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“The Codependency Dance” – November 15, 2017

Note: Narcissists and the codependents can be any gender. In a majority of cases narcissists are men who seek female codependent counterparts. For the sake of this article the narcissist will be referred to as “he” and the codependent will be referred to as “she”.  These labels are not intended to be limiting.

The world of psychology uses “the codependency dance” to describe the intimate relationship between two very broken, dysfunctional, opposing, but balanced people:  the fixer and the people-pleaser (the codependent), and the controller and taker (the narcissist) The destructive behaviors that each one has formed throughout their childhoods and into their adult lives seem to complement each other perfectly. The two of them mesh together in a seductive and dysfunctional dance where the codependent individual will give up her power and the narcissist will thrive on that control and power so that no one’s toes get stepped on.

The Dancers

Codependent individuals are enamored with the needs and desires of other people. They were groomed in their childhood to be servants and later in life they find themselves on a dance floor where they are attracted to people who are a perfect pairing for their submissive dancing style. They are natural followers, and most of them find narcissists extremely appealing because of their charm, confidence, boldness, and dominant personality.

The perfect dancing partner for a narcissist is someone who lacks self-worth, confidence, and self-esteem. A narcissist looks for a dancing partner who he can manipulate, so that he can control the dance. He looks for someone who has a warped sense of reality and codependent people fit this role perfectly.  Individuals who have grown up knowing who they are, who are confident in their capabilities, and who are strong-willed (or normally-willed) rarely stay with the narcissist long-term, because they are able to see the red flags of the narcissist’s selfish personality early on.  (ie: they don’t put up with crap, like gaslighting).

Codependent people confuse caretaking and sacrifice with true love and loyalty. They are dedicated to their partners but feel used, which makes them bitter later on.  Her hunt for love is ultimately an unconscious motivation to find someone who is “familiar”. (Familiar isn’t always good)  It stems from childhood trauma and the lack of healthy love, respect, and being cared for by adults.  She fears being alone and her compulsion to control and fix things at any cost motivates her. She is comfortable in her role as a martyr who is endlessly loving, devoted, and patient.  She dreams of dancing with somebody who loves her unconditionally.  She believes that she must sacrifice herself in order to obtain this love because it is the only way that she has ever known how to express love.

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First Dance, Honeymoon, and Return Home

In her eyes, at first sight, the narcissist is the embodiment of Prince Charming. He woos her and caters to her every whim, makes her feel like she is the center of the universe, pours out excessive expressions of love (love bombing), and he does his best to figure out what it is she likes and what she is looking for in a mate so that he can wear that mask for her, in the beginning. 

The honeymoon phase of the relationship lasts anywhere from a handful of weeks to about six months (but for more experienced narcissists, they could keep up the act for years) and after this threshold is approached the good graces of the narcissist start to dwindle swiftly. Complements and catering to his new love have been replaced with gaslighting and correcting, and she takes the criticism because she believes that he loves her and that he knows what’s best for her. If she argues with him, he will convince her that she is wrong, and because of her weak self-esteem and trust in him, she will slowly start to adopt his mindset and become the image that he wants her to be. She holds on, hoping for things to get better, and hoping for things to go back to the way that they were before; she hopes that after a period of time her partner will finally start to understand her real needs instead of critiquing her over and over again. She doesn’t know that he doesn’t have the ability to truly empathize with people. She has been trained to withstand the pain, and to power through, like she did when she was growing up. Her whole dysfunctional life has led her up to this dysfunctional relationship and she executes it beautifully.

In a sense, the narcissist is never completely whole without a partner to dote over his every need. As she is compulsively corrected by him, she starts to become a memory of herself for the sake of him, their relationship, and for her own survival. Any deviation from his plan is met with aggression and sometimes violence. His partner, always seeking the love that he had given her at the start, is forever confused. She doesn’t know what is false or what is true anymore. She will believe cunning lies that come from his lips, because he is a master gaslighter who is able to whip up verbally abusive concoctions that cause her to believe that she ‘needs to be corrected’.  The narcissist will isolate her, and start to cut her off from the rest of the world, including her own friends and family. She will become completely dependent upon him for every need, and she clings to him for safety.

