Anxiety, Control & Codependency

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“When we’re indecisive, yes, the wishes of others gain.”– from The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard.
“The fear of becoming old is born of the recognition that one is not living now the life that one wishes. It is equivalent to a sense of abusing the present.” – Susan Sontag

Anxiety is loving certainty. It is stressful to live in an anxious world, and learning to embrace uncertainty seems impossible to those suffering with anxiety. We must each find a strategy to help us shuttle back and forth between the comfort of what we know, and the discomfort of all that we don’t know to become healthy.

Anxiety is about fear being in charge of most of your choices. Getting stuck in fear robs you of possibilities in your life. An example of this is when you are too afraid to make mistakes. Making mistakes is the lynchpin to learning, in fact we learn far more from our mistakes than our successes.

If you have anxiety you must learn to use your thinking to balance your exaggerated feelings of fear. Courage is the ingredient that, if sprinkled on that world, would make all of us better people. Greater courage is the antidote to anxiety. Learn to imagine new ways to have courage and to make your world larger. Real courage always has fear attached. Fearless courage is only the foolishness of youth. Follow your curiosity and try new small steps out into the world instead of waiting for life to happen to you. Invite fear to take a back seat instead of driving the train.

Fear and excitement always travel together. Remember being scared of learning to ride a bicycle and being excited at the same time? Learn to allow room for both emotions. Don’t let fear erase excitement. Growth depends on one foot being in the familiar and one foot in the unfamiliar, which is an idea expressed by Laura Perls in a workshop I attended. Confusion is the emotion that is crucial to “allowing room for change,” which is exactly why adolescents are both confused and changing.

We are all both good and bad, it is not an either/or position. The more honest we can be in acknowledging our dark side is the first step to claiming our imperfection. Ideally over time we can reduce our pile of internal bad. Think of yourself developmentally — through the age of 27 the dark side may be more than 50%:

Then in our 30’s and 40’s we start chipping away at it through self-awareness so the bad gets smaller. (Ask anyone over 40 if they would start over again and the answer is likely to be “No.”)

One of the goals in life is the ongoing process of making the bad smaller. Therefore, being able to tolerate bad feelings about yourself is crucial to learning and growth.

One exercise to reduce anxiety is to make a list of all the “shoulds” you burden yourself with. This pile of “shoulds” is one of the ways you erase having any room to breathe. Sort out which are the “shoulds” you agree with.

American Straight Line of Progress

Years ago when I carpooled little kids to nursery school I would make a wrong turn on purpose and I was amazed at their anxiety. I would soothe them with how important mistakes are in life, because they seemed so insulated, as many suburban people are, from the notion that mistakes could be good. Our American culture feeds this point of view with the myth of success:

Anxiety erupts it’s ugly head when we expect things to be a certain way. All our vacations should be sunny every day & we expect our lives to be stuffed full of happiness and certainty.

Other cultures don’t have the same expectations. We can learn a lot from Asian culture, for example. Their idea of life is much more encompassing. Pain and setbacks are expected, not ignored. The reality of the complicatedness of life is more accurate.

Happiness is understood to be a byproduct of life choices not an end goal. Asians appreciate the fact that happiness can come from inside. We could reduce our anxiety if we could pursue this frame of reference. Consider this viewpoint from one Asian author, In the novel When Heaven and Earth Changed Places: Tie-In Edition by Le Ly Heyslip with Jay Wurts, there is a quote –

“In the West, for example, people believe they must pursue happiness as if it were some kind of flighty bird that is always out of reach. In the East, we believe we are born with happiness and one of life’s important tasks, my mother told me, is to protect it.”

A too large dose of anxiety will cheat you out of the beginnings of things. A way out of anxiety is to risk trying new things. Try to develop new ways to follow your curiosity. Consider the curiosity of a toddler. How can you borrow this kind of wonder? A small child embraces adventures naturally – then come all the inhibitions. A real adventurer supports his or her own unease.

