Sunday, July 25, 2010


In a previous blog I briefly mentioned that codependence destroys intimacy. I need to restate that comment or, as Sarah Palin would say, “refudiate” it. While codependence can destroy intimacy, more likely it will just prevent intimacy from happening.

Intimacy, according to Harriet Lerner in The Dance of Intimacy, is when “we can be who we are in a relationship, and allow the other person to do the same.” An intimate relationship, “is one in which neither party silences, sacrifices, or betrays the self and each party expresses strength and vulnerability, weakness and competence in a balanced way”. Intimacy, therefore, requires a healthy dose of self care.

Codependent relationships, on the other hand, tend to negate self rather than care for it. It reminds me of the old Dusty Springfield song, Wishin’ and Hopin.’ “Show him that you care just for him; do the things he likes to do; wear your hair just for him, 'cause you won't get him thinkin' and a-prayin', wishin' and a-hopin'” Indeed. In codependence, a certain investment underlies our behaviours: we do things for (or to) another in hopes that the other will like, love, respect, care for, and/or, among other things, see us—we care for self by caring for the other. Within this investment there also lies an inherent self betrayal as our well-being is dependent not on what we feel about ourselves but what the other thinks or feels about us. By focusing on the other as an indirect form of self care, we lose sight of who we are. The relationship is no longer balanced and intimacy is constrained.

The question, however, is not so much what is intimacy but do we want it? Intimacy can be scary and challenging as it asks us to be open and vulnerable not only with our partners but, more importantly, with ourselves. To be loved by another, to share a deep form of shared intimacy, our biggest challenge lies in loving our self.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Self Protection

How do we protect ourselves from the unwanted influence or pull of another? Is it through emotional or psychological walls, breathing in white light, or carrying a big stick? Is it locking oneself in the bathroom, taking self defense classes, or wearing a seatbelt? All can be valid depending on the situation and individual involved, but I find myself wondering if this is the main question we should be pursuing. Life, as The ARC Institute teaches, is made to challenge and help us grow. We come across such challenges everyday in people who try, for example, to control us or disregard our boundaries— sometimes in annoying ways, other times in a more threatening or physical manner. We can do our best to physically protect ourselves but an emotional component tends to piggyback on this unwanted influence—we take it personally, end up capitulating, or react in other ways that doesn’t quite serve us. For example, while we can avoid spending time with a “needy” friend who pulls on too much of our energy, do we suffer guilt as a result? Is it easier to have self anger than to say “no” for continually giving in to the financial requests of a family member, and do we end up taking on too much responsibility for another person’s emotions because we feel sorry for them?

How do we protect ourselves from taking on other people’s issues or ignoring our own needs in favour of another? How do we take care of our self in the face of challenging people and events? I feel the best way to care for one’s emotional self, whether through a boundary invasion or a pull on one’s energies, is less a wall, an infusion of white light or a defensive reaction than in nurturing a strong sense of Self.

When I think about a strong sense of Self, I reflect on the following:

When a rebel army took over a Korean town, all fled the Zen temple except the abbot. The rebel general burst into the temple and was incensed to find that the master refused to greet him, let alone receive him as a conqueror.
"Don’t you know," shouted the general, "that you are looking at one who can run you through without batting an eye?"
"And you," said the abbot, "are looking at one who can be run through without batting an eye!"
The general's scowl turned into a smile. He bowed and left the temple.*

We can look at this in esoteric terms and say that the abbot believes in an eternal soul but I don’t feel we have to take it that far. For me it is more a metaphoric tale of the abbot’s strong sense of Self. He doesn’t bow down to physical might or relinquish his power. Instead, he emanates a sense of Self that quietly states to the general, nothing you can do can take away my power.

Self is the core of who we are. The capacity to have a strong sense of Self resides in all of us, regardless of age, situation or mental capacity. It is our authentic being-ness—that which remains untouched through the countless traumas, big and small, that incur in life. It is what gets us through the tough times when brawn or brain can do no more: the metaphysical spinal fluid that courses through our body, illuminating our inner power.

