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The Codependency Loop

by Niklas Haas on December 22, 2019

Tagged as: personal, feelings, mental health.

Recently, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about both limerence and codependency. If you’re not familiar with those terms, I suggest you stop and read up on them - but my best attempts at summarization would be that limerence is “an addiction to unreliable sources of affection”, and codependency, at least in the general sense, is “a need to define oneself entirely by primary attachments / inability to set healthy boundaries”.1

While thinking about this, I identified a very strong loop, one which I’m not entirely sure I see a way to break out of, just yet - but hopefully ruminating on this blog post will provide answers in due time. It goes like this:

  1. Isolation
  2. Unmet emotional needs
  3. Self-distortion for the sake of receiving affection
  4. Doubting the authenticity of this “conditional” love
  5. Fears of abandonment and attachment anxiety
  6. Self-sabotaging and mind games => abandonment
  7. Isolation

It’s this fear of “not being good enough”, and a built-in idea of love being conditional, i.e., “having to be ones best to receive love” that I suspect leads to both codependency and anxious attachment styles. These are furthermore plagued by an incessant need to prove to ourselves that the love the other person expresses for us is real, which we’re constantly doubting since it feels like we’re just “buying” the other person’s affection by putting on our best display for them.

The biggest problem here is the self-sabotaging tendencies. Because of our constant fear of being exposed for the “filthy liars and manipulative, narcissistic assholes” we clearly are for the heinous crime of “wanting to be loved”, we begin doubting its authenticity and thus set out on missions to test their love for us. We self-deprecate, we become miserable and emotionally unstable, we withdraw and have them chase us, and then get even more upset when they don’t. We do everything in our power to desperately prove to ourselves that the other person actually cares about us, while we know deep-down that they don’t - they just like the mask we’re wearing for them. In some sense, we’re projecting our own self-hatred onto the object of our attachments, in a way that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we keep self-sabotaging like this, the natural conclusion is that, eventually, the other person will have had enough and decide to leave us - which only further reinforces our already preexisting fears of abandonment and of being unworthy of receiving love.

The cycle repeats. Having now been recently abandoned, we become even more isolated from our emotional needs and thus desperate for affection, so the reality-distortion field surrounding our world-views grows in intensity. We latch on to the next person who shows even the slightest bit of interest in us, and yet again redefine ourselves by their values because we just want them to like us already. It’s a never-ending cycle of rebound after rebound, with no intermittent periods of stability in between. Combine this with the limerent’s tendency to seek out “unreliable” sources of affection while rejecting any who would actually be interested in us, and you have a recipe for disaster if left to our own devices.

I wish I knew how to escape from this loop. The popular mantra of “learn to love yourself before you can love another” is horrifically misleading, because it does nothing but strengthen the idea of all love being conditional. Far from solving the problem, this only serves to intensify any preexisting feelings of self-hatred… If anything, it feels like the way out is to experience unconditional love, so that we can learn to love ourselves in kind. That said, this is neither something I can control or influence, nor something I’m likely to find while still trapped in this hellish loop of self-distortion and limerent fantasy. It feels like I need to be in a healthy relationship in order to experience secure attachment for myself, but being in a healthy relationship is impossible if your unmet needs and self-loathing are so all-consuming that they prevent you from forming them.

It’s possible that the right approach is to use behavioral therapy skills to acknowledge our intense feelings without acting on them, and thus prevent ourselves from self-sabotaging for at least as long as it takes in order to find somebody who will accept us for who we are. That being said, if this is the best strategy I have, I’m not exactly looking forward to it. It paints an incredibly bleak and dull picture of my future: “just continue suffering and suppressing your needs for the foreseeable future”. And perhaps, that’s the exact opposite of what I should be doing?

I haven’t actually written about this before, but I’m somewhere on the “quiet borderline” spectrum (and also ADHD, but that’s another blog post) - so even writing these blog posts is an immense struggle. (The only way I can get the words out of my chest at all is because I’m alone and typing words into a computer screen.) The reason I brought it up is because knowing that I have a tendency to think this way is already making me doubt strongly what it is I’m suggesting. The rational part of me knows that swallowing my emotions is wrong, and if anything, a big part of what led me here. But at the same time, the shame I associate with my attachment anxiety and emotional instability is causing me to view myself through the lens of nothing but derision. The idea of people hating and leaving me for it is so entrenched into my conscience that I can’t even envision the idea of somebody accepting me despite (or perhaps for) it.

At the very least, one of the things I can do is recognize my pattern of only seeking out “emotionally unavailable” people, and breaking it. At some level, it helps to confront the reality of the matter, which is that I only love them because their cold treatment of me makes the dopamine hit that much more intense when I finally receive scraps of their affection - re-invoking a pattern I’ve been exposed to since early childhood, providing me with that sense of “familiarity” that comes with emotional neglect.

Furthermore, If I want to experience unconditional love, I could perhaps start by actually letting people into my life who would show it to me. If only this didn’t feel so much like I was abusing them for it, and make me hate the latent narcissistic traits I inherited even further. It seems like the right mix is to be able to both give and receive love at the same time. Perhaps it is all just a big game of waiting until you get lucky, and I just got unlucky? At the same time, it’s not like luck is the only factor here. I actively self-sabotage by living an isolated lifestyle and cutting myself off from society; but at the same time, I rebel against the idea of opening up and meeting new people because it feels like that’s exactly the same kind of “lying to myself” and “changing myself for the sake of love” that both disgusts me and keeps the cycle going.

I hope that this post at least reaches somebody in a similar situation. If you feel like your life has also been defined by a series of codependent addictions, or growing up around abusive peers and a dysfunctional family, I’d love to hear your input or suggestions. I also hope that, one day, I’ll be able to write a follow-up to this post that details how I managed to escape its curse.

  1. If you’ve read my previous blog entry, you might recognize some of the characteristics of both; which I’ve come to terms with identifying myself by. And, in case you’re curious, that was what finally pushed me over the edge of doing the thing my gut knows is right for me - going full NC, at least until the addiction passes.