S3 E12

 “I wanna support the people that I’m close to, but not at the expense of my own health and wellbeing. I can better draw those lines and individuate because I’m not so dysregulated by and afraid of other people’s emotional experience.” -Elisabeth Kristof, Trauma Rewired Co-Host and Founder of Brain Based Wellness and Neuro Somatic Intelligence Certification

Do you prioritize other people’s emotions over your own? Do you depend on someone else to regulate your emotions? Are shame and perfectionism driving you to overgive?

In our conversation about Setting and Receiving Boundaries with Margy Feldhuhn, the topic of codependency was brought up. We think a deeper exploration of codependency is important, because it’s so intertwined with attachment wound and has such a profound effect on relationships with others and ourselves.

In this episode we’re zooming in to define codependency and explore how it develops in our brain as well as how it shows up in our different relationships from a Neuro Somatic Intelligence perspective. We’re also examining the impact of codependency on the nervous system and long term health consequences. 

Then we talk about moving out of codependency into interdependence by creating safety within yourself. That journey begins with learning the language of your nervous system and developing regulation practices. 

We, also, share reflections on our personal journeys to interdependence. Jennifer shares her personal experience of recognizing a codependent dynamic in a friendship that mirrored her mother’s patterns. She shares the importance of reshaping not just relationships but also her own nervous system. 

We truly believe it’s possible for you to create interdependent relationships, too. It starts with creating some safety inside of yourself and getting to know your own nervous system. Join us on the site for two free weeks of Neuro Somatic training and work with us live and in community to get started. Go to www.rewiretrial.com to get started. 

Conversation Highlights:

  • Jennifer talks about the caretaking dynamic in codependent relationships
  • Elisabeth outlines the many signs of codependency 
  • Limiting beliefs and lack of self trust that come from codependency 
  • Stifled self-expression that comes from codependency 
  • How codependency serves the deep need for survival of the nervous system 
  • Role of early childhood neglect
  • How unmet emotional needs in early childhood may be interpreted by the brain as abandonment 
  • Impact of self-sacrificing on the nervous system and long term health
  • Shame and loneliness aspect of codependency
  • Elisabeth questions the concept of personality disorder and challenges the idea that they are inherent and unchangeable

Listen to more episodes of Trauma Rewired HERE


[00:00:00] Jennifer: Welcome to Trauma Rewired, the podcast that teaches you about your nervous system, how trauma lives in the body, and what you can do to heal. My name is Jennifer Wallace. I am a Neuro Somatic Psychedelic Preparation and Integration guide.

[00:00:12] Elisabeth: And I’m Elisabeth Kristof, Founder of Brain-Based Wellness, an online platform that teaches you how to heal your nervous system deficits and create more resilience in your life.

[00:00:27] We hope you enjoy this conversation about codependence. It’s a topic that, for me, traditionally has brought some shame and some uncomfortable feelings of looking at. So hopefully as we talk about it, it will help you explore this with some curiosity in a judgment free space of looking at everything from a Neuro Somatic perspective.

[00:00:49] Jennifer: And as you will learn, all the tools that we use are on rewiretrial.com. So go there for your free two weeks and we’ll see you live on site with us. 

I really feel like it’s such a big important conversation to have, especially cause we had the conversation with Margy about boundaries. We’re gonna be talking about narcissism. And codependency falls into the realms of so much of what we’re talking about with attachment wound.

[00:01:15] Elisabeth: Absolutely. I think our ability to have interdependent relationships versus codependent relationships. It’s understanding that balance of: we are all connected and we do wanna have healthy, connected relationships; and when we really get into that place where we’re sacrificing our self, our own health, in order to maintain attachment. It’s really such a big part of why attachment wounds can disrupt our nervous system health and our long-term physical health. And I think it’s really imortant to look at it.

[00:01:46] Jennifer: Yeah, because technically we’re all born dependent. Hopefully we are taught the right tools, were modeled accordingly, so that we move into adulthood where we have achieved independence.

[00:01:58] Elisabeth: Yes, that would be like an ideal, safe, secure attachment. And then we carry that into the world. I think it’s really key to look at the difference between codependency and interdependency. The main difference is that codependency involves dependence on another person to the point where it negatively impacts your life, your own self-expression, your health, your peace of mind, your ability to feel safe in the world.

