Reader Letters #1, Part 3

This is the third part of a response to a letter from reader Bill asking for advice. Part 1 can be found here. Part 2 can be found here. You should read both parts before reading this one.

This installment is about chemistry, and what it means.

In Bill’s original letter he stated:

I started dating her awhile back, and the relationship burned hot and fast. Part of the reason it burned so fast was that I was caught up in my emotions and allowing them to rule my actions. I became a very jealous boyfriend, not to mention protective.

We worship romantic chemistry. Our novels, our movies, are plays, our great epics all diefy it. So when it occurs in our lives, we assume it must be a good thing. But just because it feels good, does that mean it’s a good thing? I mean, heroin must feel good given how many people get strung out over it, but few rational people would mistake it for a good thing, would they?

Here is what I think chemistry is. Some people think we get attracted to partners who represent our opposite-sex parent. Women supposedly marry their fathers and men supposedly marry their mothers. This is not necessarily true. In relationships, we feel intense chemistry with partners who remind us of aspects of our parents we have the most unresolved, open issues with. And in relationships, we become those aspects of our parents we most identified with.

Someone with codependent caretaker values, they have unresolved issues with hard to please parents and never getting their emotional needs met from them. Therefore when they have a lot of chemistry with someone, it tends to be with someone who has the same issues as their parents as far as being hard to please and being inconsiderate of the codependent’s emotional needs. That intense chemistry they feel, that familiarity, it comes from unconsciously recognizing the most influential dynamic of their lives: the dynamic they had with their parents.

In  Bill’s case, both of his parents had problems meeting his emotional needs, and he had to focus more on meeting their needs than the other way around. This is called parentification, and it’s what made him develop caregiver values. As this article about parentification explains:

“[C]ompulsive caregiving” among the ‘over-conscientious and guilt ridden as well as anxiously attached‘ [is] a result of ‘a parent, usually mother, exerting pressure on them to act as an attachment figure for her, thus inverting the normal relationship’[8] – requiring the child to act as the care-giving parent while she took on the child-role.

Notice the term “anxiously attached.” Attachment theory is a school of psychology created by John Bowlby, and you can find a summary of it on this page, but let’s  focus on the definition of anxious attachment, since it’s the attachment style of those with the caregiver values:

People who formed an anxious or preoccupied attachment as an infant, by comparison, are more likely to be preoccupied with their relationships as an adult. Anxious or preoccupied adults are constantly worried and anxious about their love life – they crave and desperately need intimacy – but, they never stop questioning their partner’s love (“do you really love me?”). Anxious individuals are concerned that their partners will leave them. These adults are obsessed with their relationships and everything that happens in them. They rarely feel completely loved and they experience extreme emotional highs and lows. One minute their romantic partner can make their day by showing them the smallest level of interest and the next minute they are worried that their partner doesn’t care about them. Overall, anxiously attached individuals are hard to satisfy; you can’t love them enough, or be close enough to them, and they constantly monitor their relationships for problems. Ironically, their need for love, makes it easy for anxious individuals to be taken advantage of when it comes to love and romance, which in the long run can create even more suspicion and doubt.

If you remember Bill’s original letter where he mentioned his inability to get his jealousy under control? That was his anxious attachment at work.

The fact that people with anxious attachment can be easy to take advantage of in relationships makes emotional vampires, who are very manipulative by nature and love to play games with people, gravitate toward them. And these caregivers with anxious attachment often feel great chemistry with these people because they push the same buttons in them that caused their core issues.

This article describes the relationship between Cluster B vampires and the types of men who attach to them. The whole article is worth reading, but here are the key parts for our purposes:

Certain aspects or common denominators are present in males who attach to [Borderline Personalit Disorder] Waifs. Generally, these are People Pleaser types, who have rescuing or fixing compulsions, self-esteem difficulties from childhood, intimacy issues, engulfment concerns, poor self-image, dysthymia (chronic/long-standing mild to moderate depression), etc. Foundational problems of this kind leave men vulnerable to being seduced and manipulated by these women. You may be extremely accomplished and successful–but the Borderline will methodically learn what’s underneath the props, and use your most intimate secrets and self-doubts against you. Men drawn to waifs are addicted to helping others, and usually need to be in the one-up position in their relationships…

When the Waif shared tales about former boyfriends or lovers who assaulted her, you were outraged. These accounts inspired your fierce need to protect her–while assuring yourself, it’ll be different with you; why not–you’re one of the “good guys!” During these storytellings, you were made to feel heroic, exceptional and uniquely unlike all the others. But no matter how convincing this woman is, you must resist the temptation to believe what she tells you…

