Denial is a core symptom of codependency and addiction. We have a distorted relationship to reality — often acting against our best interests. Addicts and codependents use denial to continue addictive behavior. Meanwhile, we endure destructive consequences and painful relationships, partly due to denial and partly due to low self-esteem.
Try to convince an attractive woman who thinks she is unattractive that she isn’t. Try to tell an anorexic that she’s too thin, an alcoholic that he or she drinks too much, or an enabler that he or she is perpetuating his or her child’s drug addiction. The last three examples illustrate how such denial can be viewed as resistance to change. Many people leave when they come to Al-Anon and learn that program is to help them change themselves, because at first, most go mainly to “help” (change) an alcoholic.
Codependents also typically repress their feelings and needs. This denial also postpones real acceptance of a situation. Pretending to ourselves that something doesn’t bother us enables us to take constructive action, set boundaries, or find solutions the problem.
Paradoxically, all change begins with acceptance of reality. Herein lies our power. Facing facts, including those that we dislike or even abhor, opens us to new possibilities. Acknowledging a painful truth is not easy for most of us, especially if we’re used to denying or controlling our feelings and our circumstances.
We often associate acceptance with submission and acquiescence. But acceptance of a situation or person can also be an active expression of our will — a conscious decision based upon knowledge that there are certain things we cannot change. This also prepares us to be effective agents of change. New options present themselves as our focus shifts from changing the impossible to changing what we can.
The Need to Control
The inability to give up control in defiance of facts to the contrary is another primary symptom of addiction and codependency. One of the early authors on codependency, psychiatrist Timmen Cermak, believes that codependents and addicts “control their lives by sheer force of will.”
We have a belief that things could and should be different than they are. This creates irritation and disappointment. However, there are always challenges in life. People are unique and behave in their unique fashion. We become frustrated when things don’t go as we expect them to or when people don’t behave the way we think they should. There is a certain amount of pride and arrogance in this assumption. Psychiatrist and author Abraham Twerski adds that the addictive thinking that underlies controlling behavior exemplifies “a delusion of omnipotence.”
In trying to change things we can’t, such as other people, we’re exerting our determination in unproductive ways, often creating more frustration and problems. It’s hard enough to change ourselves. Such fruitless efforts can be considered a defense to accepting things we don’t like about a person’s behavior and the pain it causes us. We might try to get someone to stop smoking because we’re worried about the health consequences of smoking.
The first step of Alcoholics Anonymous, Al-Anon, and Codependents Anonymous addresses control. It suggests that we admit we’re powerless over our addiction, which for codependents, includes people, places, and things.
Letting Go of Control
Recovery requires us to accept life on its own terms, to accept our powerlessness and our limitations and to accept those of others. Letting go is not easy. It’s a constant challenge for addicts and codependents, because of our internal anxiety and dis-ease and our illusion that we have control over more than we actually do. When we start to let go, we feel tremendous anxiety and often depression and emptiness. We begin to feel what our attempts at control have been trying to avoid, such a loneliness, anxiety about making needed changes, grief for love that is lost or dead, or fear that an addict may die from an overdose.
Changing What We Can
Change requires courage. The second line of the Serenity Prayer asks for courage to change what we can. Changing what we can is a healthy response to reality. This is how we become effective agents of change. A coach, counselor, or 12-step program can provide much-needed support.
Making a decision is the first step. Then change also requires patience, for our heart is slow to catch up with our intellect. Gathering information and resources, surveying our options, thinking through different outcomes, and talking it over are all part of the planning phase. As we take these preparatory steps, we build courage and confidence.
Earlier, I wrote that acceptance can be an act of will. It may take the form of a positive a change of attitude. Sometimes, that’s all we can do. There may be nothing on the outside that we can change, but acceptance of a situation brings peace of mind and allows us to enjoy the moment. A disability might limit us to cloud-watching or listening to music, both of which are more healing than enduring fear, anger, or self-pity. If we don’t feel ready to leave an unhappy or abusive relationship, we can find happiness in other areas of our lives, which may in fact change the relationship or enable us to leave later.
When I was a young mother and lawyer, I felt guilty about not being a stay-at-home mom and also for working late in order to climb the corporate ladder. When I accepted that I had chosen to compromise, but could also make a different choice, my guilt vanished.
Here are some exercises to think about. More are in Chapters 5 and 9 of Codependency for Dummies.
- Make a list of things over which you’re powerless.
- How do you feel about them and how do you react to the situation?
- What would happen if you accepted things as they are?
- What realistic options do you have?
©Darlene Lancer 2014