Her gauge of reality is so warped that she wouldn’t even know what to do without him because she has completely lost herself and her ability to make decisions without his direction. She doesn’t want to make him angry by moving in any direction other than what he has designated for her. She will adopt the image of the type of woman he is attracted to, she will eat like him, she will absorb his political and religious beliefs, she will consult him on what she should wear, how she should talk, what job she should take, what she should and shouldn’t approve of, what friends she should have, what family members she can’t be around, how she should be in the bedroom, and how their home should look. She becomes a tool for him to use, so that he can create an environment for which he can impress people, not an environment where she will feel comfortable.

 

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The Breakup

Narcissists are rarely faithful to their partners. If the relationship does not end with the narcissist cheating on her, and leaving her, it usually ends when she starts to discover her real self, and when she starts to find her own independence.  He needs to be with somebody who obeys him at all times.  Unfortunately most codependent people are deep into a dysfunctional relationship when their eyes start to open. She fell in love with an image all those years ago, but that image that he presented to her was not a real person. During a break up, and throughout her relationship with him, she mourns the loss of this image. She confuses the image with the abusive person.  The breakup will be a vicious battle between the functioning, healthy, and newfound realizations of her personality and the manipulation and tyranny of the narcissist. When a breakup finally happens, the narcissist will never provide closure and draws out the breakup as much as possible.  Stalking is not uncommon, and could continue for many years down the road.  Most narcissists like to keep tabs on their former partners.

Codependent individuals desire balance and harmony, but they typically fall for people based on initial attraction, and unfortunately this initial attraction is most prominent with narcissists because of their charm and boldness. If she finds herself without a partner to dance with, she doesn’t wait for somebody who is healthy, but she jumps into another dance, usually with the same type of person. Loneliness is too much for her to bear. She will continue dating the same type of person over and over again, and endure the same kind of abuse, until she realizes that she is a broken person and that she needs to fix herself. Until she learns that she is the root of all of her own problems, that she is the one who chooses abusive partners because of her own brokenness, and until she heals herself, she will keep on dancing the same dysfunctional dance.  The cycle continues until it is broken (and it usually continues for decades, through generations of family members).

His Crap and My Choice

This codependent woman was me.  As I said before, I grew up in an extremely abusive home, and the adults in my family did a fantastic job at raising me to be an excellent codependent woman.  They taught me the turns, the dips, and the footwork, so that when I became a young adult and ventured into the dating world, I would know how to dance with narcissists.  I would be lying if I said that I never enjoyed the thrill of each one of them in the beginning.  Each one was a ‘love-bombing’ prince and I was a lonely princess.

Not all of the men that I have dated have been narcissistic. I have dated a number of young men who have been absolutely pleasant, wonderful, and kind.  They were people who I took for granted because of my own brokenness.  I didn’t know how to love with proper boundaries and I still feel guilty for the pain that I had caused.  For that, I am sorry.

As for the three who were narcissistic, I don’t feel guilt except for the damage I did to myself.  I can’t feel guilty for men who had knowingly abused me and “debated with me” about the justifications for their actions.  I have been manipulated, I have been brainwashed, I have been made to feel like the scum of the earth, I have been the punching bag for their failings, I have been hit, I have been sexually assaulted, I have been verbally abused, and I have been mentally abused.

Sometimes, people are dealt crappy cards.  Crappy things happen to awesome people.  No one can control everything that happens to them, but, each of us has control over HOW WE REACT to the crap that is thrown at our feet.  We can either choose to step in it, or we can choose to walk away. 

Two years ago, a familiar pile of abusive crap was thrown at my feet.  I was tired of the same dysfunctional patterns, but I didn’t know why they were happening to me.  I was angry with my unhappiness and empty romantic relationships.  I confided in my friends who turned around and told me that I was my own problem.  THAT made me angry, but they were right.  I realized that I had dated a string of abusive people, but that I was also in control of my own narrative, and that because I was in control that it was my fault for making the choice to step in the crap in the first place.