The Waif seduces you with her fragility. If your childhood experiences turned you into a mediator, fixer or rescuer, this woman or man presents you with plenty of opportunities to feel powerful, in charge and in-control. You thrive on these, for they (temporarily) appease your need to be needed, which has formed the basis of your self-worth–but have you ever felt valued and loved for simply being, instead of doing?…

The man-child of a Waif Mother is anxiously attached to females he dates, and consistently chooses partners he thinks will never leave him–or that he won’t miss when they do. The needy/clingy Waif or emotionally vapid Siren perfectly fits this profile–until she deserts him for another. This is when his fragile ego takes a nose-dive, and core abandonment shame is triggered. He may know he doesn’t really want her–but desperately needs to be wanted, to ease the hideously painful shame he feels from her rejection.

This issue alone, can send him into perilous pain and longing for any woman who has pried the lid off his Pandora’s Box of self-esteem wounds. Thus, his misguided, frantic pursuit to win her back, begins in earnest.

Now some people out there with caretaker codependency issues who have been involved with vampires may be confused, and thinking something along the lines of the following: “Wait a minute–the emotional vampire in my life started out like a dream. They built me up, they fawned over me, they flattered me, they came on strong, they played to my ego, they made me feel like a million bucks. They idealized me. They only turned on me later, once I was hooked. Later on they became Mr. Hyde, but at first they were pure Dr. Jekyll. They didn’t start withholding approval and emotional validation from me like my parents did until later on, so how can you say that the chemistry came from “recognizing” aspects of a parent or both parents in this vampire partner? The parent I have issues with was never as fawning or approving as my vampire was in the beginning of the relationship. The person my vampire was in the beginning was the opposite of my troublesome parent. The similarities only came along later.”

Narcissist and borderline vampires almost always follow an idealization and a devaluation phase. They are a dream come true in the beginning and a nightmare later on. But to anyone reading this article who feels they are codependent and that they have a tendency to attract emotional vampires and have a certain vampire parent they feel they can link this “unfinished business” core issue to and a codependent parent they feel they may be subconsciously imitating, I suggest the following test for you. The next time you talk to your codependent parent, ask him or her what your narcissistic parent was like in the beginning, in the courtship phase. I bet what you will hear will eerily mirror the courtship phases of your relationships with the vampires in your life: lots of fawning, sweeping off of feet, lots of chemistry,  and an eagerness to make a good impression.  The point is, your vampire even during the idealization stage was more like your hard to please parent than you may have realized consciously, but your subconscious picked up on it quite well, which is where the chemistry came from.

People focus on the wrong questions when it comes to chemistry. It’s not about whether chemistry is not inherently good or bad. It’s about your relationship with your primary inferiorities, your core issues. If you haven’t done the inner work on your core issues, if you haven’t made peace with or aren’t even aware of your primary inferiorities, then for you chemistry is bad. You can’t trust chemistry until you have done the hard work on yourself needed to heal your primary inferiorities. 

When someone with a healthy emotional core feels chemistry, it’s often a good sign. When someone with profoundly damaged core damage feels chemistry, it’s usually a danger sign. Only when you fix your own emotional core will you be able to experience chemistry with healthy people, because that’s when you’ll feel that at your core you have something in common with them. Right now at your core you can only relate to damaged people, because subconsciously that’s what you feel comfortable with. In addition, if someone is too healthy, you unconsciously feel they won’t want anything to do with you if they got past your false self and saw the real you. Groucho Marx had a famous saying, “I don’t care to belong to any club that would have me as a member.” That’s the state you’re in now. That’s why you look for “bargains,” people who are “fixer-uppers.”

These tendencies are why people with caregiver codependency issues are encouraged not to enter serious, long-term relationships until they do the serious  inner work they need to fix their core issues.

There is a great book called Emotional Vampires by Albert Bernstein that I recommend, and it has a section on chemistry, although it refers to it as “hypnosis.” The book describes danger signs that I think are worth discussing and quoting, but if you when caretaker values these danger signs are even bigger red flags:

  • Deviating from standard procedure.

    If you ever find yourself veering sharply from your usual way of doing things, especially in response to a person you don’t know very well,stop right then and ask yourself why. Listen very closely to your answer.