[00:02:25] Interdependence, there is a mutual dependence between people, and especially in our closest relationships, we have dependence on one another. Just like you were saying, we’re born dependent, but we also wanna be able to establish that safety inside of ourselves, even with our primaries, so that we can go out and explore the world, so that we can express our needs, so that we can have healthy emotional expression in our development that that’s not safe.

And I think we’ll get into this a lot more as we talk about this in this episode, but there’s all kinds of reasons why we would feel like we need to put maintaining the attachment to someone ahead of our own wellbeing. That feels more important to our survival at this deep nervous system level than the other things that we wanna do in our life. There’s many reasons why we can learn that in development. That becomes a well-worn path and what feels like the safest option internally is to do whatever I need to do to keep this attachment in place, to get self-worth and validation maybe even by prioritizing the needs of another person over our self. Sometimes you can see this in caretaking. It can become a really entrenched relational pattern.

[00:03:45] Jennifer: There is a huge caretaking dynamic in a codependent relationship. Because, like you said, you’re sacrificing your own sense of self-worth because you haven’t been taught how to manage your emotions. So you’re depending on the other’s emotional state to determine and define your own emotional state. You start mirroring it and taking it in. And it feels like caretaking because of the management of all the environments that the codependent is doing to keep themselves safe.

[00:04:15] That security that we talked about earlier on how it could be shaped is really interrupted by chaos. Then we develop this collection of habitual behaviors that arise from interpersonal stress states. These stress states really interrupt the ability to form interdependent secure relationships despite how much we really want, and we really need them. As children and infants even, we don’t have the necessary skills to manage stressful interpersonal relationships. We don’t understand emotional instability. We don’t understand neglect, and so we form these beliefs and behaviors around it because with not having the skills it’s like this almost extreme compliance of caretaking in a way that our worth is tied up into it.

[00:05:10] Our emotional regulation is dependent on this outside source of emotional management and emotional instability and emotional avoidance will form the codependent.

[00:05:20] Elisabeth: Yep. I wanna back up a little bit and just go over a big broad definition of codependence for people and some of the signs that it can show up in your relationships and it can also show up for yourself. For a long time, honestly, I didn’t think I was a very codependent person. I was raised as an only child with a single mom and spent a lot of time alone.

[00:05:40] So I thought, I’m really independent, but I didn’t see that I also had this deep yearning for attachment and this feeling of needing to secure attachment for my survival. I had so much time alone because there wasn’t a lot of emotional regulation taught to me in my childhood and even some emotional neglect.

[00:06:03] So I did really prioritize, especially in intimate partnerships, maintaining that connection over myself. But I didn’t exactly see it. I didn’t have that perception of myself until I really started looking at the more subtle ways that I led myself into dysregulation with my partner. I was looking up some definitions of codependency and one was: when one person in a relationship seeks self-worth and validation by prioritizing the needs and caretaking of their partner, many people in these dynamics have poor boundaries.They have the desire to control their partner’s behaviors or actions.

They experience a lot of anxiety and low self-worth, fear of abandonment and struggles with intimacy, and that it might show up in your relationship as needing to get permission before you make plans with friends, which is like different than notifying your partner or saying, ‘Hey, I have these plans’, but really feeling afraid and needing permission to go and do something without them. Blaming your partner if you feel unhappy or dissatisfied in any way.

Wanting to know what your partner thinks before you voice, or even form, an opinion, worrying about how to make your partner happy and considering their happiness and their regulation and their safety ahead of your own, far more important than your own sense of wellbeing. Then always needing to be together because one partner might find it distressing.

[00:07:25] Jennifer: I wanna interrupt too for a moment because you keep using the word partner, but this is not just in romantic relationships. Codependent relationships form from our primaries and move into all relationships as we go into the world and build webs of relationships. It does not have to be an intimate, well intimacy also has many different definitions, but it doesn’t have to be a sexually intimate partnership in a life partnership that you are that you have a codependent relationship? I’ve had most of this falls in line of my, I see it mostly in friendships. Well, I’ve also not been dating for several years now.

[00:08:00] Elisabeth: With clients and in my own life, and I know you and I have talked about this a lot of it playing out in friendships, in business partnerships, and even in relationships with clients where you know that there can be this really blurred line of boundaries. In the boundary setting episode we talked about how scary and threatening it can feel inside a nervous system to set boundaries, especially when as a child that led to losing, or could possibly be perceived as losing, the attachment that you have with a primary.

