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Power exists in all relationships. Having power means to have a sense of control, to have choices and the ability to influence our environment and others. It’s a natural and healthy instinct to exert our power to get our wants and needs met.
When we feel empowered, we can manage our emotions, we believe that we matter and that we can affect outcomes. We have a sense of efficacy in our lives, rather than being at the effect of others and circumstances. Instead of reacting, we can act because we have an internal locus-of-control.
In contrast, many of us may feel powerless and victims of outside forces. We can feel like our destiny is out of our hands. Some of us voluntarily give up our power to others. We may feel uncomfortable with exercising our own power, and believe that we will alienate others. Instead, we might react to others, defer to their wants and needs, and have trouble making decisions and initiating independent action. We might feel like we’re being mean or raising our voice when we merely state what we want or don’t like. This impaired sense of power is common among codependents and stems from:
- A habitual external focus
- Shame and low self-esteem – not feeling worthy
- Dependence and lack of autonomy – excessive need for a relationship
- Lack of assertiveness and deference to others’ decisions
- Discomfort with power and a belief that it harms relationships
- Fear of rejection and abandonment
- Need for others’ love and approval to feel content and happy
- Denial of needs, wants, and feelings
- Having unreasonable expectations of others
- Lack of self-responsibility (victim-blame mentality)
Power Imbalances in Relationships
Many relationships have power imbalances. If we’ve denied our power and don’t express ourselves for any of the above reasons, it’s natural for someone else to fill the vacuum. Often in codependent relationships, one partner – sometimes an addict, narcissist, or abuser – wields power over the other. Usually the acquiescent partner attempts to exert influence in indirect or passive-aggressive ways, such as withholding. Chronic lack of power can lead to depression and physical symptoms.
In somewhat healthier relationships, both partners vie for power in ongoing power struggles. These typically revolve around money, chores, child care, and negotiating how and with whom time is spent. To avoid conflict, some couples segregate domains where they each exercise more control. Historically, mothers ruled the roost and fathers earned more and controlled finances. This continues in many families despite women’s improved earning power, especially when they have young children.
Traditional roles are changing and becoming more egalitarian. Men are participating more in child care and parenting. By working or having power outside the home, women learn that they can function outside the marriage. This potentially gives them greater power within the relationship. Some partners become resentful when everything isn’t split 50-50, but more critical is the perception of unfairness and imbalanced power. This can happen when our feelings and needs are ignored. We don’t feel listened to or that our input matters. We feel unimportant and resentful. When we have no influence, we feel disrespected and powerless.
Self-worth and autonomy are a prerequisite to sharing power and feeling entitled to express our desires and needs, including needs for respect and reciprocity. In a healthy relationship, power is shared. Both partners take responsibility for themselves and to the relationship. Decisions are made jointly, and they feel safe and valued enough to be vulnerable. They’re able to say what they like and don’t like and what they want and won’t tolerate. Relationships and intimacy require boundaries. Otherwise, risking honest self-expression feels too threatening. Boundaries ensure mutual respect and the happiness of both partners.
Codependents and Power
Codependents generally grow up in families where power was exercised over them in a dominant-submissive pattern. Their needs and feelings were ignored or criticized. When personal power and self-worth isn’t encouraged, we come to believe that power and love can’t coexist. Power gets a bad rep. We’re afraid of our own power and to feel safe and loved learn to accommodate and please others. For girls, this can be reinforced in families where women and girls are viewed as second-class or not encouraged to be assertive, autonomous, educated, and self-supporting.
On the other hand, some children grow up to decide the best way to feel safe and get their needs met is to exercise power over others. This also presents problems, since it breeds fear and resentment and makes our partner withdraw or behave in passive-aggressive ways.
Many codependents have never learned to be assertive or how to problem-solve. They’re unable to know and assert their wants and needs or make decisions, often even for themselves. They relinquish control over themselves and often defer to others or don’t act at all. Assertiveness is empowering, but requires a foundation of autonomy and self-esteem, both difficult for codependents. However, assertiveness can be learned, and doing so builds self-esteem.
Control is one of the primary symptoms of codependency – control of self or others. It becomes confused with power. Because codependents lack a sense of power in their lives, instead try to manipulate and control others. Instead of taking responsibility for their own happiness, which would be empowering, codependents’ focus is external. Rather than attend to their needs directly, they try to exercise power over others and control others to make themselves feel okay on the inside. They think, “I’ll change him (or her) to do what I want, and then I’ll be happy.” This behavior is based on the erroneous belief that we can change others. But when our expectations aren’t met, we feel more helpless and powerless.