So, I took a good, long, glaring look at that smelly, steaming piece of rancid crap at my feet.  Then I mustered up the courage to look up into his proud ‘know-it-all’ face.  And for the first time in my life, I made the choice to walk away from the abuse.

The first step to recovery is realizing that there is a problem…

But, breaking up with a narcissist is not something that you just do, either…

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“The Codependency Dance” – 2017 – Digital Sketch – Photoshop – Erika Robertson

“The Narcissist’s Family” – November 13, 2017

Note: This article uses male gender pronouns for “the narcissist”.  Both men and women can be diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, but it is more common in men. To read more about NDP click here. 

Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is a parasitical disease that affects those especially close to the narcissist.  His uses his suave and charming personality mixed with cunning manipulation in order to move around pawns in a game whose only objective is to glorify himself, the gamekeeper.  There are small moments when the narcissist’s mask falls off around friends, acquaintances, and family, usually in a spurt of anger or debate where personal offense has been taken.  But generally speaking, the only people who will see the real narcissist without a mask will be those who are a part of his innermost circle.

Who is in this innermost circle?  They are the people who he believes that he owns (this ownership can be conscious or subconscious).  His roommates and close friends rarely come close enough to experience consistent abuse because he can separate himself and take breaks from his act.  But long-term lovers, spouses, and children become the most valued pieces in his collection because he sees each one of them, especially his children, as an extension of himself.  He interacts with them frequently.

In a healthy household, parents will raise their children to become confident, independent, and healthy adults.  No household and no parent is perfect, but healthy children develop a balanced sense of self and their relationships evolve with the adult figures in their life.  This is not the case with a narcissist’s family.

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A narcissist’s only mission in life is to paint a grandiose representation of himself to the world.  And because the narcissist sees his spouse and his children as an extension of himself he trains them and uses them as a status symbol beneath the guise of a loving and caring family.  The most important thing to a narcissist is to maintain the image of success.  If you are part of his family you will be given a role to play and it will be your responsibility to act your heart out in public. There are only two rules in the house of a narcissist’s family:

  1.  the narcissist needs to always come first
  2. the image of the narcissist and his family must never be limited by the needs of the spouse and their children

Every spouse and child is assigned a role by the narcissist himself.  These roles include the golden child, the scapegoat, and the invisible child.  Over a period of time the children adopt secondary roles that include the hero/responsible child, the caretaker/placater, the mascot/clown, and the mastermind/manipulator.  Children may end up adopting one or more of these roles, and roles can switch multiple times over the course of one’s life, depending upon how the narcissist feels and how he measures that child against the others. He also weighs them with consideration to personal goals at any given moment.

The bottom line is that a narcissist would rather gloat about himself to try to impress a stranger rather than be loved by his own family.  All the while, his children, forever starving for love, bend over backwards to try to scrounge for breadcrumbs of his approval.  In public they wear the happy masks that he has made for each one of them.  

The Roles Cast by the Narcissist

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The Enablerthis role is usually played by the spouse (or a daughter). She does the narcissist’s bidding and plays nice in order to gain approval from the narcissist.  She orbits around when she is not helping him. Her life revolves around fulfilling every need of the narcissist. This is a role typically filled by a codependent individual, who grew up in an abusive home, and whose sense of self revolved around giving up herself in order to win love and favor from people around her. There are many cases where a codependent spouse realizes the error of his or her ways after being married to a narcissist for so many years. She comes to a breaking point and realizes the damage that has been done to the children because of her own irresponsibility and her own brokenness. But when that moment of realization hits, she can do nothing but sit back and watch her damaged children perform for her abusive spouse; she can only hope that her children will discover their own brokenness much earlier than she had.

