Reader Letters #1, Part 2

[This is a long post, so to make it easier to read you may want to hit the “Print This Post” link above the post title.]

Before starting, I want to make it clear that I am in no shape or form a mental health professional and have zero credentials in such that area. If lack of credentialed authority is a dealbreaker for you, I highly suggest you stop reading now. I just want to be clear about this, and no advice given in this post is expected to be a substitute for diagnosis from a qualified, talented and empathetic therapist. With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s proceed:

Last week I discussed Bill’s letter asking for advice. You can read the original letter and the first part of my response at this link.

Now I want to talk about how Bill developed his codependent behavior patterns. Different mental health experts have many names for the tendency some people have to attract and accommodate narcissists and other types of emotional vampires. In addition to codependency, this condition is often called enabling, caretaker values, white knight syndrome, rescuer complex, hero complex, etc. (I provide you all these names in case you want to do further research on your own about this dynamic via Google. The more terms you have, the better range of information you can find.)

Before we get started, I’m going to bring you up to speed on some key psychological concepts from a variety of sources that will come into play in discussing your codependency: primary inferiority; secondary inferiority; faulty coping strategies; surrender; overcompensation; avoidance; final fictional goals; false, idealized self; narcissistic injury; repetition compulsion.

To start, let’s discuss Alfred Adler’s concepts of primary inferiority and secondary inferiority.

Primary inferiority is the type of inferiority feeling that defined your childhood. You can also refer to it as your core issues. Everyone as a child unavoidably has some feeling of inferiority, because all children are weak, helpless and dependent. However some children develop a more exaggerated feeling of inferiority growing up than others, sometimes due to perhaps neglectful, abusive or over-pampering parents, sometimes due to comparisons to siblings and other children, or sometimes due to other trauma like physical defects, harsh environments, mental limitations or socioeconomic limitations.

Most people learn deal with this primary inferiority feeling by using one or more of the following three faulty coping strategies as defined by Jeffrey Young, developer of Schema Therapy: surrender (freeze), overcompensation (fight), or avoidance (flight). For example, say my parents intentionally or accidentally, through neglect, bullying or pampering, made me feel growing up that my job is to self-sacrifice and be responsible for their emotions. I may surrender to this feeling and decide to accept these self-sacrificing values, and become a caretaker who seeks out dysfunctional people to fix, and I always emotionally and physically give without ever asking for much in return, hoping one day it will be my turn to receive. This is the codependent’s solution. Or I may overcompensate by rebelling against the idea that I should self-sacrifice, instead choosing to give as little as possible while taking as much as I can. This is the emotional vampire’s solution, particularly Cluster Bs. Or I may choose avoidance (flight) of all situations that involve giving or taking altogether. This is the solution of the paranoid and the recluse.

People often create adult goals when they get older that are based on their primary inferiority feelings and the particular faulty coping strategies they’ve chosen to follow. Adler called these goals that guide our adult quests our final fictional goals. People believe on some level that these final fictional goals will fix whatever primary inferiorities they developed as kids. The codependent wants to erase his feelings of worthlessness by finding someone to please, impress or fix in the way he could never please, impress or fix his parent. The narcissist wants to erase his feelings of worthlessness by always appearing perfect, being a superachiever, demanding things from others and making others serve his emotional needs. And the paranoid or recluse wants to avoid people and the feelings of worthlessness they bring about in him because as a child avoiding his parents wasn’t an option.

Other examples of final fictional goals can include a certain high-status career, sleeping with a certain amount of women, finding a rich man to fulfill one’s Cinderella fantasy, having a certain type of family, living in a certain type of house in a certain neighborhood, having a lot of political power, being a famous celebrity, living a high-profile jetset life, being a celebrated author, or being a spiritual leader. The options are endless.

Whoever you feel you have to become in order to fulfill your final fictional goals is your false, idealized self. This is the mythical person, the symbol of perfection, that you imagine you have to be in order to be found worthy and to overcome the childhood traumas created by your primary inferiorities and eradicate your self-loathing. Many psychologists like Karen Horney and D.W. Winnicott discuss false, idealized selves. Freud also touched on the idea, but called it the “ego ideal.” Dealing with the false self plays a big role in Buddhism as well.