  • Thinking in Superlatives. If you are thinking words like “best,” “most promising,” “perfect” or “most charisma” in relation to a person you barely know, take a step back. This is often happening not because of the person is those things but precisely because the person isn’t those things and is overcompensating in order to be seen as the very things she isn’t. (And as I describe later, narcissists and borderlines are expert overcompensators.)

    Distorted perceptions usually involve superlatives. If you find yourself thinking that someone is radically different from other people, quickly ask yourself why. Remember, worst and most annoying are superlatives also.

  • Instant Rapport.

    Getting to know and appreciate another person usually involves time and effort. Be careful when rapport seems to be developing too quickly, no matter how good the process feels. Instant understanding is usually the result of someone recognizing how you would really like to be seen and pretending to see you that way.

  • Seeing the Person or Situation as Special. This means you view the person as “special” and deserving of special treatment you normally wouldn’t give other people as a result. A good indicator this is happening is when you hear yourself say “so different,” “the one,” or “once in a lifetime.” For example sometimes you may see someone who is a stone cold player with girls he is not interested in, but he turns into a sucker and people pleaser when he falls for a girl he has chemistry with. Chances are, she activates a childhood dynamic he had with a certain parent and he’s now seeing her as “special” or “the one,” causing him to turn silly.

    Defining an interaction as a special case that doesn’t follow the normal rules is a clear sign that an Emotional Vampire is turning on the predatory charm…[R]emember that vampires excel at getting you to notice them, not what they’re doing. Pay attention!

  • Lack of Concern with Objective Information.

    Your two most important sources of objective information about another person are the details of that person’s history and the opinions of other people. If for some reason you find yourself avoiding those sources, or thinking that they don’t apply, watch out.

  • Confusion.

    Hazy understanding of the reasons for your own reactions, coupled with unusual certainty, is a pretty clear sign tha somebody has been messing with your mind.

In addition, someone like Bill is only 18, so he’s too young to be in serious relationships anyway. He has too much growing to do, too much to see. He needs to enjoy his youth and sow his oats, not look for serious girlfriends. My rule of thumb for young guys is to not even consider a serious relationship until at least 25.

What caregiver codependent types and narcissist and borderline emotional vampire types have in common that  helps fuel their intense chemistry is that they both suffer from very low, shaky self-esteem, often to the point of self-loathing. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise, narcissists and borderlines do not have high self-esteem. In fact, I think narcissists and borderlines, underneath their haughty exteriors, actually have lower self-esteem than codependents. Another thing codependents and emotional vampires have in common is they both got such low self-esteem from similar emotional wounds and attachment traumas.

The reason they seem so different on the surface comes from their respective  coping strategies. The codependent  primarily chooses the faulty coping strategy of surrender to deal with his low-self-esteem while the narcissist/borderline chooses overcompensation through grandiosity to deal with his low self-esteem. It’s a case of two different external reactions, giving in versus rebelling, to the same internal issue, low self-worth.

Here is the good news if you are a codependent caregiver though. You are curable. For you there is hope. The narcissist/borderline is not curable. Even those who feel the narcissist/borderline can be cured (and they are an extreme minority among mental health professionals) admit that it is very rare and requires an extreme amount of self work, at a level most narcissists simply aren’t equipped to do.

See, the major key to fixing oneself is awareness. One must own all one’s problems and deficiencies along with all of one’s strengths and talents in a brutally, unflinchingly honest manner, and without shame or self-judgment. Most if not all major schools of thought regarding personal growth at some point preach this. You must own all your faults and weaknesses and all your virtues and  strengths.  But you must especially own the faults and weaknesses, because you can’t truly fix something until you know exactly what’s wrong.

Because the codependent caregiver’s main faulty coping strategy is surrender, he is much more in touch with his faults and weaknesses. In his case, it’s not hard to get him to own his main problem, which is low self-esteem. He’s likely already very aware of it. His low self-esteem is much closer to the surface. The narcissist/borderline on the other hand has chosen the primary coping strategy of overcompensation. This overcompensation is maintained by defense mechanisms like projection, denial, intellectualization, splitting, repression, dissociation and others, all of which are aimed at maintaining obnoxious grandiosity and keeping the narcissist/borderline from discovering the truth about himself: that he or she is racked with self-loathing. They have erected so many psychic defenses against accessing their feelings of self-loathing that they can never develop the awareness needed to own their weaknesses and faults.

They feel on a subconscious level that without their grandiosity they would fall apart and cease to exist, much like a shark will die if it stops swimming. That’s why they hang onto that grandiosity no matter how miserable it makes their lives. That’s why they refuse to even let themselves realize how much the grandiosity ruins their lives. It’s because they believe their only other choice besides grandiosity fueled by self-loathing is total ego annhilation and psychic nonexistence, a figurative death if you will.