How to Become Empowered
Love and power are not incongruous. In fact, love doesn’t mean giving up oneself, which eventually leads to resentment. Love actually is the exercise of power. To claim our power requires learning to live consciously, taking responsibility for ourselves and our choices, building self-esteem, and asking directly for our needs and wants. As we learn to express ourselves honestly and set boundaries and say no, we create safety and mutual respect, allowing our partner to do the same. See my ebook, How To Speak Your Mind – Become Assertive and Set Limits.
Becoming more autonomous also is important, not only to build self-esteem. Autonomy assures us that we can survive on our own. That knowledge makes us less dependent on others’ approval. This allows couples to be less reactive. They’re able to share their feelings, hear each other’s needs, problem-solve, and negotiate without becoming defensive or blaming. Sharing our vulnerability – our feelings, wants, and needs – actually strengthens our true self in an environment of mutuality and trust. Thus, asserting our power permits safety and allows for intimacy and love to flourish. When we feel powerless or unsafe, love and the health of the relationship are threatened.
Understanding The Power And Control Wheel For Child Abuse
According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline , the wheel is a diagram that depicts the various tactics and strategies an abusive person uses to dominate their partner, children and their relationships. It states “ While the inside of the wheel is comprised of subtle, continual behaviors, the outer ring represents physical, visible violence. These are the abusive acts that are more overt and forceful, and often the intense acts that reinforce the regular use of other subtler methods of abuse. ”
The wheel for child abuse explains certain behaviors and represents them as the primary components which result in domestic violence. According to The Hotline, “ the center is surrounded by different sets of behaviors that an abusive partner uses in order to maintain this power and control. ”
Codependency: Caretaking vs. Caregiving
Codependency is a group of behaviors that cause us to have unhealthy relationships. Caretaking is one of those behaviors, and what we want is to replace care taking with care giving . There are crucial differences between caretaking and caregiving and you will notice: the healthier and happier your relationship, the more you are caregiving rather than caretaking. I view caretaking and caregiving on a continuum. We usually aren't doing both at the same time. The goal is to do as much caregiving as we can and to decrease our caretaking as much as we can. Caretaking is a dysfunctional, learned behavior that can be changed. We want to change so we can experience more peace, more contentment and more fulfilling relationships. The people in your life may resist your healthier actions, but modeling caregiving is a huge gift you are giving to your loved ones.
Below are the ways you can begin to tell the differences between caretaking and caregiving. It may be helpful at first to think of those in your life who caretake you ("That's totally my mom!" or "Oh, I didn't realize that caretaking is what my brother has been doing, but it fits," or "My best friend is a caretaking queen!").
After you identify who is caretaking you, then ask yourself what role you play to keep that dynamic going ("OMG, I am caretaker too!"). In a nutshell, caretaking is a hallmark of codependency and is rooted in insecurity and a need to be in control. Caregiving is an expression of kindness and love.
Here are some key differences between caretaking and caregiving:
Caretaking feels stressful, exhausting and frustrating. Caregiving feels right and feels like love. It re-energizes and inspires you.
Caretaking crosses boundaries. Caregiving honors them.
Caretaking takes from the recepient or gives with strings attached caregiving gives freely.
Caretakers don't practice self-care because they mistakenly believe it is a selfish act.
Caregivers practice self-care unabashedly because they know that keeping themselves happy enables them to be of service to others.
Caretakers worry caregivers take action and solve problems.
Caretakers think they know what's best for others caregivers only know what's best for themselves.
Caretakers don't trust others' abilities to care for themselves, caregivers trust others enough to allow them to activate their own inner guidance and problem solving capabilities.
Caretaking creates anxiety and/or depression in the caretaker. Caregiving decreases anxiety and/or depression in the caregiver.
Caretakers tend to attract needy people. Caregivers tend to attract healthy people. (Hint: We tend to attract people who are slightly above or below our own level of mental health).
Caretakers tend to be judgmental caregivers don't see the logic in judging others and practice a "live and let live attitude."
Caretakers start fixing when a problem arises for someone else caregivers empathize fully, letting the other person know they are not alone and lovingly asks, "What are you going to do about that."
