In my last blog I spoke about codependency and three unrealistic patterns of thinking – or cognitive distortions – that are common in codependent relationships. To recap: I defined “codependency” as a bond between someone addicted to a substance, or who engages in dysfunctional behavior(s), and their counterpart, or codependent, who enables their dysfunctional or addictive behavior.
The codependent, sometimes called the giver, will do all sorts of things that aggravate or perpetuate the taker’s behavior. And the codependent will often make great sacrifices in the name of “caring”. These include trying to fix their counterpart, care-take them, compensate for their irresponsible behaviors, protect them from the negative consequences of their actions, etc. The giver is fueled to do this because their sense of self: their mood, self-esteem, feelings of well-being, and subsequently their actions, are often contingent on the taker’s current emotional state, words, or behaviors.
The term cognitive distortion is an important element in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT. The theory behind CBT is that our thoughts, or cognitions, determine our feelings and behaviors. CBT posits that we all possess, and repeat to ourselves, a default set of automatic thoughts, which can cause problems for us when they are not appropriate to the situation at hand. CBT identifies irrational or exaggerated patterns of thinking – or cognitive distortions -- which go hand-in-hand with these problematic thoughts. They are ways of thinking that that cause people to perceive reality inaccurately. Today, I will highlight one cognitive distortion frequently seen in codependent relationships: Blaming.
Blaming can operate in both members of the relationship, though not always in the same way. A person engages in “blaming” when they hold the other person responsible for their emotional well-being, emotional pain, or even the actions they take. All sorts of interpersonal and intrapersonal problems stem from blaming.
The codependent might say: “He made me feel terrible about myself.”
This kind of blaming is a distortion: no one can make you feel a certain way. Feeling badly about yourself is a feeling stemming from the belief that the negative comments the taker throws at you must be true. After all, your well-being is contingent upon them (or so your believe) and thus you don’t have to take responsibility for your own feelings or your own welfare.
The partner, or taker, might say: “I drink because you nag me all the time.”
This kind of blaming absolves the partner from taking responsibility for their actions. If someone else is to blame for their drinking, for example, they are justified in not putting in the effort and feeling the discomfort associated with changing, or in this case, getting sober.
Because they also believe in the legitimacy of blaming, the codependent might corroborate the taker’s belief that they, the giver, is to blame –in this case for their partner’s drinking. The codependent thus assumes responsibility for the taker’s dysfunctional behavior: they blame themselves for it. The result: the codependent might feel tremendous guilt and work themselves into a pretzel to stop “causing” the taker’s problem.
Here, the blaming is clearly a distortion. It is not realistic to blame yourself for someone else’s dysfunctional behavior. That’s the other person’s responsibility and choice. Taking on the blame again absolves the taker from the responsibility for their own behaviors, and it encourages them to unload their feelings of guilt onto the codependent.
Blaming is not exclusive to codependent relationships either. People have a natural tendency to occasionally blame others for negative situations of their own making to avoid painful feelings like guilt, embarrassment and shame. In a codependent relationship, blaming is the default setting and is corroborated by both parties to distract them from difficult feelings and painful realities. Do you recognize a pattern of blaming in your relationship? If so, the first step to healing is awareness.
Practicing mindfulness moves you towards awareness by helping you see your current reality – your current situation -- more objectively. Difficult as that awareness can feel, psychotherapy supports you in moving towards acceptance of the reality of your situation, which is a necessary step in the healing process. Psychotherapy offers the tools to facilitate change by teaching you to correct your faulty thought patterns. Mindfulness-based psychotherapy provides you the tools and the support to sit with the difficult feelings surrounding your situation without needing to divert attention from them by engaging in faulty thought patterns such a blaming.
According to CBT, when thoughts change, feelings and behaviors change. So when even one partner starts to recognize and sit with the reality of their relationship and the difficult feelings associated with it, they can begin to alter their distorted ways of thinking. They can start to change their behaviors in the relationship, which is bound to disrupt unhealthy dynamics, leaving room to develop healthier patterns and a healthier relationship.
Join me in my next blog where we’ll take a closer look at another cognitive distortion you see in codependent relationships: The Control Fallacy.