[00:08:35] Because you also really need that. I think in your individual life too, it can appear as people pleasing a lot, lying to cover up your opinion, trying to control other people’s perception of you, hiding out and not expressing yourself visibly in your work or hiding behind institutions or in relationships. Having this fear of being perceived as a narcissist or self-absorbed if you are really visible and voicing your opinion, taking care of others’ needs to your own detriment, obsessively thinking about how you communicated with other people.

[00:09:13] Having your own projects fall by the wayside because you never have time to do the things that you really want to do. Having this feeling that you were meant to put something out into the world, but not being able to do it. Lying to protect other people’s feelings- like saying you’ll do something that you don’t wanna do. Finding yourself in commitments that you don’t wanna do. Then taking on other people’s emotions all of the time, feeling this need to not let other people be upset or disappointed or frustrated, that you have to kind of control that for other people’s emotional experience.

[00:09:49] Jennifer: There’s also this underlying idea that everybody has more power than me, so you just constantly give it away. You don’t have any boundaries and so often you don’t even understand where you end and someone else begins in this situation because you have taken on so much of the responsibility of the multiple environments; the physical environment, the emotional environment. All the landscapes that this person is in, you begin managing yourself around. A lot of limiting beliefs can come up: without so and so I am nothing, I can’t handle it if I’m rejected, I can’t trust myself.

[00:10:29] We’re saying emotional intimacy is really the intimacy that all of us deeply desire. It’s the holy grail of intimacy so we can find ourselves in partnerships and relationships, you mentioned business, that we do have that compliance. I think with that compliance there’s this undercurrent of shame that exists within the emotional landscape of codependency. There is this undercurrent of amplified shame.

[00:11:05] Elisabeth: That really resonates. 

[00:11:07]  Jennifer: Yeah, which also plagues the levels of loneliness that one can feel even when they have other people around them. 

[00:11:20] Elisabeth: As a kiddo… I don’t know for other people’s experience, but as a kiddo that has early childhood sexual abuse, I will say shame is my big underlying emotion. It’s there. It permeates everything. And it is so much of a driving force of this need to be perfect, to appear perfect and to overgive. I don’t really want people to see what’s underneath there, not as much anymore because I’ve done a lot of work with it, but I still patterning is deep and definitely drove a lot of my codependent behavior.

Really, if you think about it, as a kid, we’ve talked so much on here about how the need for attachment, especially to our primaries, is a real survival need. So if you are a kid and you’re growing up experiencing emotional neglect or physical neglect or there’s this vacuum like trauma. It can be something that can happen to us, but it could also be something that doesn’t happen that we need for healthy development. So you’re growing up with this real need and so you can become very hypersensitive to not getting the attachment and the security that you need in terms of social support and relational health.

So we become hypervigilant about losing connection to other people. Then it really feels as we start to recognize signals that someone might be frustrated with us, angry, disappointed or we’re just interpreting that those signals are there. They might not even really be there, but we can go really quickly to abandoning ourselves and our own needs and our own opinions, because that is what feels safer from that patterning, from that neuromatrix that was developed growing up.

[00:13:22] Jennifer: One of the things we’re talking about here that we are intended to learn, from our caregivers, is emotional self-regulation. If we have emotional self-regulation, it means that we have a caretaker that provided reliable and sensitive responses to our emotional states, regardless of how varying they were. They showed us that emotional distress is manageable, and those strategies are modeled and developed to learn by us that we learn how to regulate our own emotional states by watching the self-soothing modeled behavior of our primaries. If we had primaries that had big emotional outbursts, we might learn that emotions are really scary and wild and they may be unpredictable, so we might learn to avoid, suppress or be confused by emotions when other people have them.

[00:14:10] Having a manageable emotional world internally creates a more stable world outside of us. When we understand how to emotionally self-regulate, it makes the world more reliable and more safe and impedes the hyper vigilance that you just spoke of. Then there’s, of course, the experience of children having to take on the emotional experiences of their caretakers. And the primaries never have the real bandwidth for emotional processing at all. Then the child carries the burden of the emotional weight of the relationship.