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The Golden Child she is assigned her role according to her gifts and talents. This role could be set aside for the first or second child but as the narcissist’s children are born, or as his children leave the household, the role can shift to other children. This child is given special treatment and the narcissist seems to value this child the most. He will train this child so that she can act out the perfect masquerade of his perfect parenting. Most of the time the child will become a clone of the narcissist, adopting his beliefs, habits, and if this child stays in this role for their entire adolescence, it is likely that this child will also become a narcissist. But if the role ever shifts and the golden child is “demoted” (even if she is tossed in and out of the role) it is likely that the child will develop codependency, instead. Because the narcissist and the enabler put this child on a pedestal they also form a different bond with her than with the rest of the children.  Her siblings become jealous of the special treatment that she has been given, but in the long run this could be the most damaging role among the children. It will be harder for her, as an adult, to separate herself and find her true self apart from her parents. She becomes an extension of their relationship and the most puppet-like of the children.   Unless she is able to acknowledge the abuse and heal from it she will keep running in unfulfilled abusive circles, searching for love and fulfillment, but always falling short.

The Scapegoatthis child is the one who can do nothing right. They are labeled a “bad seed” and tend to be the most outspoken of the children with a “look at me” persona. The narcissist will use this child as a punching bag, and they will be the recipient of the most abuse among the children. The scapegoat and the golden child seem to be at odds with each other most of the time. The children understand that the narcissist’s affections are given ‘freely’ to the top performing child, so the scapegoat tries to dethrone the golden child in order to win the love and affection of the narcissist, unaware of the toxicity of the coveted role.  The scapegoat is most likely to develop a sense of self and awareness, but it will be damaged. They will probably be successful and independent later on in life, driven by a need to succeed and to prove themselves worthy of love, but they will still need to address the childhood trauma that went on in their household in order to heal from the abuse.

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The Lost Child/Invisible Childhe receives no praise and no blame from the narcissist. In the narcissist’s eyes, there is “no use” for him.  The lost child becomes very independent, isolated, and lonely. A lot of the time they do become self-sufficient but they fall prey to emotions of unworthiness and they constantly feel unloved throughout their lifetimes. These children are most likely to develop depression or substance abuse addictions.

The Secondary Roles Taken by the Children

The Hero/Responsible Child – most of the time this is the older sibling, but not always.  This child takes on a perfectionist nature at a very young age and develops a “responsible parent” role.  She is a true mask of a narcissistic family. She suppresses her emotions until she cannot feel them at all, she is extremely insecure, and she drives herself compulsively from one achievement to the next.

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The Caretaker/Placater – she is the emotional rescuer of the family. She manages and shuffles around the ever changing moods of the family by listening, supporting, nurturing, and counseling. She is a very sensitive creature, calm, and understanding in nature. Although she tries to fix everyone around her, she seeks no emotional support for herself. She doesn’t know how to take care of herself, she only knows how to focus on everyone else. She is a people pleaser. Her self-worth is defined by what she can do for others. She gives love but she doesn’t know how to receive it back. She is only comfortable giving she is not comfortable receiving and as a result she will push away love. As she grows into adulthood she finds that her job is to fix and save people from themselves. She turns into a ‘grade A’ codependent person, whose relationships become one-sided, toxic, and abusive. She becomes a doormat for people and will usually choose a career in the caring profession.

The Mascot/Clown – this role is usually adopted by the youngest member of the family. He is responsible for the emotional well-being of the family but through the use of humor as opposed to care taking. He puts on a comedy show to divert the pain in the family. He is usually a happy-go-lucky person and a very likable individual who can make others laugh but who finds it difficult to make himself genuinely happy.  He will usually suffer from depression. Because he is constantly putting on a show he doesn’t really develop any sense of authentic self and he struggles with feelings of emptiness and loneliness.

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The Mastermind/Manipulator – he is sinister, selfish, and abusive. Paired with the golden child the role, the mastermind and manipulator will turn into a narcissist. He is driven by entitlement and coerces people through manipulation.  He is sneaky enough to operate just below the radar and he uses the dysfunction and the rest of the family to his own benefit. He intentionally creates conflict among family members to get what he needs and what he wants. He knows how to put on the charms and can manipulate even the adults in the family. He can also take on the quality of a sinister jokester, echoing the words “What’s the matter? Can’t you take a joke?”