Another important concept is narcissistic injury. This is a very complex concept but for the purpose of this article I’ve going to oversimplify it a lot and say that narcissistic injury is anything that bruises our ego and has the potential to expose our false, idealized self as a fraud either to ourselves or to others. Don’t be fooled by the name, you don’t have to be a full-blown clinical narcissist to suffer a narcissistic injury. We all have an ego or idealized, false self to some degree, and therefore are all capable of suffering narcissistic injury as a result, although the bigger your ego or idealized, false self is, the worse the damage you suffer when the narcissistic injury happens to you.

Secondary inferiority is the pain we feel whenever we suffer narcissistic injury from failing at these adult goals we created for ourselves and feel unable to live up to our false selves. Not only do we end up feeling the current failure, the second inferiority, but we end up having our childhood buttons pressed as well, and all the childhood pain from the narcissistic injuries associated our primary inferiority gets reactivated and comes rushing back into awareness as well. We end up reliving our primary inferiority feelings and childhood feelings of self-loathing that we forgot about. This is especially true the more the dynamics of your secondary inferiority mirror the specific dynamics of your primary inferiority.

For example, say your current girlfriend rejects and abandons you. This creates a secondary inferiority. You end up not only feeling that current pain, but suddenly you feel that primary inferiority from your past that lies at your very core and that you worked so hard to repress: the same crushing feeling of worthlessness that your parents used to create in you when they used to emotionally reject and abandon you by offering conditional acceptance.

Repetition compulsion is an idea introduced by psychoanalysis and expanded upon by many mental health professionals that can be summed up by the folk saying “what you don’t complete, you will repeat.” This means that the situations and dynamics we had growing up, whether functional or dysfunctional, are what are the most comfortable to us, and we will feel compelled throughout our lives to seek out and repeat similar situations and dynamics in our adult relationships, often even when we believe we’re setting out to find the exact opposite of our childhood experiences.

Repetition compulsions are especially pervasive when you’ve built up a lot of defense mechanisms over your life to avoid dealing with your core issues head-on. It can be one of the most pervasive and counterintuitive self-sabotaging strategies we have to deal with in our lives.

So Bill, back to you and your problem:

What you showed in your original email to me was a tendency to get sucked into relationships with vampires and your jealousy problems in those relationships, but these were your secondary inferiorities. They are symptoms, not causes. But they gave me clues as to what your possible primary inferiorities were, and I felt it was more important to address those. That’s why I asked you the questions I asked, and you answered the way I thought you would.

Here I repeat some key paragraphs from you (emphasis added by me):

My parents are divorced, they have been for almost six years now. They got divorced when I was 12. My mother has custody. I’m not sure if that information will help or not, but there it is. My mother alternates between being hard to please, and seeming to almost not care. Whereas my father, he is grudging with approval, that is the best way I can think of putting it. He is a very ‘manly’ kind of man. He is a police officer, outdoorsy type guy. He is also very distant most of the time. I never really know if I have his approval or not. I have known from an early age that my father would be most proud of me in a masculine type of profession such as military or policing. Mom on the other hand, she is uncomfortable with the very idea of me having a dangerous job and would be happier if I had some kind of desk job. Something that made a lot of money.

This is how you developed much of your codependence/enabler issues. You felt you couldn’t consistently please your mother, which created one aspect of your primary inferiority: I am not pleasing to the people who matter to me. At other times your mother seemed almost not to care, which created another aspect of your primary inferiority: I am not inherently worthy of being cared about just for being me. Your dad is grudging with his approval, and you’ve never really sure if you have your dad’s approval or not. This creates yet another aspect of your primary inferiority: I am not naturally worthy of approval from the people who matter to me just for being me. The people who matter to me approve me only grudgingly if at all. There are certain jobs and income levels that you know would make your parents particularly proud of you. This creates another aspect of your primary inferiority: I can only instill pride in people I love if I play certain roles and accumulate the right things. My worth isn’t intrinsic and internally generated but instead is tied to external markers of success and adopting a limited choice of roles

So now we understand your primary inferiorities. But what are the coping strategies you developed for dealing with these problems?

