Did you know there is a great framework for avoiding people-pleasing and codependent relational patterns that was developed from the successful Fellowship 12-step programmes pioneered by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA)?
Codependents Anonymous (CODA) offers a similar roadmap, providing a transformative path for those of us seeking to break free from the chains of codependence.
What is codependence?
This personality trait is characterised by an excessive reliance on others, for both approval and our sense of identity. Codependence often involves an unhealthy focus on meeting others' needs at the expense of our own well-being.
I liken it to being in a cell – one of our own making. When the bars come down, we are emotionally trapped and reliant on others; and instead of relying on our own self preservation, strengths and autonomy, seek to be guided, validated or rescued emotionally by others.
Codepdenent traits or behaviours – typically linked to trauma, or at least, unhealthy patterns of relating within our family of origin - manifest in various ways, from caretaking and controlling behaviours, to low self-esteem and an inability to set healthy boundaries.
Many codependents engage in relationships with people that are manipulative, and potentially narcissistic in character. (Narcissistic people and codependents can feed on each other’s needs, and develop complementary roles. The codependent has found a person they can pour themselves into, and feel validated or completed by - and the narcissist has found someone who will always put them first, and give them narcissistic ‘supply’.)
Using 12-step methodology
What I love about the 12-step programmes within AA, NA and CODA (which are essentially the same steps in principle, just replacing or interchanging the foe or challenge that overpowers us – which is ‘alcohol’, ‘our addiction’, and ‘others’, within AA, NA and CODA respectively) – is the idea of acceptance, change and conscious contact.
Briefly, these are the 12 Fellowship Steps, paraphrased in my own words:
1.Admitting powerlessness (I personally prefer the phrase ‘overpowered’, where codependence is concerned); 2.Believing in a higher power, such as intuition; 3.Turning your will over to your higher power (also letting go of the need for control); 4.Making a moral inventory (ask ourselves - what are our cyclical actions, behaviours and relationship styles?); 5.Admitting wrongs, and taking accountability; 6.Being ready for change (also letting go of negative patterns); 7.Humbly asking for change (you cannot overcome codependence (or addiction) alone! Who can support you, as you heal?); 8.Making a list of amends (taking responsibility for past actions); 9 Actively making amends – what direct action can I take – do I need to apologise to anyone – or forgive myself, maybe?; 10.Continuing our personal inventory, especially around unhelpful patterns and behaviours – this recovery is a day to day intention; how will I NOT be codependent today? Can I be either independent, or interdependent, with my friends, colleagues and family?; 11.Seeking connection via meditation and ‘conscious contact’; 12.Service and spiritual awakening, i.e. carrying this message to others, and practicing these twelve principles to keep being ‘awakened’.
These steps provide individuals with a comprehensive guide to self-discovery, healing, and spiritual growth, and I believe are valuable tools for ANYONE looking to heal; not just as a tool within addiction recovery.
Acceptance, change and conscious contact
For anyone who has worked with me as a client, these key points of acceptance, change and conscious contact as themes within talk therapy sessions will ring very true! Much of the work of Hypno-CBT and in fact many models of talk therapy address issues around acceptance of ‘the way things are’, or have been, and some aspect of growth or change. Within hypnotherapy, there’s an important focus on conscious contact via hypnosis and meditation. We are exploring, rehearsing and imagining key themes, and also using our unconscious to share important information with us, whilst also ‘quieting the mind’, as they say in Narcotics Anonymous.
So if you have noticed codependent patterns in your familial, intimate or work relationships, and especially if you find yourself in some kind of relationship with someone with narcissistic traits, here are some steps to follow, based on the Fellowship steps, to help create a new pathway of behavioural change.
Admitting we have been overpowered
By honestly seeing the dynamics in the relationship, we can see our own part – being overpowered must have served us, somehow! We can’t move on from the constraints of codependence until we recognise that we have somehow allowed ourselves to become overpowered. (But no judgement here please! These patterns developed in childhood, we used them to defend our emotions and keep us emotionally safe, or at least safer (for example, being an emotional caretaker or others, to avoid rejection) – hence, were overpowering.)
Believing in a higher power
This doesn’t have to be religious – it could simply be personal instinct, nature, or some kind of higher entity. I quite like the phrase ‘personal power’. Something powerful within us.
Turning our will over to our higher power
Here’s where we try to relinquish the need for control, and stop trying to chase something in relationships that doesn’t fulfil us, or that can never be achieved. Could we take back our personal power, reconnect with it? Can we forgive people or periods from our past, and accept ‘what was, or is?’ Do we have to carry past wounds and / or resentments?
Make a moral inventory
What actions and behaviours have we played a part in? If we are engaging with a narcissist, how have we served them? What is it about ‘the way we are’ that people (in both positive and negative ways) need, or enjoy? If this is a dance, what are my steps, and what are theirs?
This is about taking accountability; it takes two to tango. Without judgement, how could I do (or have done) things differently? For example, if I have held onto angry feelings towards people, what’s underneath that? What was my part in the relationship or situation? This can mean stepping outside of the Karpman Drama Triangle, which models patterns of unhealthy relating between individuals, pictured below as a graphic; (listen to our drama triangle podcast for more.)
Being ready for change
How do I let go of negative patterns? This is thoroughly explored in Hypno-CBT (and indeed CBT or cognitive behavioural therapy) work. What are my patterns around thoughts, emotions, sensations or embodied aspects, and behaviours? For example, a typical codependent pattern with a narcissist is: I try to increase connection by sharing how I feel; the narcissistic person feels attacked, and denies my experience; I feel affronted, and shut down my feelings; the narcissistic person punishes me by withdrawing, disconnecting, or devaluing me somehow; so I try to increase connection, and the cycle continues.
Humbly being ready for change
You’re hopefully ready for change, but you cannot easily overcome codependence alone – seek a talk therapist, attend Codependents Anonymous (CODA) meetings, or research literature on the subject of codependence. Seek help and support from people who will understand where you are on your journey. Pia Mellody’s work is a great place to start.
Consider what amends need to be made, and set boundaries
Take responsibility for past actions and set new boundaries – which relationships serve me and are mutually healthy? How can I change how I react to people?
Are there relationships I need to end or draw back from? Do I need to apologise to anyone? Or forgive myself?
Actively make amends
Now put these ideas into action. This means many new and (possibly) uncomfortable new boundaries with people. Relationships may drift apart, end or change, while new ones may blossom. Uncomfortable conversations will undoubtably take place!
Continuing our personal inventory
We’re a recovering codependent EVERY DAY. What can I do today, to look after myself? If the familiar feelings of self-doubt or victimhood start showing up, what self-care could I put in place? What behaviours could I change?
Seek connection via meditation and ‘conscious contact’
Meditation can be very beneficial (although it isn’t for everyone, and humans do ‘see’ and process their imaginings differently). Talk to your therapist or hypnotherapist about what types of meditation or focussed attention exercises could work for you. Start to build a relationship with your personal power, and trust your intuition.
Consider service and spiritual awakening
Codependence is characterised by an excessive reliance on others for approval, and our sense of identity. So can we find that approval in ourselves? Can we serve others without needing praise or validation; can we ‘do’, carry out, achieve, work and create energy or action that serves a wider cause? Can we ‘carry the message’ of self-autonomy and help others, but not in a 'rescuing' way?
And how do we continue ‘conscious contact’ – what meditation practices would suit me? Would something like yoga serve me, that involves somatic practice?
I hope these musings have been useful. Following this roadmap for healing has been proven to work within the field of addiction, and can be equally useful for self discovery and healing from codependent patterns of relating.