Caretakers start fixing when a problem arises caregivers respectfully wait to be asked to help.
Caretakers tend to be dramatic in their caretaking and focus on the problem caregivers can create dramatic results by focusing on the solutions.
Caretakers us the word "You" a lot and Caregivers say "I" more.
As with changing any behavior, becoming aware of it is the first step. Watch yourself next time you are with someone and ask yourself where you fall on the continuum. It will take some work to change and you may experience some resistance and fear in the process -- but what is on the other side is well worth the struggles of transformation.
I recommend the work of Melody Beattie who is a groundbreaker in codependency education. If you find yourself in relationships with people who have addictions or if you struggle with your own addictions, I recommend Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself (also Al-Anon, which is a 12 step group). If you aren't in relationship with someone who has an addiction or if you do not suffer from an addiction, I recommend her new book "The New Codependency: Help and Guidance for Today's Generation." Reference: Beattie, Melody (1991). Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself.
The Cost of Codependency
Early insecure attachments with caregivers necessitate that we sideline our spontaneous felt experience. Over time, our personality and reactions solidify. Our ability to self-reflect, to process new information, to adjust, and to respond becomes impaired. Our reactions become rigid and our cognitive distortions feel absolute.
Consequently, our individual development is hampered by the selective inclusion and exclusion of data that might provide conflicting information. We develop a template of “should’s” and restrictions that operate beyond our awareness. We do so because at an archaic, psychic level the alternative feels terrifying that we’d risk losing our connection to another person (i.e., parent) and people in general. In support of this, we project our parents’ reactions onto other people.
For example, some of my female clients have impaired perceptions about their attractiveness and cannot be persuaded otherwise. A few may undergo unnecessary cosmetic surgeries despite a consensus that they’re beautiful. Similarly, for many codependents, setting boundaries or asking for their needs feels selfish. They have a strong resistance to doing so, notwithstanding that they’re being exploited by a selfish, narcissistic, or abusive partner.
Codependents & narcissists
As a codependent, an insatiable giver, you are the ideal target for the narcissist, the insatiable taker. From the outset of the relationship, your beliefs about yourself and the world are already programmed from previous experiences of abuse and trauma bonding.
Ordinarily part of the function of trauma bonding for the narcissist is to secure the power and control supply they crave. As a codependent, however, you are primed to meet these needs from the get go.
Not sure about that? Check out these characteristics that arise from narcissistic abuse and trauma bonding:
- your self-worth feels entirely dependent on the narc
- you deny your own needs & focus exclusively on meeting those of the narc
- boundaries are either non-existent or very weak
- communicating your own needs is nearly impossible because you don’t even know what they are anymore
- you take responsibility and blame for the narc’s actions and behaviours
- your fear of abandonment is disabling
- you have an intense need for approval from the narcissist
Here’s the thing…these are also traits of codependency.
So, from the very beginning, you are perfectly designed for the narcissist. Supplying their ego needs is a given for you. Meeting the needs of others is how you operate in the world, it is likely all you know and reflects all you’ve ever experienced of love.
You can stop enabling and controlling when you:
1) Break through denial. If things have any hope of changing, you have to see reality for what it is. Your life is not “fine”. You do have feelings. You do have needs. You do have opinions. You do enable and try to control things. Stop pretending you’re making it better. Stop pretending you can fix, rescue, and prevent bad stuff from happening. Acceptance is always the first step toward changing your life.
2) Set boundaries. Boundaries allow you to separate yourself emotionally. When you have boundaries, you recognize that you’re not responsible for the outcome. You don’t have to try to control things so they turn out a certain way.
For example, you can set a boundary that you won’t clean up your loved one’s empty bottles, dirty clothes, and cigarette butts. You can set a boundary that you won’t allow others to curse at you and put you down. Or you can set a boundary that you aren’t responsible for other people’s anger or depression.
Remember change happens when we’re uncomfortable. Why is your loved one going to change if you continue to make his/her life more comfortable by removing the negative consequences of his/her choices?
3) Acknowledge your own feelings. You’re entitled to have and respectfully express a wide array of feelings. When you set boundaries, you may feel scared or heart-broken at the prospect of leaving your loved one in jail or refusing to make excuses to her boss. It can be uncomfortable to start feeling “unpleasant” feelings. Acknowledging and allowing all of your feelings are important steps in being a separate person with your own ideas, opinions, beliefs, feelings, and goals.