Before understanding that it’s important to explain the concept of the narcissistic family, which is what I think you have. Remember how I said a person doesn’t have to be a full-blown clinical narcissist in order to suffer narcissistic injury? Similarly, people in a family can have some narcissistic traits and issues, yet no one in the family is extreme enough to qualify as a full-fledged clinical narcissist.

I want you to understand that I’m not saying anyone in your family has full-blown clinical Narcissist Personality Disorder. I don’t have enough information on your family to wager such a guess, and I think it’s something for a mental health professional to diagnose. I do feel comfortable saying that your family does have enough traits that the general dynamics of a narcissistic family apply though.

In narcissistic families, the needs and emotions of the parents take precedence over the emotional needs of the kids. In healthy families, the children’s emotional needs are put first. From this article (emphasis and additional comments added by me):

So to explain, a basic goal for most families is to raise healthy children who will one day become independent adults. In a healthy family, parents work to accomplish this task by assuming responsibility for their children’s emotional and physical needs. Over time, parents gradually teach their children to be independent by allowing them to assume responsibility for meeting their own needs in a developmentally appropriate manner. Thus, the primary work of children is to learn to become independent adults. Along the way, they learn to identify and act on their feelings, wants and needs. Parents take care of their own needs or seek help from adults. As a bonus, the children have also learned how to be good parents through the process of observational learning.

In narcissistic families, this basic goal becomes skewed and the meeting of parental needs becomes of primary importance for the family. This twist generally takes place some time after infancy, as the authors point out that most children of narcissistic families were well cared for as babies. In fact, it is mostly likely to occur some time after the child begins to differentiate him or her self from the parents and begins to assert their own needs. This normal developmental process is difficult for parents who are most concerned with fulfilling their own needs as a result of job stress, physical or mental disability, or lack of parenting skills, to name a few reasons [or in the case of Bill’s parents, divorce – T.]

To compensate, the parents fight back, ignoring the child’s needs and at the same time forcing the child to respond to their own by withholding attention and affection until they do so. In this way, the children’s emotional needs go unattended and they are deprived of the opportunity to experience gradual independence and learn about themselves. Instead, they learn to wait to see what their parents expect and then react, negatively or positively, to those expectations. [as a result, they also end up dealing with their adult relationships the same way, by ancticipating needs and reacting accordingly rather than asserting their own needs. – T.]

The consequence of this parenting style is that the children become a reflection of their parents’ expectations and are deprived of the opportunity to be unique. Furthermore, the children learn to ignore their feelings or become completely detached from them altogether. As a result of having no emotions on which to direct their actions, the children become dependent upon others for guidance. This is the process of becoming what the authors term a reactive and reflective individual. [and eventually, a codependent. – T]

The tendency towards reacting and reflecting will follow children of narcissistic families into adulthood. Eventually they are likely to become distressed by their own pervasive need to please others, chronic need to seek external validation, and difficulty identifying their own feelings wants and needs. They tend to suffer from a myriad of emotional stressors including anger that lies just below the surface, depression, chronic dissatisfaction, and poor self-confidence. Many also struggle with indecisiveness as they have learned to make decisions on the basis of other’s needs and expectations. Interpersonally, they tend to share a history of failed romances and have difficulty trusting in others.

So let’s look at some more key excerpts from Bill, and keeping in mind the previous article excerpt, let’s see if the dynamics of a narcissistic family as described above apply to him (again, emphasis and additional comments added by me):

