Steve Was Never My Real Problem

Friday 16th April 2021

We give way too much power to sociopaths, narcissists, all the toxic people. It’s an uncomfortable truth that, like Dorothy, I had the power all along.

It’s far more comfortable to believe we are powerless against the wily craftiness of the all-powerful big bad wolf. That’s why it is the accepted truth in most recovery groups and forums.

“It wasn’t anything you did, he would have fooled anyone”

“Empaths are wonderful people – he was attracted to your light because he wanted it for himself”

“It’s because we are so selfless. It attracts selfish people”

“Everyone is at risk from these people. They are impossible to spot” (although this will interestingly often go hand-in-hand with an endless list of ‘red flags’ for people to be vigilantly looking out for)

This puts people in the double-bind of having to be constantly looking to spot signs of a sociopath, whilst at the same time believing it is impossible to do, and they will inevitably fall victim again because they are wonderful empaths and perfect sociopath prey. The fact is that with these beliefs, they will often fall victim again.

But to challenge this orthodoxy is to bring the accusations of ‘victim-blaming’ raining down. Well I’m going to challenge it anyway, because it isn’t victim-blaming to tell someone who has been burgled that they really should be sure they shut all their windows and lock all their doors if that wasn’t something they previously did.

I am someone who generally hates to use the term ‘political correctness’, because it is so commonly used to deride behaviour that is simply courteous, considerate and equitable. But the people who accuse others of victim-blaming in these cases are actually more concerned with some sort of political correctness than with empowerment of victims. This becomes obvious when it comes to ‘don’t tell people to lock their doors and windows! That’s victim-blaming and they should be able to leave the house wide open without it being burgled! Tell burglars to stick to their own stuff and stop stealing other people’s stuff!’

Sandra L Brown came up with a list of qualities shared by women who stayed in romantic relationships with sociopaths. This is that list (from this article, as it’s currently pretty difficult to find the list outside of Brown’s book – and it asks some excellent questions):

1.Extroversion and excitement seeking: Do you find that you often get into relationships with people who are extroverted and exciting? Does the idea of being in a “comfortable” relationship seem boring to you?

2. Relationship investment: Do you give great emotional, spiritual, physical, and financial investments to all your relationships—not just your intimate ones? Do you often feel as if you are giving 80 percent while the other people give only 20 percent?

3.  Attachment: Do you have the capacity for deep emotional bonds? Do you form powerful bonds with people quickly? Do you form bonds that make you feel beholden or desirous to do anything asked by the other people in your relationships?

4. Competitiveness: Are you unlikely to run out on relationships? Do you stand your ground and fight for relationships to continue?

5. Low harm avoidance: Do you assume that you will not get hurt? Do you see others as you see yourself and assume that they feel the same way?

6. Cooperation: Are you the can-do person who rolls up your sleeves enthusiastically when there’s a task to be done? With humor and enthusiasm? Are you apt to volunteer to help out? Do you tend to uplift every group you’re in?

7. Hyperempathy: Can you literally feel the feelings of others? Do you cry easily at movies, sad books, Hallmark television ads? Do you work in the healing professions?

8. Responsibility and resourcefulness: Are you the go-to person in your family or at work? The one who holds the “tribal memory” of the place—the person who remembers where the old contracts are kept and what the minutes of the meeting from two years ago said? Do you often end up in leadership roles at work or at home?

9. Self-directed: Are you a self-starter who works well without supervision? Are you highly motivated to learn new things, figure systems out, and solve problems?

10. Overachieving: Have you ever been called an overachiever? Do you find that you usually work harder than others and have a hard time resting and taking care of yourself?

She calls these ‘supertraits’ and relates them to the personality aspects of agreeableness and consciensciousness.

Personality, she opines, is unchangeable. ‘Opposites attract’, and sociopaths and empaths/people with supertraits end up together because we are low on ‘dark’ personality traits where they are high, and we are high on ‘light’ personality traits where they are low.

I have these traits. I have them still. But what Brown and others like her fail to notice is that she is also describing a codependent – even though she is at pains to explicitly deny this. Far too close to victim-blaming, one assumes.

When I say I have these traits still, I do not mean I still have them to the extent that they harm me or place at risk of becoming a victim of a psychopath again. Outside of a Ted Bundy type: I’d still likely fall prey to a murderous broken-legged psychopath appealing for help with groceries, I’m not gonna lie.

These traits though are all found in codependency to a harmful degree. I would argue that they encompass many learned behaviours. These behaviours kept us safe as children, and so we carried them forward in life with us.

George Simon more accurately describes certain traits as ‘vulnerabilities’, and that’s a term I’m far more on-board with:

Naïveté: Do you simply believe that people can’t possibly be as cunning, devious, and evil as your gut tells you they are? Do you assume that everyone is working toward the good of others?

Conscientiousness: Are you harder on yourself than anyone else? Do you give the manipulator the benefit of the doubt when he hurts you? Are you too willing to blame yourself when the vampire goes on the attack?