4) Detach with love. Detaching is like untangling your emotions from your loved one’s. You still love him/her, but you recognize that you’re not responsible for his/her life.
Being in a relationship with an addicted (or mentally ill or impaired) person can feel like a roller coaster ride. You don’t have to sit back and ride the ride. You can decide to get off by detaching.
Stay calm. Don’t allow yourself to be pulled into arguments. You can detach my responding differently. Try to laugh it off or respond with a calm tone. You can physically detach from a heated situation by leaving.
Remember you’re not responsible for how other people feel. This empowers you to set boundaries. If your loved one doesn’t like your boundaries, separate your emotions. You are not causing the rage or passive-aggressive treatment.
Detaching means you can be you and take care of yourself regardless of what your loved one chooses to do. In other words, your happiness and well-being are not dependent on him/her.
5) Focus on yourself. Codependents have lost their sense of self. You need to figure out who you are as a separate human being. What do you like to do? What do you believe in? What are your goals?
You also need to prioritize taking care of your physical, mental, and spiritual well-being. Part of re-balancing your relationship is to spend less time taking care of others and more time taking care of yourself.
6) Sit with uncertainty. Many people struggle with the unknown it feels unsettling. You’d prefer to know what’s going to happen. You try to control things to lessen your anxiety. Staying mindful and noticing what’s going on in this moment helps keep you from thinking too much about the past or future. You can do this with a formal mindfulness practice like meditation or by simply using all of your senses to purposefully tune into the present moment.
You probably noticed that a lot of these strategies put the emphasis on taking care of yourself, your feelings, and your needs. I assure you, this isn’t selfish. I think of it as a course correction. Codependent relationships are focused entirely on the addict. You’ve been living your life based on what s/he wants, needs, expects. Letting go of enabling and controlling allows you to put your life back into balance.
Codependency and Control: How to Stop the Power Play
The struggle for control is at the heart of codependency. Codependency means that we care so much about keeping the peace that we will do whatever it takes to avoid making someone else angry or upset. We give our power away. At the same time, we may also be the ones trying to wield power over others in our lives.
Strangely enough, however, as codependents, we may not even realize we are in the middle of these power play dramas. Walking on eggshells, getting or giving guilt trips, and surrendering to someone else’s demands may feel as natural to us as breathing.
Fortunately, there is a way to stop these power plays.
The most important step is to begin building an awareness of our codependent behavior.
Pay attention to what you find yourself doing around certain people in order to get them to behave a certain way. What do they do to try to get you to behave a certain way? Use intimidating behavior? Have a short temper? Withhold affection?
By doing this, you will gain invaluable insight into your codependent triggers. Once you have your finger on them, you can start establishing a new belief system to help you take your power back.
Start Setting Boundaries.
Yes, this can be very scary if we have taken on a passive, codependent mindset. A boundary tells us and others that we are now willing to take a stand for ourselves. It sets a foundation that will help solve many codependent struggles and power plays.
Setting boundaries can look like many different things. Setting a boundary means that we will not accept certain behaviors from ourselves or from others. There are many ways to start:
Identify what messages you’re giving yourself and challenge them. Are they true? What do you believe about yourself that no longer fits? There is great power in our internal, mental dialogue.
Remind yourself as often as possible that someone else’s problems are NOT your problems. You can still care about them, of course. But you don’t have to be responsible for their behavior, their reactions, their attitudes, and the consequences they face due to the choices they’ve made. You are only responsible for yourself. You do not need to let their addictions, emotional issues, or other problems take power over your life.
Choose to affirm what is positive in your life, instead of wasting energy and draining your emotional power by affirming the negative.
Remind yourself that life is short. When you find yourself getting sucked into a codependent power play, step back and ask yourself if you want to waste the next ten, twenty, or more years giving into your partner’s subtle intimidation tactics. Likewise, do you want to keep believing the lies a family member tells to get you to enable them in addiction?
Be kind and patient with yourself. Recovery from codependency is a long journey. You don’t have to beat yourself up for mistakes you made in the past or when you violate boundaries you’ve set. Codependency was often a survival tactic for us in childhood. Now that you’re a grownup, you can find a stronger way to survive. If you fall, review the mental strategies discussed above and pick yourself back up.