I was and wasn’t blindsided by [my parents’ divorce].  I knew something bad was happening, but not to that magnitude, though the second my father sat us down to explain what was happening, I knew. That was the first and only time I’ve ever seen dad cry. Mom was a wreck for awhile. [Father is crying, mom is a wreck, all in front of the kids, who should be the ones being consoled at this point. The kids begin to feel the need to start worrying about their parents’ emotional states instead of vice versa. – T.] She took it very hard and believed that all the fault lay on her. She seems to be over things now, though I also get the feeling living with me can be hard for her because I look like dad, and have some similar mannerism. [Feeling somehow responsible for the feelings of others, just by his physical appearance and his mannerisms. – T.] I took the divorce hard. I tried for the longest time to step up and be both the older brother and father figure to my younger brothers. [On top of worrying about your parents’ emotional needs, now you feel responsible for the emotional needs of your younger siblings. More examples of putting your own emotional needs second. More examples of developing caretaker values. – T.] One is sixteen..The other is 13, he resented me for trying to step up like that and it created a lot of friction between us. My dad seemed to get over things rather quickly. Within a few months he had a girlfriend (who he is still with) though everybody swears my father didn’t have an affair with her. [You’re father getting over things and moving on so quickly can register as a form of abandonment, even if on an unconscious level. And if you suspect he had an affair beforehand while still married to your mom, this can register as a form of abandoning your family behind the scenes even before they decided to divorce. – T.] My relationship with dad and with mom has been strained ever since… [Between the mother taking things hard and blaming herself and the dad embarking on a new relationship, both parents are too absorbed in their own emotional needs to properly help the kids develop into independent, emotionally healthy adults. – T.]

I became my moms emotional support for awhile. [Once more, you are meeting a parent’s needs instead of vice-versa. – T.] She needed someone to talk to, that much was plain, and most of her friends turned against her after the divorce. Mom vented a fair amount about the divorce, though she tried not to. [Making you her emotional support is a form of enmeshment or emotional incest – T.], or Dad has vented once or twice. The most memorable thing being when he sat me down, and write out on a piece of paper how much he made each month, then subtracted out the payments he made for us. Then the rent and everything else he paid, just to show how little money he had. [The implicit message? “Your needs are a burden and conflict with my needs.” Yet another instance of being taught to prioritize your parents’ needs over your own. – T.] I didn’t really talk to anyone about things. I tried to be strong. [This became part of your coping strategy, a survival tactic -T.] It was insisted that I see a psychologist for a time, but I balked and refused to say anything important. The thing is, about the only person who helps me through anything now is Lindsay, my ex. I mostly felt I had to be there for other people and look after everyone. I felt I wasn’t really allowed to express my own emotions. [This is exactly what the article I quoted above warns about. You’ve been taught to repress your emotions in order to better serve the emotional needs of others. You probably have trouble even identifying your emotions, I bet. – T.]

Using terms from therapist Jeffrey Young’s Schema Therapy model, I’d say your primary inferiorities revolve around feelings of emotional deprivation, abandonment, mistrust, enmeshment, self-sacrifice, approval and recognition seeking. You’ve mostly chosen surrender to these primary inferiority feelings as your primary coping strategy. Additionally, there is a little bit of secret, covert narcissism in the codependent as well. There is a part of the codependent that overcompensates or rebels against the feelings of low self worth by quietly developing a grandiose self-image and magical thinking when it comes to his own powers to heal and fix faulty people and situations.

Through this blend of surrendering and overcompensating , you created a certain idealized, false self that you thought would redeeem and conquer your primary inferiorities from childhood: The guy who doesn’t express or burden others with his emotional needs. The “good guy” who sacrifices and doesn’t hurt people. The “fixer” who helps people and attends to their emotional needs. The guy who derives value from what he can do for others and how perfect he is rather than from simply existing as who he is, imperfections and all.

However because of your repetition compulsion, you are drawn to people who are unable to meet your emotional needs in the exact same way your parents were unable to meet your emotional need. You link loving relationships to the sensations that come with trying to please someone who is hard to please, being emotionally nurturing to someone who can’t reciprocation emotion, and being self-sacrificing. Because these are the types of people you “failed” to win over when your primary inferiorities were created, these are the exact same types of people you are driven to succeed with when making your adult goals. Winning over such people as an adult is a proxy for winning over your parents in childhood. If you win over someone who isn’t emotionally distant or hard to please, then it feels like a hollow victory because you don’t feel like you’ve finally symbolically won over your parents. Winning over people like your parents is a way to prove to yourself once and for all you are no longer that lonely, alienated child and you have finally conquered your primary inferiority by become your idealized, false self at long last.

You’re determined to repeatedly refight the same battle from your childhood until you finally win it. However you keep using the same tactics that didn’t work the first time, while expecting different results.