Remember that anxiety requires too much caution, which means not letting things happen to you. It can be good to risk running into a little bit of trouble. A fixed idea of what is proper can be paralyzing. A true definition of responsibility is to respond to the situation in any way that is life enhancing.

Anxiety is the opposite, it is life restricting. According to Laura Perls, responsibility is the ability to respond. For therapy to be successful it should increase your range of response and ability.

Steps to Take

Many things can create anxiety. Genetics, an anxious parent, or early childhood loss all can leave the legacy of learning to listen to the outside world instead of the inside self. So begin by finding your own voice.
So many with anxiety won’t inhabit their own power, as a trade-off for being liked. This is often a decision that costs too much.

1. The most important step anyone can take is to get off the bunny slope and move on into facing the anxiety. Work to seek out the discomfort and then take care of yourself to make it bearable. If you learn to tolerate the fears that are exaggerated in anxiety, then you can stop the slippery slope into depression.

2. Value awkwardness because it is part of all beginnings. Awkwardness offers you relief and room to move. Allowing awkwardness from yourself means you are more likely to find your own voice. Remember the first time you learned to ride a bike? Allowing yourself the horrible moments of a new beginning, ended up in a lifetime skill that anxiety could have cheated you out of.

3. Become aware that negative reactions and outbursts are really a way to contain anxiety. If I shout I will feel more able to cope. Instead of reacting, work yourself into responding instead: 1. Get neutral 2. Keep your interactions clean 3. Know your want more clearly (underneath the anger) 4. Know you can only change you 5. Ask for what you want instead of dumping.

4. Practice mindful meditation. Meditation is very soothing to the brain. This is a way to feel more in control instead of feeling swamped in feelings.

5. Hang out with people who are lighter in spirit, who make you laugh. Learn from them & value their strength of being more carefree. Laugh & let go.

Reid Wilson Ph.D. offers a wonderful web site for help with anxieties. He believes you must seek out the discomfort and then learn to take care of yourself. Explore his web site at Anxieties.com.

Perfectionism:

“Striving for excellence motivates you; striving for perfection is demoralizing.” – Harriet Braiker

“Perfectionism is a 200 lb. shield.” – Dr.Brene Brown

Perfectionism is an anxiety defense on steroids. Perfectionists believe deeply that if everything is right then their fears will subside. Sometimes perfection is focused on appearance, homework, how the house looks or being driven in a career. They torture themselves endlessly within.

Buy the book Overcoming Perfectionism: The Key to a Balanced Recovery by Ann Smith – then be sure to read it. Don’t allow perfectionism to stifle curiosity. Get sloppy with mistakes and failure as part of an important process. Imperfection is a human privilege. Remember anything worth doing is worth doing badly, which encourages risk taking. My favorite male author, Robertson Davies reminds us that since medieval times there has been a saying in Latin, “Fortune favors the bold.”

Be sure to read the page on this site titled: Perfectionism & Shame .

Control:

“Control is never achieved when sought after directly. It is the surprising outcome of letting go. – James Arthur Ray

Anxiety is always about prematurely anticipating the future with a great deal of dread. So many people combat the dread by being determined to be in control as much as possible.

There are many examples of anxiety & control: a boss who micro manages or a parent who always knows what’s best for their kid (which cheats kids out of priceless opportunities for mistakes); the partner who has to know every detail of where their significant other is and makes so many phone calls the other partner starts turning off the cell phone because they no longer find the calls sweet but badgering.

Constant hall monitoring is not loving, in truth it is about the dread inherent in anxiety and keeping a lid on with control. Control is a central part of codependency in relationships.

It’s better to control your own anxiety than to control other people. When fear tugs at you to leap in the future, try using your five senses to bring you in the more soothing present. Anxiety is about feeling bad in the past or being scared of the future. Anxiety means the present is usually missing.

Another exercise to reduce anxiety that works if you use it: Breath in and out through your nose. Focus on the temperature difference, which can be very subtle; Cool air in and warm air out. If you put these two techniques into action on a daily basis you will be on your way to managing your anxiety instead of it managing you.