Taking the reins back into our own hands can be very uncomfortable. But that is what recovery is so often about: finding comfort in discomfort. When you employ skills to resist power plays, you will find true, deep power. Real power is being yourself, not trying to get someone else to act a certain way, and not trying to act how you think someone else wants you to act.
True power is inner freedom.
If you’re struggling, please read more about codependency therapy to learn more about finding recovery and call or email to schedule an appointment.
“I shine a light on the misuse of Power and Control in relationships.”
Not everyone is safe and free. Huge numbers of people live in fear. Trapped, psychologically traumatised. Isolated by perpetrators who are not free either. Masked, driven control freaks lashing out, unhappy like their victims, they emotionally abuse and coercively control as a way to feel safe. But when they get real – and slip their quest for power and control – they have to admit they are not truly free or safe themselves.
My studies focussed on the thread of domestic violence but the results illuminated the broader reaches of social psychology and sociology.
I freed myself of relationships with perpetrators long ago. But that was only after years of intense study of the ‘power and control’ phenomenon. Now I see the warning signs very early on. The purpose of this website and blog is to engage in a kind of archeological dig, seeking to expose the skeletons of this often secret thing called ‘power and control’.
My writings aim to flesh out the true shape of the perpetrator – too adept at hiding emotionally battered victims from public and family gaze. I seek to shine a light into the hidden corners for victims living in nightmares and surviving wretched existences behind closed doors. I share the stories of the survivors of one-sided power and control and give voice to their triumph – men and women.
My academic study, research, real life counselling and SpeakOutLoud is for you.
The victim or survivor. It is about validating and supporting you and hearing your stories. It is also about hearing the stories of perpetrators who have changed, are changing or want to change. SpeakOutLoud is for the bystanders — concerned persons, friends and family of victims and perpetrators. Accordingly, I explore controllers, and issues of power and control, across these and other environments and talk about connections between school bullying, workplace bullying, sports violence and domestic violence.
I write so you will learn how to detect psychological abuse and coercive control … and learn how to respond.
In SpeakOutLoud I seek to inform and educate professionals who may not fully understand the big dynamic of the traumatising and damaging effects of emotional abuse and coercive control. By professionals I mean counsellors, psychologists, social workers, legal professionals, police and crime prevention professionals, and those who work in mental health who might have clients dealing with issues relating to power and control. Also for academics – lecturers and researchers – to build your resources.
In contrast, many of us may feel powerless and victims of outside forces. We can feel like our destiny is out of our hands. Some of us voluntarily give up our power to others. We may feel uncomfortable with exercising our own power, and believe that we will alienate others. Instead, we might react to others, defer to their wants and need, and have trouble making decisions and initiating independent action. We might feel like we’re being mean or raising our voice when we merely state what we want or don’t like. This impaired sense of power is common among codependents and stems from:
1. A habitual external focus
2. Shame and low self-esteem–not feeling worthy
3. Dependence and lack of autonomy–excessive need for a relationship
4. Lack of assertiveness and deference to others’ decisions
5. Discomfort with power and a belief that it harms relationships
6. Fear of rejection and abandonment
7. Need for others’ love and approval to feel content and happy
8. Denial of needs, wants, and feelings
9. Having unreasonable expectations of others
10. Lack of self-responsibility (victim-blame mentality)
How to Combat Brain Control
The synchronization process happens automatically and outside of our conscious control. It supports healthy relationships by allowing partners to be “in sync,” and read each other’s cues and minds. We know what our partner feels and needs. When there’s mutuality, love deepens, and happiness multiplies for both. On the other hand, where this process is in the service of one partner controlling the other, the relationship becomes toxic. Love and happiness wither and die. The dominant partner has no incentive to give up control. It’s up to the subordinate partner to change the relationship dynamics. In doing so, power in the relationship may re-balance. Regardless, he or she will have gained the autonomy and mental strength to enjoy a better life or leave the relationship. Basic steps to making these changes are:
- Learn all you can about codependency and abuse.
- Join Codependents Anonymous and begin psychotherapy. .
- Learn not to react to putdowns or your partner’s attempts to control and manipulate you.
- Learn How to be Assertive and set boundaries.
- Develop activities and interests you participate in without your partner.
- Learn mindfulness meditation to strengthen your mind.
If you’re dealing with someone highly defensive or narcissistic, follow the steps in Dealing with a Narcissist.