When Self is strong, we are resilient to life challenges. We see them as gifts and as a way to understand ourselves better. For example, if a friend becomes too needy we can reflect on whether this need is temporary or chronic and how much time we are willing to give either way. We can delve deeper into our psyche and ask what needs of our own are being met (by giving too much) and how the friendship could be strengthened by making it a more mutual give and take. If we share space with an angry coworker we can state our boundaries and say, “enough”, letting them know it is not appropriate to be venting in such manner. In Self, we can be compassionate to others but firm in knowing where our responsibility begins and ends. As such, we can respect their position (or not) but have the boundaries to avoid taking their issues personally.

When our codependent parts are at play, our sense of Self is not as strong. We allow people to negatively affect us: we do things we don’t want to do; and expend energy in ways that do not serve us. In this state, we don’t feel entitled to personal boundaries or the expression of our feelings. Alternatively, we hide behind psychological walls or bully others to avoid showing our vulnerabilities. Rather than gifts, our codependent parts see challenges as an external force that requires drastic solutions: rigid control and reactive anger or isolation and capitulation.

Self, however, is like a muscle, one that needs to be exercised to be at its optimum. For Self to be strong, we must recognize, appreciate and listen to what our body tells us, and validate our emotions. In the practice of body awareness we know how our body feels when it is centred, and how it feels when it has been thrown off or affected by another. And, while a strong Self is compassion to the idea that it will be thrown off centre throughout the day, it is secure in the knowledge of how to regain a balanced state. Self is neither rigid, judgmental, nor afraid of change. These attributes allow a person with a strong sense of Self to creatively respond, rather than react to life, thus transforming challenges into the gifts they are.

Building a strong sense of Self is not a one-time goal but a life-long journey. I remember first feeling my own sense of Self many years before I ever heard of or understood the concept—many years before I even started building upon this inner power. I was on Mt. Baker’s Skyline Trail in Washington State. It was a drizzly, grey day, with low cloud and poor visibility. I was ahead of my hiking partner and decided to sit down on a rock and wait for her. As I sat, a feeling of primordial strength came over me: of being one with the rock, the moss; the fine droplets of mist. I felt calm and capable; unafraid and in charge of my life. Although the feeling did not last, over the years I was able to come back to that feeling in times of doubt and fear, when life challenges seemed to overwhelm and I felt only emptiness. It was that small glimpse of Self, so many years ago, that got me through and enabled me to begin practicing a lifetime of lessons in self awareness, self trust and an acceptance of who I am.

• Reprinted from Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, Summer 2002. From Zen Poems of China and Japan: The Crane’s Bill, by L. Stryk, T. Ikemoto & T. Takayama

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Power Give Away

I have a pet peeve. It’s the statement: “well, nothing I can do about it,” usually given in response to news of government corruption or environmental disaster. For me it’s the ultimate of victimhood; it screams powerlessness. And, in terms of this blog’s nom de guerre, it allows another to take over thereby fulfilling the partnership requirements of codependence.

Codependence takes two to tangle. The partner can be a person, career, religion or a pet— anything outside of our self, that we instill hopes and dreams to fulfill some internal need. The following is an oversimplified example using the intrinsic need to feel self worth. “Sharon” does not feel loved or, shall we say, worthy of love. In search for a remedy she gives her love to “Bill” in hopes that he will love her back. Bill also has a sense of unworthiness but for him it manifests in terms of powerlessness and, because of his self-judged shortcomings, he rejects Sharon’s love. Sharon finds her love rejected and concludes it is because she hasn’t loved Bill “enough”. She works harder at loving him “better” and, ironically, finds a renewed sense of purpose – it increases her sense of self worth. Bill, on the other hand, finds a sense of power in Sharon’s behaviour — it makes him feel worthy: the more he rejects Sharon, the harder she tries and the more powerful he feels. The relationship becomes based on two people feeling unworthy but feeding each other in such a way that superficially fills, much like candy given to a hungry child will, each other’s needs. One gives; one takes: the codependent partnership is complete.