“The Narcissist’s Family”

My piece is called “The Narcissist’s Family” and it was important to me to try to capture the feeling of being a game piece in a narcissistic family unit.  Children will grow up not being able to measure feelings in a healthy manner, or they develop a numb persona.  Sadness and depression will develop later when they are aware enough to piece the abusive puzzle together.  The golden child is brought into the limelight alongside the narcissist, with help from the enabler whose eyes are finally starting to see the truth of her lifestyle and her role in the abuse.  She wonders if it is too late.  She wonders what will happen to her children and to herself.  She wonders if there is any hope for healing and happiness.  The rest of her children will shuffle around in the shadows and wait for the beckoning calls of the game-keeper narcissist that shift at a moment’s notice.  As long as his family plays each part perfectly they will be okay.  They just need to avoid any action or phrase that will tarnish the image that he works so hard to maintain.  

It is rare for a narcissist to raise another narcissist. There have been theories that have been thrown around about narcissists breeding people who are equally as abusive, but studies show that if you have been raised by narcissist you’re much more likely to develop codependency. A narcissist’s upbringing is centered on the idea of selfishness, and in his adult life he will search for people to aide him in building his grandiose pedestal.  A codependent’s upbringing is centered on the idea selflessness, and in her adult life she will search for people to pour out her love to, in hopes that she will be loved in return with that same sacrifice that she so foolishly gives.  When the two get together, it seems like a perfect partnership at first glance.  To onlookers they are glorious, beautiful, and perfectly balanced.  But, when one partner only gives and the other only takes, the fairytale love story falls into the cauldron and transforms into a poisonous apple…

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“The Narcissist’s Family” – 2017 – Digital Drawing – Photoshop – Erika Robertson

“The Codependent” – November 9, 2017

My newest piece is called “The Codependent” and it is my interpretation of the feeling of the destructive mindset that I had developed in my childhood.  My codependency reached its peak when I turned twenty and it continued along a steady path for ten years.  It is the reason why I didn’t draw or paint for over a decade.  It is the reason why I had jumped from one abusive relationship to the next.  It is the reason why so many people had seen me dive into one career and then turn around to venture into another.

What is codependency?  In a nutshell, it is the unhealthy reaction to the fear of not being loved.  Those of us who grew up in an abusive household (a parent with substance abuse, verbally abusive adults, neglectful ‘role models’) find ways to cope with the trauma and form unhealthy reactions and habits based on that abuse that help us during that moment, but the habits follow us into adulthood.  Many of us become caretakers for irresponsible adults (you would be surprised at how many nurses and psychologists are codependent). Or we become people-pleasers who try to win the love of parents through accomplishment, or we try to find ways to help or fix people in our circle who are struggling with their own battles.  But codependent people aren’t able to find a healthy balance between living for themselves and living for others and they end up developing an unhealthy relationship pattern.

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“The Codependent” – 18″ by 12″ – Digital Drawing – Photoshop – Erika Robertson

 

What was codependency for me?  I grew up in a very abusive home, and for me codependency was trying to reach perfection in order to win approval and ultimately love from the adults in my life.  In my mind, if I didn’t do everything perfectly, if anything was lacking, then they would love me less.  My young mind fed off of the comments and opinions of adults in my life as I searched to fill an impossible void.  Because I wanted to feel that I was enough, it became hard for me to say “no” to anyone even when I was uncomfortable, which would later become a huge problem when I started dating.  I learned to discard myself in order to blend in with them and please them (FYI it doesn’t work).  Their thoughts and opinions became mine and I sought out their approval for even the smallest choices even when it came to choosing a place to eat dinner – it sounds ridiculous but it is the truth – I didn’t want to do anything that would make them feel that I was ‘wrong’ or ‘less’.  It was a life that felt like a never-ending feeble walk on a trail of broken glass.

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What we learn in childhood follows us into adulthood and each unhealthy pattern of affection starts with a single horrible life-changing event (I can trace most of my unhealthy habits back to a single incident from my youth). When it came to romantic relationships (any relationships, let’s be honest), I couldn’t set boundaries for myself,  I didn’t know how to express what I wanted because I didn’t even know what I wanted to begin with, because what I wanted was whatever THEY wanted.  When making ANY choice one question came to mind “Will so-and-so like this?”  In essence, I became whoever I thought my significant other wanted me to be, because that is what I did with my family, for fear of rejection.