So for those reasons, be happy that if you had to have a problem caused by low self-esteem, you had the problem of caregiving codependency rather than being an emotional vampire. Because at least you have the capacity for empathy. At least you have the capacity for self-awareness when it comes to your faults. And through that self-awareness, you have the capacity for amazing spiritual growth and amazing inner strength. If you are willing to face some painful truths about yourself and do the hard personal work to move past them, you can and will be healthy and filled with true self-worth.

I will go into what it takes to fix these problems more in-depth later, but for now I’ll say this: you need self-awareness without self-judgment. You need to be aware of all the details of your primary inferiority, your core issues, the depth of your self-loathing, the childhood roots of it all, the faulty coping strategy you’ve developed to deal with this primary inferiority, the final fictional goal you’ve created for your adult life that you feel will redeem this primary inferiority, the idealized, false self you’ve aspired to become in order to carry out this final fictional goal, and then you need to make peace with all of it. You need to say “Yes, this was me, and it may be me for a while longer, but it doesn’t have to be this way, and with hard work and continued self-honesty, it won’t be that way.”

The key is to stop trying to fix your primary inferiorities and core wounds through new forms of external validation and final, fictional goals and instead realize this: you can’t “redeem” those childhood needs and wounds through adult gratification and adult goals. Those childhood needs can only be met as a child. The time for getting that unconditional love and approval of our true selves we needed from our parents is in childhood. Trying to find that unconditional love and approval and validation that a child needs from external sources in the adult world like money, career, sex, and relationships is a fool’s game.  Look at how tortuous Michael Jackson’s adult life was because he never learned that lesson.

What you have to do is make peace with and mourn the external validation and emotional nurturance you didn’t get as a child. Grieve it, then move past it. Don’t keep trying to make up for what you missed in your childhood as an adult. And now that you’re becoming aware of what you missed in your childhood, don’t wallow in it and make it into your identity now either. It’s just something that happened to you, not something you are.

Just remember: If you never work on your core issues, I guarantee you your core issues will continue to keep working on you beneath the surface.

And to Bill: don’t let these realizations about yourself cause you increased shame and self-judgment. The caregiver values you developed, the catering to others emotional needs, the pleasing, etc., these were emotional survival strategies that got you through childhood. You needed them. They were absolutely necessary. They helped you come out of childhood whole, and you should be proud of yourself for coming out as good as you did.

The problem is, as an adult you no longer need these faulty survival strategies. You’re only holding on to them out of habit, and now as an adult the same strategies that served you so well in childhood are not only no longer needed, but they’re now backfiring. You need to become aware of those bad emotional habits, unlearn them, and learn new, more functional ones. And an important habit to start with is enforcing your emotional boundaries.

Next  is part 4, the answer to the last part of Bill’s email: Is the world of pickup as described by Neil Strauss in the book The Game the answer to his problems? My answer is no, and I’ll explain why in more detail in part 4, but the gist of it is I think that most people who get drawn to pickup artistry are codependent caretakers who have surrender to their low self-esteem, and pickup, rather than addressing their core issues and primary inferiorities instead teaches them to switch their faulty coping strategies from one of surrender to one of overcompensation, which leaves their core issues and low self-esteem intact and turns them into narcissists. And as I mentioned earlier in this article, narcissists don’t really have any less self-loathing than codependents, they’re just better at blocking their own access to their inferiority feelings and self-loathing through a grandiosity propped up by layers upon layers of defense mechanisms.

After that I’m going to do a post elaborating on strategies of how to fix core issues and primary inferiorities, along with a good reading list. I haven’t decided if I’m going to call that part 5 of this series or make it a separate post.

Recommended Reading:

Follow up with this book and these links, which cover even more ground than this post did:

The book Emotional Vampires is a great resource. The edition I quoted above can be found here.. There is also a revised and expanded 2nd edition coming out as seen here, but I don’t know when that’s getting released.

This installment of 31 Days of Game.

Read everything on the Shari Schreiber’s website, starting with this one, then this one, then this one, then this one and then this one. Eventually try to read as many as you can that apply to your situation.

Go through the posts on the blog Shrink4men (new site and old site), starting with this piece and this one.

“What is Codependence?” article.

The Narcissistic Family: Diagnosis and Treatment, Part 1 and Part 2.

The Narcissistic Family Portrait.