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Controlling Others

Updated: Nov 27, 2022



I spent most of my life doing the Serenity prayer backwards, that is, trying to change the external things over which I had no control - other people and life events mostly - and taking no responsibility (except shaming and blaming myself) for my own behaviours and thoughts - over which I can have some degree of control. Having some control is not a bad thing but trying to control something or somebody over which you have no control is dysfunctional.


Attempts to control are a reaction to fear. It is what we do to try to protect ourselves emotionally. Some of us (codependent behaviour) try to control through people pleasing, being a chameleon, wearing a mask, dancing to other people's tunes. Others (counterdependent behaviour) try to be in control by pretending they don't need other people. Both behaviours are just two different behavioural defence systems that the ego adopts in early childhood. The ways in which we got hurt the most in childhood felt to our egos like a threat to survival, and it built up defences to protect us.


While the codependent had their sense of self crushed (it is 'self' destroying to feel that love is conditional on pleasing others, living up to the expectations of others) in childhood to the extent that confrontation (owning anger, setting boundaries, taking the chance of hurting someone, etc.) feels life threatening. The counterdependent feels like vulnerability (intimacy, getting close to/being dependent on other people) is life threatening.


Both the counterdependent and codependent patterns are reactive traits that are out of balance and dysfunctional. We do need other people - but to allow our self worth to be determined in reaction to other people is giving power away and setting ourselves up to be victims. It is very important to own that we have worth as the unique, special being that each of us is - not dependent on how other people react to us.


This is a very difficult process for those of us who have classic 'codependent' patterns of trying very hard to get other people to like us, of feeling that we are defined by how others think of us and treat us, of being people pleasers and martyrs. Codependent behaviour involves focusing completely on the other. Having no self except as defined in relationship to the other. This is dishonest and dysfunctional. It sets us up to be victims - and causes one to not only be unable to get one's needs met, but to not even be aware that it is right to have needs. A codependent person, when asked about themselves, will reply by talking about the other. Obviously, before someone with this type of behavioural defence can experience any self-growth, they have to first start opening up to the idea that they have a self. The process of owning self is frustrating and confusing. The concept of having boundaries is foreign and bewildering. It is an ongoing process that takes years. It unfolds in stages. There is always another level of the onion to peel, the next level of growth will always involve owning self on some deeper level. A very important part of this process is owning the right to be angry about the way other's behaviour has impacted our lives.


Counterdependent behaviour focuses completely on the self and builds huge walls to keep others out. We have lived our lives trying to prove that we don't need others, that we are independent and strong. Each of us has our own spectrum of behavioural defences to protect us from being hurt emotionally. We can be codependent in one relationship and counterdependent in another - or we can swing from co to counter - within the same relationship.


Both the classic codependent patterns and the classic counterdependent patterns are behavioural defences, strategies, designed to protect us from being abandoned. One tries to protect against abandonment by avoiding confrontation and pleasing the other - while the second tries to avoid abandonment by pretending we don't need anyone else. Both are dysfunctional and dishonest.

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