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Many codependents take on “giving” careers, and they are typically very nice and likable people, but they can be control freaks.  If things are out of place they freak out, or if people aren’t doing what THEY want, they freak out.  They are amazing planners, but burn themselves out because of a lack of trust for other people.  They are guarded but at the same time might be lenient with boundaries in other respects.  (For me, I was guarded socially, but lenient romantically).  They have a hard time saying NO to people and if they do they feel guilty.  They take on work-loads that might be too much for them to handle because they are subconsciously seeking fulfillment in the form of love and appreciation from their peers.  They worry about hurting other people’s feelings, at the expense of their own.  They are givers in relationships, sometimes to the point where they lose themselves (because they can’t say NO).  They are also controlling in their relationships because they feel that “if people just did what I wanted, then they would be happy and I would be happy, too.”  They can be manipulators who just want what is best for others, but who intrude in order to feel accomplished, to win love, or to keep themselves safe from harm.

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For me, codependency felt like I was putting on a show.  I felt like I was forcing myself to smile or to be the person who I thought everyone else wanted me to be.  I tried to control the way people thought about me.  I tried to convince people that I was good enough to love by turning myself into what I thought they wanted.  I thought that they tied strings to me and that they had been pulling at me when in fact it was me who had tied strings to them, and it was me who was vying for their love.  I didn’t know that I was in control of my own life, that these choices that I made were MY choices and not theirs.  I was the one controlling the strings all along and that this was my show played out for me…not for them.  (Though, some abusers would have you believe otherwise…)

It is hard for many codependents to release themselves from the “victim mentality” and take a look in the mirror to see that the root to all of their problems with intimacy, love, and personal fulfillment lies within their own reactions to the people around them.  It is hard to come to terms with the idea that your life is horrible because of you, and no one else.  Horrible things happen to good people, yes, but it is our reactions to those events that define who we are, not the event itself.  When I was being abused I went back for more, thinking that things would change, and that decision to go back and ‘fix things’ was my choice.  ‘Fixing myself’ was my choice.  There would be people who continued being abusive, but how I reacted to the abusive people in my life was my choice.

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Two years ago I pinpointed that I was codependent.  It took a year for me to get through a 12 step recovery program, and it was the most painful transition of my life, but it finally set the stones for me to travel down a clear road.  The last year of my life has been filled with so many challenges, breakdowns, discoveries, and so much healing, and I know that I am better for all of it.  For the first time in my life I have set healthy boundaries, and I have started to discover who I am.  I have started to state my truths instead of allowing people to walk on me and make decisions for me.  I have started to care less about people’s opinions and have started paving my own road.  I have come a long way, and feel that the worst is behind me because I can see clearly now that the fog has lifted.  I will always have more to learn but my mind has been re-wired and I feel that life is so much simpler and happier without the baggage.

Art has been the most difficult outlet for me to re-wire because my mind automatically asks “what would be popular and what would everyone else like me to draw?  Will people like this?” as if it will gain the favor of people.  It won’t. Most of what I had created in the last thirteen years had been because of my insecurities about the opinions of the abusers around me.  I hadn’t been able to pick up a pencil for ten years for fear of rejection and fear of a lack of perfection.  I didn’t even know what I wanted to create, anyways because everything I did was to make others happy at the expense of myself.  I think about it and become a little sad because I wasted ten years of my life, but at the same time anything that I would have created wouldn’t have been from me and for me, anyways.  And as an artist what is the point in creating if you can’t even stand by your own work with the confidence that it is a reflection of yourself?

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Someone told me recently “you should just draw what you want to draw” but it is easier said than done for me.  Every project is a personal challenge, but as I sit down and discard perfectionism, fear of rejection, and doubts, I start to discover myself for the first time in my life.  It’s uncomfortable, but it’s getting better.  I feel that I am at a stable enough place to start sharing my journey.  It starts with my codependency, but it is made into a new kind of more powerful poison when mixed with a special type of parasitic abuser.

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“The Codependent” – Digital Drawing – Photoshop – Erika Robertson

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