Codependency:

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“She and Mr. Van der Luyden were so exactly alike that Archer often wondered how, after forty years of the closest conjugality, two such merged identities ever separated themselves enough for anything as controversial as a talking-over.”
– from The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

I intentionally placed the category of codependency under anxiety instead of addictions. Codependency is a term that originated in work with addicts. It has become a cultural phenomena, way beyond relationships with addicts. Daughters are codependent with mentally ill mothers, sons with fathers who won’t let go and insist on adherence to their own value systems. Codependency is about mushy relationships to keep the scary world of anxiety at bay.

Sadly enough, the ultimate outcome of codependency is the damage done by a lack of respect in these relationships.

Codependency is about being unhappily enmeshed with someone else’s agenda. Codependency means that you have a lack of imagination for yourself and your are too focused on others. One example would be the wife who is a martyr to an alcoholic husband. He numbs his anxiety/dread with the obliviousness of drinking and she is in hyper drive by controlling all the details of living that he ignores. So she becomes entitled and self righteous with all her vigilance. It is a very powerful pattern discussed in the first book to clearly define the issue-Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself by Melodie Beattie.

Though many clients have been disturbed upon recognizing this negative portrait of themselves, awareness is the beginning of real change and discomfort is a part of that process. Facing Codependence: What It Is, Where It Comes from, How It Sabotages Our Lives is the best book to examine codependency without alcoholism. Their workbook is very useful that goes along with this book and it is called Breaking Free: A Recovery Workbook for Facing Codependence.

It’s important to recognize that interrupting codependent behavior requires that you define yourself and your wants. So many people scramble to fill the empty hole within, by focusing on the care-taking of others while ignoring themselves. So where does someone begin, to build their own identity? Fill the emptiness with more and more layers of authenticity. Risk disagreement which makes things more interesting. Practice the truth with your therapist or your best friend. Stop swallowing your real opinions, choose when to go along, instead of always being a pushover.

Growing up is learning to move from external supports to creating true internal strength. Determine your own curiosities as a beginning to learning more about your own wants. Create boundaries by separating your ideas as unique from the other person who “loves” you too much.

Anxiety & codependency mean erasing the differences. Instead work to understand the differences between yourself and someone else (whether it is mother, lover, sister, or best friend). Speak up and make sure you are one of the balls you juggle in life, instead of leaving yourself out.

Pittsburgh has many sons and daughters who live at home with their parents. Some of this is due to economics, some eldercare. Too many are about convenience. Those who find themselves in this situation should consider that there are many ways to pay rent. Sometimes it may cost too much if the rent you pay is the loss of a sense of self.

It is worth repeating: The best cure for codependence is authentic disagreement.

Healthy conflict is not a betrayal of trust and niceness as is so often believed in this culture. Healthy conflict keeps dialogue intact and trust can build based on a more real relationship. The work of understanding differences is worth it in order to beat back anxiety & codependency.

Those who are codependent are very afraid of being alone; there is a scramble to stuff someone else into the emptiness within when a relationship breaks up. People who are codependent mistake enmeshment for love and can’t bear to be without it.

We should all recognize the old saying “you can’t love someone else unless you love yourself” as true. Being alone is one way to learn how to love yourself. Face your fears and try learning to enjoy life alone without the safety factor of a built-in partner.

Give up the people-pleasing and hiding behind the false 150 watt smile. Risk more disagreement. Be willing to not be liked instead of being a chameleon. There was a sign in my husband’s office for his sales people that rings true: “25% of the people like you, 25% of the people don’t like you, and 50% are indifferent.” Keep this refreshing perspective in mind and learn to live with the reality.

Ultimately, people who are codependent have done themselves the greatest injustice by losing track of who they are. Pay attention to being annoyed. Underneath feeling grumpy is a buried want that you are ignoring too easily.

Speak up to undo the legacy of codependency. Anxious people swallow their own truth which is very stressful. It’s scary in the short term to be more authentic, just try to remember there are tons of long term payoffs that will make it worth it.

