Throughout my collective organizing experience, most of my closest friends and I have struggled to avoid martyrdom, resentment, and burnout. I have seen many students join my old food co-op with excitement and motivation only to withdraw several months later after working more shifts and washing more dishes than they had actually wanted to. In examining these tendencies towards self-sacrifice, I began to see them as facets of a larger system of codependent beliefs and behaviors that often manifests in radical communities. Moreover, I noticed that these codependent qualities are mutually constitutive with the dynamics of our Western capitalist society. This society is defined by a power structure that alienates children from their needs and feelings, depicts self-sacrifice as loyalty, shapes us into victims, perpetrators, and rescuers, and benefits from the whole process. When individuals work to recover from codependency, they learn to identify their needs, establish healthy boundaries, and resolve childhood traumas. Because my experience with recovery has had such a beneficial impact on my relationship to activism, I believe that the framework of codependency holds great potential not only for our understandings of Western capitalism but also for our approaches to radical struggle.
What is Codependency?
Mental health professionals originally created the term “codependency” to describe common tendencies among partners of alcoholics, but the term was later expanded to include a much broader range of individuals who exhibited similar qualities. Codependent kids often grow up in families where issues such as addictions, illnesses, or abuse are not addressed. These kids learn early to repress their emotions and disregard their needs in order to accommodate the family’s unspoken dysfunction at the cost of their own wellbeing. Much of their self-worth revolves around pleasing others and being needed as a way to derive a sense of control over their surroundings. For many, a negation of their needs and feelings creates a sense of shame and insecurity, which drives them to continue their patterns of validation-seeking and self-denial as they grow into adulthood.
In my experience, codependency is less of a category and more of a network of tendencies whose manifestation ranges wildly among people and transforms over time. Despite this, I have noticed two consistent themes of codependent behavior in my communities.
The first is a pervasive perfectionism, in which an individual’s self-approval is contingent on their performance in a particular arena. For those of us who are social perfectionists, this means people-pleasing in order to receive external validation. Relationships with controlling individuals offer this sort of approval in spades, creating a predictable matrix within which one can “earn” validation by doing the “right” things. I have noticed that even in activist communities which embrace honesty and non-hierarchy, folks often hesitate to assert their boundaries or express disagreement to others who are charismatic, controlling, or (seemingly) essential to the functioning of the collective.
At my former collective, I noticed this sort of behavior happening when one of the well-established core members took actions outside of our consensus system. At one point, they temporarily withdrew from the collective in a way that obviously sidestepped our traditional process, and after their final withdrawal, they refused to return their key to the store. Throughout these experiences, the other members and I remained strangely inactive. For many of us, this was our first experience at a workplace where boundaries were not set for us. We lacked the skills to assert our collective needs and communicate what we considered to be unacceptable. If more of us had been willing to speak up about our initial concerns, we may have been able to address this individual’s behavior in a way that prevented future boundary violations and ensured a culture of mutual respect within the collective.
The second theme of codependency is a violent unselfishness; one’s connection with their needs and feelings is sacrificed in order to address the needs and desires of others. This pattern is characterized by flexible personal boundaries, martyrdom, resentment, and expressed dissatisfaction that never materializes in action. Over time, individuals who consistently disregard their needs and emotions may lose touch with them altogether, and end up struggling to identify what it is they actually want and feel.
In my time living and participating in a radical land project, I felt obligated to assist with more projects, process more feelings, and eat more dumpstered bread than I was actually comfortable with. I heard this sentiment echoed by multiple volunteers, who expressed feelings of guilt around enjoying leisure time. In the end I burned out, became mired in resentment, and developed an intense sensitivity to gluten. Had I been able to set better boundaries for myself earlier on, I might have been able to participate in a way that was productive and sustainable in the long-term, or identify an unsustainable environment from the start.
Codependents often conceptualize interpersonal relationships through the framework of the drama triangle. Within this structure, an individual in a conflict will alternately inhabit “victim”, “perpetrator”, and “rescuer” personas, which distract from a complex and empathetic understanding of the situation. With its overly simplistic, archetypal roles, this structure provides individuals with a familiar framework for their feelings: indignation for the victim, defensiveness for the perpetrator, and salvation for the rescuer.
In their withdrawal, one of the members of the food co-op mentioned having “wounded bird syndrome”. They described their recurring experience of joining struggling collectives (victims of the “system”) and attempting to rescue them. When the collectives would fail to transform, this person would experience great disillusionment, shift from the “rescuer” to the “victim” role, and feel resentful and frustrated with the collective that, in their mind, was no longer a “victim” but a “perpetrator” of their distress. Had they and other members taken time to disabuse themselves of this paradigm, we could have understood our relationships to the collective in more complex, symbiotic terms, while avoiding burnout in the name of that collective’s salvation.
Ultimately, all three of these patterns serve to redirect individuals’ attention towards external sites of validation. Within codependency, the drama of everyday life keeps us from confronting our deeper anxieties and traumas.