Based on the combination of your primary inferiorities, your preferred coping strategies and your repetition compulsions, you then created final fictional goals for your false, idealized self that involved:

  • pursuing and remaining in relationships with partners who are emotionally damaged and need your help, advice  and emotional support, yet constantly refuse to reciprocate appropriately;
  • pursuing and remaining in relationships with partners who are emotionally depriving,  commitmentphobic, covertly abusive,  and controlling in the same ways your parents were, and you not only allow this behavior but are even very forgiving of it;
  • giving a  lot to others while not asking others to meet your needs, yet hoping they’ll eventually decide on their own to meet your needs  out of appreciation for seeing how much you do for them;
  • living through and for your romantic partners;
  • acting to win the approval of others while going out of your way to avoid situations where you might have to possibly face rejection;
  • maintaining a flat, emotional exterior when you can, and avoiding situations where you have to be emotionally open and express and discuss feelings (hence why you couldn’t open up to a therapist; doing so conflicted with your false, idealized self);
  • doing whatever you can to avoid emotional and physical abandonment and rejection, even if it sometimes leads to clinging, smothering and jealous behavior that produces the exact opposite effect and drives the other person away;
  • overachieving and seeking perfection through roles, careers and partners who you think will please and impress the people who matter to you.

That is how your codependency and caretaker values were created.

The unfortunate Catch-22 of this however is that you need to find and win over people as emotionally unavailable and conditional with their approval as your parents, or it feels like a hollow victory and your primary inferiorities remain. However, it’s precisely because they are as emotionally unavailable and conditional with their approval as your parents that you’re as doomed to eventually fail with them as an adult as you did with your parents as a kid.

These adult failures create a secondary inferiority, which in turn reactivates the primary inferiority that lies at your very core, and it all comes crashing down and you feel as hurt as a wounded child.

This installment was way longer than I originally planned, so I’m going to add another installment to make it a four part series instead of a three parter. The next part of the series is called “Chemistry,” because part of  your letter describes the incredible chemistry you had with your ex-girlfriend. In the next installment I describe exactly what chemistry is and why it can often get us in trouble. Part four will address another of your questions about whether the pickup artist strategies described by author Neil Strauss in the book “The Game” are the solutions to your problems (short answer: no).

16 Responses to “Reader Letters #1, Part 2”

  1. This is an interesting summary of the technical info I might get from a textbook. I’m going to save a copy – your post is more useful than a wikipedia page.

    I had a girlfriend who called me an “emotional vampire” once. I guess I was pretty heavily into both the overcompensating style.

    As usual, though, I think psychiatry is far too glib. Every possible behavior could be described as dysfunctional in some regard. Everybody can be described as neurotic, but I’m not convinced that anyone is really healthy. Neurotics who get past therapy are just smart enough to stop paying their shrinks, they’re not better or stronger as human beings.

  2. wow – took me a bit to get through that one but very interesting synopsis on codependent behavior. as post above states – most everyone has some for of dysfunction, the difficult part is trying your best to not pass on any dysfunction to your kids, but parenting is not easy, and i think using your instints and TRYING to do your best, keeping yourself in check, staying calm, and considering all persepctives and being present for your children, without messing them up entirely, is in itself a challenge. parenting is hard work, rewarding, but you constantly have to do your best to think before you react. its a never ending quest for doing what you should do, in the best interest of all, and all the while maintaining your sanity.

  3. The biggest question seems to be – what are the solutions to emotional incest. Drawing good boundaries is necessary but not sufficient. It seems like having a new set of “parents” – whose are strong where first parents were weak is essential to heal the wounds.

  4. “I want to make it clear that I am in no shape or form a mental health professional and have zero credentials in such an arena.”

    If I may be so bold, might I ask why? From reading your writings, it’s very clear that psychology/mental health/understanding and analyzing human nature is your primary passion, and that a career in this field would be perfect for you.

  5. It seems like having a new set of “parents” – whose are strong where first parents were weak is essential to heal the wounds.

    That’s exactly what many therapists try to do. Different schools of thought call it different things like inner child work, reparenting, limited reparenting and parental transference.