There are three other movies about Codependency listed on the Movie Page.

Movie:

The Deep End (2001) An excellent example of this lack of respect with a mother who is co-dependent with her son. (Watch the end carefully where by not sharing the truth with her son, he leaves for college denied the opportunity of having learned from his own mistakes.)


Australian TV Series:

The Code Seasons 1 & 2
This is a thriller about 2 brothers. One is a hacker who is afraid of life, almost agoraphobic & you watch his big brother learn to back off, stop enabling & interrupt his codependence. Over the 12 episodes the hacker brother with problems grows up, develops his own self-respect & decision making. It’s very powerful.


Addictions:

“In a consumer society there are inevitably two kinds of slaves: the prisoners of addiction and the prisoners of envy.” -Ivan Illich

There are many addictions used to plaster over and pretend away anxiety. Shopping is the newest one. The current cultural rationalization goes something like this: If the country can support large amounts of debt, why shouldn’t the individual. There are the old, tried and true addictions of alcohol, drugs, sex.

Then there are the more unusual forms of addiction, such as becoming a hermit or one who compulsively exercises. Three hours of exercise a day will not keep the ultimate anxiety of death at bay. We deflect the work of solving our life’s anxieties and fears into addictions.

Obsessiveness:

“Possess yourself with something else.” -Miriam Polster

Obsessiveness is common in many ways – not being able to sleep at night because of hurting someone you love, for example, or developing a childhood fascination with dinosaurs that never leaves and you eventually become a paleontologist. Then there is an addiction to obsessiveness which stifles creativity.

In the movie The End of the Affair‘ obsession with a married woman is one example of this, Meryl Streep in the movie Plenty is another. If you watch these movies, pay attention. Boredom should emerge, because in the end obsessiveness is very boring. Obsessiveness is also a great set up for the Victim, Rescuer, Persecutor game. (see Relationship Triangles page)

Obsessiveness is not only boring, it also lacks any faith in process. Process is always out of your control. You must be open to finding out what will happen instead of seeking a false sense of control. An example of this false sense of control would be to think: If I always know where you are, you can’t have an affair.

Part of the control of obsessiveness is to nurse hurt feelings, exaggerate disappointment, and constantly blame the other for not coming to the rescue. Read The Sea, The Sea (Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics) by Iris Murdoch which illustrates obsessiveness beautifully.

Obsessiveness is very interesting because there are two sides to it: the positive side is creative passion that helps you know what really matters; the negative side is an addiction which makes you unable to prioritize anything. As a result, things have the same weight. Is s/he having an affair? Just how clean can my house be to prove I know what’s what? Are all those towels really folded correctly?

Obsessiveness is a focus on what is NOT. Truely focus on the here and now in the moment and the obsession will change itself.

Obsession is a substitute for action. This is clearly evident in the television show “Monk.” This is also portrayed by Jack Nicholson in the movie The Pledge. He plays a man whose promise evolves into an obsession. Even though he is correct, he is so obsessed he doesn’t realize the end could never justify the means. He ends up putting those he loves at too great a risk.

Both polarities of obsessiveness are available. What is more mentally healthy, especially as we age, is sorting out what is important and what to let go of. Ultimately letting go is the final lesson of death.

www.ocduk.org/four-steps-video – website has a 32 minute video of 4 steps to interrupt obsessiveness.

 

Books

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder: New Help for the Family by Herbert L. Gravitz

Obsessive Love: When It Hurts Too Much to Let Go by Susan Forward

A useful book for hoarders would be Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things by Randy Frost & Gail Steketee

Dependency Needs:

Maturity is being able to move from environmental support to more internal self-support. People who won’t leave a bad marriage because it scares them too much are afraid of independence. Dwelling in a bad marriage is a form of need wrapped up in resentments, which can get very ugly. Again this is a perfect setup for the Karpman Drama Triangle (See relationship triangles page).