Codependency and Society
Many of us are born into a society, which shames us for showing our bodies, our emotions, and our failures. Within mainstream monotheistic religion, we are reminded that because of our inherent sinfulness, we must suppress our natural impulses in order to earn paternalistic approval from an authoritarian god. In communities thoroughly infiltrated by the culture of competition, many of us feel that our value is always relative to those around us and never inherent to us. This sense of competitive insecurity divides us and lays the groundwork for the creation of a malleable, competitive capitalist workforce. Within the framework of codependency, mainstream society is an excellent example of a dysfunctional family which negates the needs and feelings of its members, shames them for their perceived imperfections, and drives them to compete indefinitely for externally-granted validation.
For most individuals in our society, these systems of external validation manifest in our families, in our schools, in our workplaces, and in our relationships to the legal system; these become our arenas for validation and salvation. When we fail to live up to the standards established for us, we are punished by the authorities as well as our own internalized judgments. These punishments victimize us, and since many of us never learn the skills required to define, identify, and satisfy our needs, we rescue ourselves through dissociation. Watching TV, shopping, eating, and drinking become our tools of emotional avoidance. In these patterns, there is an overarching connection to the self-sacrifice, search for validation, and disconnection from oneself that characterize codependence.
Meanwhile, the capitalist market perpetuates and profits from our distress. Advertisements in the media define images of perfection that erode at our sense of inherent self-worth and suggest consumerism as an appropriate solution to our inner defects. The message is clear: capitalism and its byproducts can rescue us from our ineptitude and victimhood. There is a safety in this message; it suggests that we do not have to look inward, to access our vulnerability or humanity, in order to find inner peace. There’s a product for that now.
The logic of the drama triangle dictates how people of color, working-class folks, women, queers, children, elderly, and disabled folks are characterized in mainstream media. Victims of disembodied circumstances and “bad luck,” these communities are framed as “in need of rescuing.” Within the project of “rescuing”, the locus of control is rarely placed in the hands of communities resisting oppression. The majority of professional philanthropists and non-profits descend on these communities with their own tactics, constraints, and agendas. In the process, they often reinscribe the victimhood of the communities that they allege to support by denying them the right to take direction of the aid projects. Similarly, in the realm of gender socialization, themes of martyrdom, self-invalidation, and approval-seeking are coded in the way that many women are instructed to relate to men. At the root of these instructions is the understanding that women are inherently flawed or incapable and need men for guidance.
Finally, the drama triangle plays a significant role in the formation of foreign policy among nation-states, or more precisely, its justification by the mainstream media. We are told that our government intervenes in countries on behalf of the victimized women, children, or ethnic minorities, who are sweet but frankly a little incompetent and need our bravery and machismo to vanquish their oppressors, who are made of pure, uncomplicated evil. This brand of philanthropy, like the domestic variety, recreates the conditions of the drama triangle through the implication that “victims” are incompetent, “perpetrators” are incorrigible, and “rescuers” are infallible. As such, it forecloses on complex understandings of social injustice that implicate imperialism, capitalism, neoliberalism, and any number of other dynamics that are associated with global colonialism.
Resolution and Transformation
The process of breaking out of codependent dynamics is two-fold. Codependents must address the fundamental, wounded parts of themselves with compassion and acceptance in order to heal any deep-seated shame. At the same time, we have to take action, setting and following through on concrete, loving personal boundaries. In this way, codependents can connect to their sense of self-worth and take pride in the actions they have taken.
I believe that it is essential for activists with codependent qualities to engage this process. For me, working to recover from codependency has radically transformed my activism. I figured out that feelings of guilt and inadequacy had been the primary motivators in my social justice work. I realized that I had internalized countless standards for what constituted a “real” radical that left little room for my strengths and my identity. Finally, I understood that I needed to prioritize self-care and communication in a way that transcended the lip service that I had given them before. I learned about what burns me out, what nourishes me, and what inspires me. Recovery from codependency has been a long and vulnerable process but I have already noticed that my collective organizing involvement has become much more sustainable.
In the arena of addressing larger social patterns, the experience of codependency recovery can help individuals frame their ideas of social justice with respect to the basic needs and boundaries of others. For example, I’ve noticed that when speaking to individuals who occupy oppressive roles, I have had greater success when taking great care to avoid the rhetoric of the drama triangle. In appealing to their vulnerability, their humanity, and their strength, I have communicated social justice ideas around consent, respecting indigenous spirituality, and complicating environmentalism in a way that does not put folks on the defensive. On a broader scale, I have noticed that when ally-ship organizations take the time to participate in communities that they are striving to support, familiarize themselves with their needs and feelings, and ask them for instructions on how to support their causes, the resulting activism is more respectful and effective than that of organizations that still see communities as victims in need of rescue.
Codependent dynamics permeate Western capitalist society and undermine many of our anti-capitalist communities. By gaining an awareness of the codependency framework, resolving childhood traumas, and learning to communicate our feelings, needs, and boundaries, we can transform our activism to build resilient movements that sustain, delight, and inspire us.