  6. If I may be so bold, might I ask why? From reading your writings, it’s very clear that psychology/mental health/understanding and analyzing human nature is your primary passion, and that a career in this field would be perfect for you.

    At some point maybe.

  7. Oh man, and I thought I was mostly free of issues.

    I went from having a lot of success with girls to feeling hollow, then decided I needed to work on my core issues and got a girlfriend. Guess what, I picked one hard to please and narcissistic, and of course failed at it again. Mother + father 2.0.

    And right now Im working hard to be famous etc, so besides loving what I do, Im for sure operating from an inferiority / overcompensating + paranoid frame.

    So what to do? how do I heal this stuff. Im always in pain. Sometimes its great for making music. I meditate or do stuff I love (ehrr. avoidance?) and it goes away. Then something triggers again.

    I think I got the picture. I´d like to know if you have a method to get rid or solve or transmute or whatever has to happen.

  8. “At some point maybe.”

    Fair enough; but speaking from personal experience, please make that point sooner than later. I ran from my passion for a long period of my life, and am only now beginning to fully comprehend the implications of it, and thus, pursuing said passion on all 8 cylinders.

    I learned the hard way the old idiom that the more you run away from something, the more it is likely you are supposed to do it/confront it.

    I could be just projecting, but I wanted to get that off my chest anyway because I think you’ve got a real gift for this sort of thing.

  9. Wow. Excellent summary, and for the volume of information here, this is actually quite short and to the point. This is more helpful than any conversation I’ve ever had with my therapist (so far).

    I guess my issues mirror those of the letter writer pretty closely (though my circumstances do not). And I wish I had Yohami’s problems, I’m usually in pain, but feel powerless to attract anybody.

    So what does one do? I’m working to improve myself (so I have honestly earned qualities that I can invest my self-image in), and I know I need to accept myself where my reality and my idealized false self image differ (not sure exactly how to do that, though…) It seems like building a strong, realistic, healthy self-image is essential. Without it, I’m a bitch for external validation, particularly that of women (which, in perfect irony, makes me unattractive and unlikely to get any, which results in a self-feeding black hole of misery.).

    But how do I lose this need to finally resolve my parental issues? How do I deal with the emotional thrill of finding a new broken person and ‘clicking’ with her? It’s the most powerful and compelling feeling in my life. I see why it’s always followed by the most devastating crushing pain, but understanding it is a long road away from not feeling it. Learning is not doing.

    How do I work this out?

  10. Thank you for the excellent summary of co-dependance and its origin in the narcissistic family. I have been trying to help some teenage cousins- giving support, advise, correcting them when they are out of line, etc. This article gives me names for what I see in their family history. Sometimes, naming things gives you power over them. I look forward to the rest of the series.

  11. I couldn’t stop reading this article today. Every time I had a minute to myself, I opened it because you hit about 9/10 points about my life in this article. Although my parents aren’t divorced, my father consistently talks about leaving the family and moving out, for x,y,z reasons.
    Can’t wait to read part 3

  12. “Capitalist society”? America hasn’t been a free market capitalist society for like 100 years, it’s a socialist/statist society. Since the founding of the Federal Reserve and then FDR’s New Deal and at an especially elevated rate since the baby boomers social revolution in the 1960’s. Where do you think feminism comes from? It comes from socialism. The whole concept behind it is that the ‘patriarchal’ male-led family is the form of social organization through which supposedly exploitative capitalism is possible. Feminism is part of the social politics of the left. Capitalism is two or more people engaging in voluntary exchanges, freely without intervention or coercion from the government. That is not how society is run, we have a government dominated society. & feminism is taught in government funded Women’s Studies programs in colleges. Not to mention it’s a huge influence on the socialist government school system. Capitalism is the *solution* to feminism, not the cause of it.

  13. amazing work, T.

    i am moving on to part 3.

  14. T, how did you learn so much about psychology?

  15. Wow! I am female and recently out of a relationship with a narcissist. You looked into my soul on this one. I have been grappling with the issues of codependency that you, very accurately, portray in this article. Thank you for laying it out so well. You may not be a mental health professional but you have thought this one out expertly. Kudos sir. Well done.