Let’s look at it from another perspective using the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico as an example. In 2001, BP did an internal review of their Alaska operations and “found that the company wasn't maintaining safety equipment and faced ‘a fundamental lack of trust’ among workers.” Six years later in a follow-up study, “[n]early 80 percent of the workers interviewed … said that gas and fire detection systems -- perhaps the most important equipment to saving lives and among the most critical in preventing an environmental disaster -- were either not functioning or were obsolete [and that] 50 percent of everything that was originally brought up was not fixed, it was ignored." . The end result? We now have a disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

In reading that, one could say, “well, nothing I can do about it. BP is a powerful company, they do what they want to do.” Sure enough, but who gives them that power? They have the power because we, North Americans as a whole, want oil. We want oil because it makes us feel indirectly powerful: we can drive a car; keep the house warm, use plastic in all its many conveniences, produce fertilizers and pesticides, and run our businesses. Oil helps us to live a life to which we have grown accustomed and in that we feel powerful. But it’s a false power. It is false because we have, in fact, given our power over to multinational cororations whose eminent concern is not our standard of living but of money. We give them the power for obvious and rational reasons: as individuals we do not have the ability to extract oil; its convenient to let someone else do it; they say they are going to be ethical and environmentally concerned; and, ultimately, we feel powerless with such overwhelming concerns.

Corporations, such as BP, take the power because power (and control) can exponentially produce more money. And, just as it’s a false sense of power that we feel when driving our cars, it’s a false sense of powerlessness that says we have no control over the inadequacies and failures of companies such as BP. We have given them that control, we have given them our power.

How can we take back that power?

We can take back our power by letting go or decreasing our need for oil. Ask yourself: am I really feeling empowered by having 20,000 to 50,000 barrels of oil spill into the Gulf of Mexico every day so that I can drive a car? Are thousands of dead birds really worth the convenience of plastic? Do I really need to create a dead zone in the Gulf so I can live with this false sense of power?

I am not saying here that we should be martyrs and give it all up. I am saying, however, that we can take back the power by being less needy. We can cut back on the driving: use a car pool, buy a bike; take transit. We can do without that new plastic doo-dah and buy oil free products. We can lobby our governments to find alternative fuel sources and monitor projects in our own back yard such as the Alberta Oil Sands. In short, we can be more conscious of how our false sense of power impacts the rest of the world.

Giving someone else power so that we, however indirectly, feel empowered has the potential to work quite well on a temporary basis. However, in the long term it only spells disaster. Power, like love, respect and safety, must first be directed towards self: if we feel empowered we wont need to look for power in commodities such as cars, other people or in corporations. Codependence relationships are based on looking outside ourselves for what we need most to give to our self. In people it destroys intimacy and within governments and corporations, it has the potential to destroy our environment.

Friday, July 2, 2010

The Hunger of Addiction

Last week I suggested that often at the core of one’s hunger, there is a desire to be loved, accepted and validated; to be respected and seen as worthy. I also suggested that the hunger is often hidden by defensive behaviours, ones that seek, albeit in a dysfunctional way, to protect us. For example, one common defence against feeling one’s emotional hunger is, ironically, to overeat. We stuff ourselves with food to prevent us from experiencing our truth. In fact, any addiction is useful in distracting us in that way. Addiction may include work, internet surfing, anorexia (the addiction of food avoidance), sex, drugs, alcohol, exercise, shopping, reading and obsessive thoughts—anything that takes us away from the truth of what we need to feel. Another reason to distract our self from feeling this hunger is that there may be a part of us that actually believes we don’t deserve to have this hunger satiated. We may say we are unworthy and act as such but very few, if any, want to believe it is true. So addictions work in two ways: they try to feed the hunger (with the wrong food) and they also distract us from the belief that we don’t deserve to be emotionally fed in the first place.