Low self-esteem and low self-confidence: Do you doubt that your needs and desires are legitimate? Do you have what it takes to face conflicts directly and effectively? Do you back down at the first sign of conflict and concede to the other? Are you easily manipulated by guilt and shame?

Intellectualization: Do you always try to understand and explain the behavior of others rationally and logically? And make the mistake of believing that there must be a reason why the manipulator is acting like he is? Do you get so wrapped up in trying to understand others’ points of view that you forget yourself? Do you have trouble accepting the fact that there are people in this world who fight too much and fight underhandedly just to get what they want?

Again, he’s a great pains to point out that he is not victim blaming, and that “anyone can succumb to a narcissist’s charms“. Which is true.

But not everyone stays when the mask slips. Healthy people walk when faced with an inappropriate boundary push. A sociopath never gets to create a trauma bond with someone who has healthy boundary function and self-regard. That’s where codependency comes in.

Codependency gets a bad rap – and I was one of those who for a long time refused to accept it as a description of myself. Unsurprising, when the definition of a codependent in a major resource people will come across when they google the term reads:

A codependent is someone who cannot function on their own and whose thinking and behavior is instead organized around another person, process, or substance.

As I used to tell myself and others, “I can’t possibly be codependent – I’ve never depended on anyone in my life. Other people depend on me!”

This was true. What I didn’t realise is that my hyper-independence was also a sign of codependency – I was unable to ask for help when I needed it (e.g. that bloody high bed!).

The problem with the term ‘codependent’ is that it arose from the treatment of addiction, and the finding that partners and families of addicts were almost universally enabling the addict in some way. It was theorised that this was because they had a vested interest in the addict remaining addicted – some sort of psychological pay-off that meant they were just as dependent upon the addictive substance as the addict was – hence the ‘co-dependent’.

The wikipedia article contains some of the notions from that time, such as how codependent people hate to be alone; or that thney have a ‘victim-mentality’. Some may do – many don’t.

My experience of codependency, in myself and others, has not bourne this out. Far from wishing the addiction to continue, codependents are desperate for the addict to become clean. It is this that creates the ‘rescuer’ and ‘caretaker’ behaviour.

In healthy people, having to act as a rescuer or a caretaker would be a deal-breaker: for codependents it is simply an extension of their entire way of being.

For what codependency really is, is a lack of self-love and self-regard. Ross Rosenberg’s far more accurate term is Self Love Deficit Disorder.

When you have a core of shame, when you feel deeply unworthy, there is a huge drive to gain validation from outside of yourself. Again, it is how so many of us grew up, and it is how we were conditioned to be. Unless those around us were happy, we could not be happy, because if anyone was sad, we would be the ones who suffered.

The Heart and Brain cartoon so perfectly expresses this. The words had come out of myself (to Steve) long before I saw it, so it really resonated: “How can I be happy if the people around me aren’t happy?”

People like me become high achievers, because failure is terrifying. We work in caring professions, because if we are helping people, we can feel ok about ourselves. We are perfectionists and people-pleasers. We have no boundaries, because we learned we were responsbile for other people, so we never did discover where we end and where others begin. We will run ourselves into the ground in the service of other people, because we have learned that the only way to be safe is to be last on our priority list.

Then we call our callous disregard of ourselves ‘supertraits’ and our hypervigilance to the needs of others ’empathy’.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We can retain all those traits, and our empathy, without disregarding our own needs in the service of the desires of others. Without a lack of self-love, empaths become empowered. That’s the road I’m on now, and I could have been on it so much sooner if there had been people pointing the way.

Those people are around now. As well as Ross Rosenberg, there’s Nicholas Jenner, Darlene Lancer, and many others blogging about it.

Natalie Lue doesn’t often use the term codependency, but she talks all the time about people pleasing, over-thinking, perfectionism and boundaries – things which are at the heart of codependency

And of course, Melanie Tonia Evans is excellent, and takes the whole conept even further to talk about how in our society codependence is ‘the norm’, when used in the sense of ‘seeking validation from the outside‘. One of many ways in which ‘normal’ is not synonymous with healthy; it’s a sign of societal codependence that people so often ask ‘is this normal?’ rather than ‘is this healthy’.

It’s especially hard to take that very first step though. To shift the focus away from the sociopath, away from trying to fix them. It’s an oft-repeated truism that we cannot change another person. The focus needs to be on ourselves – the only person we are fully responsible for, and the only person we can change. Very hard for a codependent. But that’s why I like the VeryWellMind article I linked to earlier. It gives small steps to begin with.

I especially like one of the tips, as it is one I discovered for myself as I tried to heal from the sociopath, whilst in the agony of withdrawal from the peptide addiction. It takes the endless urges of the brain to think about and ruminate on the sociopath, and uses it as a prompt to healing behaviour:

When tempted to think or worry about someone else, actively turn your attention inward. This takes practice, so be kind to yourself along the way.

Sociopaths do not deserve your concern and consideration. You do.

[Sorry this is so long. I had so much to say, I had to edit loads. I do want to do more of the longer-form explanations though, as well as the short commentary flagging up stuff]

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