Remember that drama always obscures the real issues. It is important to learn to stop the drama and learn to soothe yourself. It is too often true that the work and struggle of solving relationship problems is avoided.

Ask yourself: What are new ways to give yourself comfort? As difficult as it can be to make new friends reach out and build up your support system. Don’t tally up the rejections while licking your wounds, but instead learn how to be able to be alone. Try going to a bargain matinee or eating lunch by yourself; tolerate the anxiety that this may provoke by knowing no one is really paying much attention to you.

Learn what your triggers are for anxiety, the ones that make you lurch into retreat and old patterns of hiding. Remember that transitions are the hardest parts of life and that they must be faced in order to grow. One thing to keep in mind is that people will often get angry as a way to avoid saying goodbye. That is how hard transitions can be.

Books

The 10 Best-Ever Anxiety Management Techniques: Understanding How Your Brain Makes You Anxious and What You Can Do to Change It

Embracing Uncertainty: Breakthrough Methods for Achieving Peace of Mind When Facing the Unknown by Susan Jeffers Ph.D

Feel the Fear . . . and Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers Ph. D

Hope and Help for Your Nerves (Signet)by Claire Weekes Ph.D.

Overcoming Anxiety For Dummies For Dummies (Psychology & Self Help) by Laura L. Smith, & Charles H. Elliott

Overcoming Perfectionism: The Key to a Balanced Recovery by Ann Smith.

Read Worry by Edward Hallowell, MD.

The Worry Cure: Seven Steps to Stop Worry from Stopping You by Robert Leahy Ph.D

Movies About Courage because that is the Opposite of Anxiety:

Murderball (2005) Documentary on rugby-playing quadriplegics who compete for the Paralympic gold medal in specially designed wheelchairs.


Dirty Pretty Things (2003) A thriller directed by Stephen Frears. There is a heroic character in Dr. Okwe who, despite poverty, never lets himself off the hook by taking the easier way right through to his final decision. One of 2003’s Best Films.


Black Hawk Down (2001) Gory and great movie directed by Ridley Scott. True story of Delta Force Snipers awarded the Medal of Honor in 1993. The book by Mark Bowden is even better.


The Contender (2000) While trying to be confirmed as vice president, Joan Allen bravely fights for political respect for women candidates who will follow in her footsteps.


Born on the 4th of July (1989) A Vietnam vet who is paralyzed sends his life down the chute in Mexico with the help of drugs and prostitutes. Watch for the pivotal point in the movie when Tom Cruise is gut-wrenchingly honest and then is able to turn his life around.


Glory (1989) A movie of the first African American civil war troop who know they will die to prove they are equal.


Homework

• Visit www.fearofflying.com

• Make a list of 25-50 people from your past/present. If you had more courage to speak your mind, both good and bad, what would you say? Taking ownership of the unspoken is an excellent tool for growth.

• Decide on three heroes/heroines as role models. What qualities would you borrow from them? What are small steps of action could you take to embrace those qualities and make them yours? For example: the generosity of your fifth grade teacher appeals to you, so act on it by making an anonymous gift.

• Write down your triggers for stress. Then write down in one column what is stressful in your life now and in the next column what changes you could institute to reduce stress.

For example:

Triggers

Changes to Initiate

1. Changes at work
are very stressful

1. Speak up with your opinion and
be more feisty

2. Rushing to get places

2. Consciously allow more time
instead of stuffing in more errands

Here are some other smaller suggestions to make your world bigger. Remember that accomplishment and courage are antidotes to anxiety.

• Make two phone calls a day to engage with the world.

• Try not wearing a watch and risk having to ask someone else for the time, a small stepping out.

• Watch the movie Plenty with Meryl Streep five times in a row to bore yourself completely with the waste of obsessiveness.

• Watch the movie Glory – a great story of courage.

• Watch the movie Born On The Fourth Of July – watch for Tom Cruise telling the truth and how this moment is pivotal in turning his life around. (see other Movies of Courage on Movie Page)

• Learn what triggers your anxiety. Be aware that anxiety is a trigger for depression.

 
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