To restate this, our core needs, as suggested above, include love, validation, safety, and acceptance. The reason we hunger for these is because some where along the way, whether through neglect, abuse or inadequate parenting, we didn’t get sufficiently “fed”. And, because we weren’t given this support, we not only judged ourselves to be unworthy of it but we did not learn how to self validate; to love and have self respect. Good role modeling, external validation and functional care teaches us how to do these things. As we could not find this support within our caregivers and hence, ourselves, we concluded that they must be outside ourselves. We look to get these intrinsic needs met through work, our partners, our careers, drugs, sex, food, and exercise to name a few. The search for these foundational needs is a driving force; there is innate knowledge that we cannot survive without them but also a false knowledge that they must be found in the external world. The result is an insatiable appetite for love and acceptance that is never fulfilled, and the need for work, drugs, food, sex, internet, etc, becomes all consuming but never enough. This is addiction.

Addictions, then, take us away from a valid internal search and also provide for a distraction. Addictions deceive us in to believing we can be fulfilled by them and they also provide an escape: to not feel or be in one’s body. Addictions, therefore, take us away from our emotional hunger.

What can we do?

First, of all, name the addiction. Ask yourself if there is anything in your life that you feel compelled to do and, more importantly, feel uneasy if obstructed from doing it? Do you need to check your email regularly? How do you feel if you cannot do that? Do you need that chocolate or glass of wine at the end of the day? Do you have a sense of uneasiness if you don’t get it? What happens when you don’t get to go for your run or kickboxing class? How do you feel if you don’t get to read your book at night, have sex or bring your work home with you? These are all normal and common activities: the question is not if and when you do them but how it feels if you cannot do them? Are you dependent on them for your sense of wellbeing? And, a note here about addictions such as exercise—a hard one to discern due to societal approval and the well-documented positive effects. I am not talking about feeling lethargic without your exercise, I am talking about an internal tension that, at its height, feels like an internal time bomb, a sense of doom, fear or madness.

When you identify your addiction, ask yourself what would happen if you didn’t do it. Notice how that feels inside even just to ask it. Then keep asking questions.

For example:

Q: What if you don’t check your email today?
A: I will get behind in work.
Q: But today is Saturday…
A: I don’t want to be bogged down with all these emails on Monday
Q: What happens if you get bogged down?
A: I wont finish my work
Q: What if you don’t finish your work?
A: It wont look good
Q: What if it doesn’t look good?
A: People will think I don’t know how to do my job
Q: And then?
A: I will lose my job … lose my identity … lose my house, car …. I would be nothing.

Look at the final result: I would be nothing if I don’t check my email today. Ask yourself if this is rational. If not, then sit with the tension of not looking at your email and see what happens internally. This is the most difficult part of working through our addictions… the discomfort. It can be a physical tension, like the withdraw from heroin; or an emotional one, like the withdraw from working but both will still, at times, feel unbearable.

I guarantee that the tension, if allowed just to be, will eventually decrease. Some of you will need the support of a good therapist through this but when the tension decreases, the true hunger will reveal itself. Perhaps the need to exercise is a distraction from feeling lonely or not loved. Maybe the need to work overtime hides your hunger for safety, distancing you from intimate relationships. It takes time and courage to name the hunger behind the addiction and more so to feed it with what it actually needs. But like the small tortoise in the Bantu tale (June 18) who, despite all the odds against her, travelled though the dark jungle to find the name of her hunger you, too, will find abundance if you undertake the journey. The abundance to be found is our only true wealth: a love and acceptance and trust in self.

Codependence underlies all addictions. It is the need to look outside of our self to find fulfillment in life. The journey of recovery begins when we start to look within.