shoot the messenger.
So, when I am thinking about how somebody feels, if I was to ask some of you in the audience how you feel, maybe not now but another time, you might say something like, “Fine.”
And I’m thinking, “Well, I still don’t know how you feel.”
And then you’ll say, “Okay,”
And I’m thinking, “Well, I still don’t know how you feel. What are the feelings you experience?”
And then people often feel embarrassed, or awkward, or, “I don’t know what you’re asking me. I don’t know what you mean by a feeling.”
And I’m thinking, “Really. Stop. How do you feel?”
So, when I was working with a teacher with this child in her classroom, she was very excited, and this little girl used to want attention, she’d go, “Please, please. I’m so excited. I’ll get it, I’ll get it.” Very excited.
And the teacher would say, “For goodness sake, Mandy, will you calm down.”
And the child will be (gasps) — shame.
And we talked about this, so the child would still get very excited, and then she’d start to displace and take hostages and get other people to giggle. And the teacher started to say, “She’s very disruptive.”
And then this girl started to say, “I’m so excited.” Bang. And she’d slam her hand on the desk or on the wall.
And when we were talking, I was thinking, this is her external way of managing her emotions. This little girl does not know how to handle excitement and possibly the other end of the scale, depression. So we need to look at that child and think, “You need to be taught how to handle your excitement, instead of being labeled as difficult.” Because as a parent body, a child is a heat-seeking missile for what they want. I have no idea how many of you are parents, but I am a parent, and I know that children are heat-seeking missiles for what they want. They will come at the parent, as the person who’s going to deliver that.
And the parent, generally speaking, will do one of two things: “For goodness sake, will you leave me alone!”
And the child goes into shame, fear, “Have I hurt my parent?” “What’s wrong with me?”
Or: “Go on, then; do exactly what you want.” Entitled behavior.
So when this parent next time tries to hold a boundary — I’m going to say no — the child will say, “Somewhere around here is that button, that if I press it hard enough, I get what I want!”
And then parents say, “They’re a nightmare.” “I don’t know my child anymore.” “I feel deskilled.” “I’m not in control of my family.”
And I’m like, you know what, take your eye off your kids for a minute because all they’re doing is showing you where your weak point is. If you’re busy doing the washing-up, and you’re kind of stressed, and they come in and start going, “Mum, mum, mum, mum… ,” then you need to know that they have chosen that exact moment because it gives them exactly what they want.
And what you’re going to do is, “Oh, go on then, go on the PlayStation. I don’t care; do what you want.”
“Well, yeah! I got exactly what I wanted.”
If you’re able to stand there and think, “I’m feeling really irritated. I’m feeling like put under pressure,” and you know that, you can actually stand there and think, “I’m getting really cross here,” and you can say, “Listen, I’ve just said ‘no.’”
Now, if your child does not know that you’ve got a ‘no’ up your sleeve, and that you can hold a ‘no,’ they will push, and push, and push. Once they know you can hold a ‘no,’ once they know that you can actually give them a boundary that they can push safely up against, then they will respect it. So if you can stand there and be in touch with your feelings, and instead of behaving like, “Oh, for god’s sake, just go away,” and then they’re off happy, and you’re thinking, “Why am I so upset?” You can actually say, “I need you to calm down; the answer’s ‘no.’”
And then they nag, and nag, and nag, you need to be thinking, “Wow I must have given in a lot in the past, for them to be so persistent.
Not, “Why are you doing this to me?” No.
I’ve set you up for this, and I actually need to start getting a handle on how I behave as a result of how I feel, otherwise I am not going to know me, I’m going to be in resentment against my kids, I’m going to be feeling “poor me,” I’m going to be in that space of expectation and resentment, which is a pernicious cycle.
And then perhaps in comes a husband: “What’s all this going on in here? What’s all this noise?”
And you’re like: “It’s nothing, don’t worry.”
“What you mean it’s nothing? I am trying to get on… What’s she doing on the PlayStation again?”