[00:14:50] Elisabeth: Absolutely. Yeah, there’s so many reasons why emotions can be big and overwhelming and scary, and not just our own. Wanting to maintain connections so that we don’t have to bear the weight of those all by our self- this deep need to share emotional stress with others so that we’re not carrying it all by our self. But also, just like you said, other people experiencing emotions can become really scary. So then, yeah, there’s this need to protect other people from their own emotional experiences. Not just to protect them, but also to protect yourself from having to experience them having the emotional experience, which in your past with primaries, was historically too much for a little developing nervous system to take on and was often put on the child in instances of parentification or just with a caregiver that did not have the skills to emotionally regulate. It makes sense why it feels life threatening inside the body to let other people have that experience.

[00:15:53] Jennifer: In more recent years, I’ve been blessed to have a friendship that really mirrors the dynamic of my mother. I didn’t understand this for a really long time, and I quickly fell into that codependent dynamic because it was so similar to a mother wound that I hadn’t healed yet. I had huge emotional outbursts within the years of us living together, because there was a caretaking dynamic and the struggle for me to feel autonomous in our friendship. I really had so much shame around how much my friend could do for herself that I couldn’t do. There was a lot of resentment and there were no lines, no boundaries. I didn’t have the tools at that time to understand self-regulation. It was in food freedom when I learned that I was in a codependent relationship. That was only a couple of years ago. 

So I’ve taken a couple of years to reshape that friendship, to reshape my own nervous system so that I am the safe container. So that I am the one who is safe when all the chaos is happening. Because if we have learned the emotional self-regulation, like we weren’t co-regulating safely together, we were sharing the emotional experience and it got very murky. So me learning how to do that and be safe in my own nervous system has really shifted the dynamic in our friendship into a much more secure place. And it’s been incredible with just the right tools, we really can reshape.

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[00:18:22] Elisabeth: Yeah, I agree. I think there’s been really important practices that I have done that have allowed me to move out of this patterning, which I definitely had and saw play out in many of my relationships; very much like how you were talking about. One of the most important ones has been learning healthy ways to process and express emotions. Then having practices for emotional expression with regulation, combining that with Neuro Somatic tools. So regulating my nervous system before and then doing somatic practices- anger work, grief work, movement to process shame through and then reregulating my nervous system has helped me to really stop having some of that big fear of other people’s emotions and of my own emotions that led me into that codependent patterning. Like it’s okay for my partner to be angry. It’s okay for my partner to be frustrated, not take it out on me, but just to have that experience of expressing their own anger or disappointment or sad or whatever.

[00:19:28] I don’t necessarily have to jump in and fix it. Certainly don’t have to compromise my own life to do that. Yes, we’re in a partnership and I wanna support the people in my life that I’m in different kinds of relationships with. I wanna support you, I wanna support him, I wanna support the people that I’m close to, but not at the expense of my own health and wellbeing. I can better draw those lines and individuate because I’m not so dysregulated by and afraid of other people’s emotional experience.

[00:20:00] Jennifer: Yeah, because if we have learned that love and connection aren’t safe and it’s hard to trust people, then maybe that causes you to withdraw or avoid people. When that connection is missing in our lives, it causes a huge distress in the nervous system. Survival responses are activated- anxiety, shutdown, agitation.

[00:20:20] We spoke about cultural beliefs recently, and we received messages about autonomy and individualism all the time. Back to that undercurrent of shame, if we are getting this message from society and culture that we should be individual and yet I have this deep inner wanting of belonging, of connection to others. That knowing that a nurturing relationship is one of the most powerful forms of nervous system regulation that there is, I can feel shame by my desires and the mixed messages of society and culture. Steven Porges said it’s biologically essential that you connect and co-regulate with others through nurturing relationships. Your psychological and physical health depend on it.

[00:21:07] Elisabeth: I was recently writing a newsletter about one of the past episodes we did, and I was posing the question, are you wired for protection or connection? As I was writing that question, I thought- that’s a trick question. The answer is both, right? That’s what really happens in disorganized attachment because we can become wired in a survival way to withdraw from connection because relationships are dangerous and threatening at a survival level for many reasons, as we’ve talked about in previous episodes, for what can happen during our development, but always we will also be wired for connection.

Because we’re a social species, we evolve to be that way. We need social bonds for reproduction, for protection from predators, and now in modern day society we need to share stress. We need to share the load of stress with other people and we need healthy, supportive networks to keep us regulated and and safe. 

So we’re always wired for social connection and we may also be wired for protection and feel threat with that social connection. That’s what disorganized attachment really is. We need it and it also dysregulates us. So that leads to the internal chaos and is really why it can wreak such havoc on our nervous system, on our immune system, because we’re continuously pushed into something that also threatens us at a physiological level.

[00:22:45] Jennifer: Mm-hmm. As I was doing research for this conversation and learning about dependency, codependency, and interdependency; lifelong dependency is actually in the DSM as a dependent personality disorder. That means that someone just cannot take care of themselves in any of the capacities, like in any totality of capacity. They can’t manage emotions and they can’t trust their own abilities to self-regulate and to self-care. They often don’t understand, like there’s no meaning of life. There’s a constant fear of rejection or this constant need for reassurance. A lot of hypervigilance, muscle tension, anxiety. This is anxious attachment in that lifelong dependency.

That’s how they describe it, or how they define it, as anxious attachment. It’s this permanent childlike state that someone can be in because they need to attach easily because all of their lives depend on it. And the emo, like we’re talking about so much, the emotional regulation

[00:23:50] Elisabeth: Yeah, when you describe that I see it as this very dramatic attachment wound that is continuing to play out in their lives. It’s interesting that you brought up personality disorder, ’cause I think we’re gonna take a bigger dive into this when we look into empathy and narcissism. We’ve said on here many times that we don’t believe in personalities. We believe in frequently occurring outputs. That the nervous system has well-worn paths, they’re geared for our survival and protection and the outputs that we experience frequently are what is often thought of as our personality. And that really leads me to question all personality disorders borderline.

[00:24:34] This overly codependent personality type, narcissistic personality disorder, I just don’t know. I’m pushing up against what some people might… I don’t know how this is gonna be received. But I don’t know that I buy it, as we’re inherently wired this way and that there’s no way to change. I am someone who in my early adolescence was diagnosed as borderline personality. I do not think that if you met me today, I don’t even think the people who know me really well who can see behind everything- you and my partner and the people that are close in my life. I do not think that they would think of me as exhibiting any of the characteristics of what you would typically identify in borderline personality disorder.

While I do still sometimes have severe reactions to attachment stuff inside of my body, I have an ability to regulate and to respond differently. I just think it’s completely possible to create change in any of these attachment schema with time, it’s not easy. It’s not a 100% all of the time, but it’s possible.

[00:25:53] Jennifer I am shocked no one gave me that diagnosis of borderline personality. Honestly. I mean, I was off the rails. Even the friend I was describing when I lived together, she always thought I had four personalities. She was just watching my Fs play out constantly in this giant pendulum swing. Maybe that’s one time that misattunement worked out for me is that I didn’t get that diagnosis. (laughing)

[00:26:22] Elisabeth: Totally. I’m excited to talk with Matt Bush more about all this and personality disorders and all of that, but I don’t know from an NSI perspective. We’re changing all the time. Our outputs are changing all the time, and we have the ability to adapt to new stimulus, to create safe relationships and to move out of these patterns into really healthy interdependence.

[00:26:46] Jennifer: It’s true and also I agree like it’s just the nervous system- all of it can change. We change ours with intention every day, all the time, with purpose. Look at the lives we’ve birthed through nervous system health and all of what we talk about on this podcast. These protective behaviors that are learned in childhood are maladaptive in adulthood. So we have to go back to the operating system, we have to reshape it, we have to train it, we have to teach it another way of being and show it the safety, because in the moments that we are experiencing activations and this is current day, regardless of how much and how well you know your nervous system, you’re still going to have activations, you’re still going to experience “unpleasant emotions”.

[00:27:31] The best we can do is to know and understand our nervous system so that we can experience the peace that we want, the calm and the safety. And that that is the container of ourselves first. We learn about our bodies to find new ways to respond that are healthy and safe, and regulating that emotional body so that we can have healthy, safe relationships. And allow others with a really foundational belief that you can have your own emotional experience. It has nothing to do with me and it has no effect on me whatsoever. You have your own sovereignty.

[00:28:06] Elisabeth: Absolutely. The best place, like you were saying, is to get started by creating some safety inside of yourself, getting to know your own nervous system. So if you wanna join us on the site for two free weeks of Neuro training to begin to learn the tools that we have used, to start to create that safety inside of yourself you can work with us live and in community. It’s at rewiretrial.com. This is the foundation that we truly have used to create change in all of these patterns in our life. So join us at rewiretrial.com

[00:28:36] Jennifer: And stay tuned because Matt Bush is joining us to talk about narcissism and empathy. It’s gonna be big and fun.