And you’re just in there, angry, upset. You’re picking a fight now with your husband, you’re feeling isolated. And you’re thinking: “What about me? Why is it always me who has to do everything around here?” And you’ll find that the family dynamics, subtle as they may be, start to fracture a little, and maybe like I did as I grew up, one of these children might start to think that they’re difficult. I was told that I was difficult, as I grew up, and I believed it.
And so somewhere deep inside me, before I was even 13, I believed that if you got close to me, that if you got to know me, you’d find out that I’m not what I look like, that there’s something wrong with me, and I felt that you would reject me. So there’s no way I’m actually going to let you close.
So I used to spend my life playing, performing, people-pleasing, being defiant, being the rebel, being anyone, anything other than me, because if you get close to me, it’s going to hurt.
But suddenly, when I discover something more potent than all those behaviors, that does the job, defends me from feeling vulnerable in front of you, because believe me, I judge how I feel against how you look, and that sets me up to lose because I can’t see your frailties if I’m in my self-centered fear.
If I’m thinking, I’m going to go out somewhere, and I’m full of that fear, and I’m thinking, “I don’t know what to wear, I don’t know anybody there, I don’t know what to say, I’m not interesting, I am not funny and I go into the room with all of that, I’m not looking at anyone else, I’m walking into the room like that. And I’ll probably pick up somebody who’s codependent, a caretaker, so they’d go, “Would you like a drink? Are you okay?”
And they’re looking for someone like me to take care of, and we can stand together, pretending to be at a party together, but actually all we’re doing is preventing each other from feeling vulnerable and isolated.
If I know I am in my self-centered fear, if I know I’m in that space whereby there’s a sense, maybe an early childhood sense that there is something wrong with me, I can actually put my arm around myself, and I can say, “You know, Mandy, I love you. I love you, and I’m going to be with you, and we can do this thing. And it’s not all about you, there are loads of people there, go and chat to someone. Just go and have a conversation with someone; it’s not such a big deal.”
So when we’re treating addiction, sure, we got to get people sober from whatever their addictive pattern is, but then we need to get them out of the self-harming behaviors so that when they look in the mirror, they’re not going, “Oh my god, I’m so wrinkly, it’s disgusting.” No! That is self-harming thinking. I want you to look in the mirror, and I want you to get to know your face; I want you to appreciate the lines on your face like they are the map of your life. Wherever the pain is, wherever the carving is and the shaping is, it’s yours.
And when you look in the mirror to really appreciate that and to make the best friend you can of yourself because if you are friends with yourself, you will not persistently do something to yourself, to hurt yourself over and over again.
In 2006, I got rheumatoid arthritis and I was laid up for nearly a year, and I was unable to walk, unable to move, unable to use my hands, unable to do anything. This friend of mine said, “Have you thought of working the 12-step program around this?” And this is the AA 12-step fellowship program, which fundamentally is about “surrender to help.”
And I was furious! I was lying on this bed thinking, “You don’t understand what it is like!” But I was a captive audience, and I thought, “Surrender to help. Surrender to help.” Oh, take the medication with gratitude; start looking outside of this tiny world of pain that I was living in; and just start committing to each tiny step.
And today, truly, I feel like a complete miracle of all the medication that I’ve taken in the last 10 years to treat this condition. I feel really grateful for the recovery I’ve got, and for the opportunity to be able to say that I know that addiction is known as a chronic relapsing condition, but I don’t agree. I think one of the reasons that it is a chronic relapsing condition is because we are looking in the wrong place. We are looking at the thing that people use, and we are trying to control it.
Now, if addiction is the delegation of my emotions onto something else, if you take that away, I’m just going over here until you’re not looking, and I’m going back there again. Chronic relapsing condition. Unless you teach me how to take care of me.
And how do you do that? Simple things.
When you look in the mirror, say nice things to yourself. And if that’s difficult, get a picture of yourself around six or seven years old, and pop it up in your bathroom, and start to talk to her or him. Start to talk to her. Literally. “Morning.” Hmm, felt really weird.
Thank you very much for this.