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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Overcoming Codependent Behavior in Therapy: Learning to Reduce Reactivity to Achieve Emotional Balance

In my prior psychotherapy blog posts I've discussed codependency in terms of the relationship between the person who has a substance abuse problem and the spouse or partner who does not. This is the classic example of codependency.

Overcoming Codependent Behavior in Therapy: Learning to Reduce Reactivity

As I've mentioned in those prior posts, the term codependency originated in the substance abuse field, however, the use of the term codependency has since expanded to include other relationships where there is no alcohol or drug addicted behavior. In this psychotherapy blog post, I would like to discuss the topic of overcoming excessive emotional reactivity to achieve emotional balance. Even if you're not in a codependent relationship, you might benefit from reading this post to learn how to be less emotionally reactive in your relationship.

Codependent Relationships:
Now that we recognize that codependency can exist in any relationship and there need not be alcohol, drugs, gambling or other addictive behavior involved, we have learned to expand our definition of codependency and recognize these dynamics in many different types of relationships. I will confine myself in this post to romantic relationships, but it is understood that codependency can exist in many different types of relationships.

As I've mentioned in my prior psychotherapy blog posts, when I discuss codependency, I'm not talking about relationships where there is normal dependency--like taking care of an elderly parent, a young child or someone who is disabled. I'm specifically addressing relationships where both people are mature and able-bodied, but one or both people are overly dependent on the other person in an unhealthy way.

In codependent relationships, one or both people usually over function for the other person in certain ways, often, in an effort not to deal with their own emotional issues. So that if one person is overly focused on the other person and overcompensating for that person, he has taken the focus off himself and his own issues. Often, what looks like purely altruistic behavior is also a defense to avoid dealing with his or her own problems ("I'm not the one with the problems--it's him"). In prior posts, I've given composite examples of codependent dynamics in relationships, so I won't repeat them here.

Why do People Become Overreactive in Codependent Relationships?
Often, people who are emotionally reactive haven't learned how to control their emotions. So that when things don't go their way or when old problems persist, they often become emotionally overreactive and have a great deal of difficulty maintaining their composure. They might lash out by losing their temper, act out by cheating on their partner, get even by overspending or running up a credit card, cry uncontrollably to make their partners feel guilty, make threats, or engage in other dramatic displays of behavior. Aside from the fact that they're having problems managing their emotions, often, this emotional reactivity is meant to control the other person's behavior. And, while it might work in the moment, it's usually ineffective in the long run.

Detaching with Love:
Al-Anon is a 12 Step program for loved ones who are in relationships with people who have alcohol problems or who suffer with other addictive behavior. There is a concept in the Al-Anon literature called "detaching with love." I think this is one of the most misunderstood Al-Anon concepts that often confuses people and it's worth spending a little time defining what this means and how it can be put to good practice in almost any relationship (whether there is addictive behavior involved or not).

The concept of "detaching with love" addresses the emotional reactivity that is often involved in many relationships. I think this idea is often misunderstood because people who are highly reactive often feel that it means that they have to be cold, cruel, hard or they don't care about their partners. They might also feel that if they "detach with love," it means that they're not allowed to feel their feelings. However, this is a big misconception.

When we talk about "detaching with love,"we're really talking about still caring and loving your partner, but maintaining your emotional equilibrium when there's a problem between the two of you. It means that when there's an argument or tension in the relationship, you're able to step back, take the time to calm down (and, possibly, take a break, if needed) before reacting emotionally. It doesn't mean that you don't feel your feelings or that you're not entitled to your feelings. Rather, it means that you stop, calm yourself and think before you react emotionally.

Why is it Important to Overcome Emotional Reactivity?
Often, when people feel angry with their partners, their first instinct is to lash out in anger, especially if it involves an ongoing problem, whether we're talking about addictive behavior, jealousy or other problems. However, even if you get a sense of immediate gratification from lashing out emotionally, it quickly dissipates because your behavior usually makes the situation worse.

When you react emotionally, without stopping to think and calm yourself first, you say or do the first thing that comes to your mind. This is an impulsive gesture, which often leads to regret. Often, as soon do you say or do whatever has come to your mind, you feel badly about it. But, by then, the words are out and they cannot be taken back. That often leads the argument or problem to be taken into other unintended directions. At the very least, it doesn't solve the problem. Worse still, being overly reactive usually becomes habitual, which means the more you do it, the more likely you are to continue to do it.

Recognizing the Physical and Emotional Cues as a First Step to Becoming Less Reactive and to Develop Emotional Equilibrium
If you've grown up in a family where there was a high degree of emotional reactivity, being highly reactive might seem normal to you. But you have only to look at the results that it produces in your relationship (and the history in your family) and how you feel afterwards to realize that being highly reactive is not serving you or your relationship well.

Learning to develop emotional equilibrium takes time, practice and a good deal of patience, but it's worth the effort. The first step is to become aware of the feelings and physical cues within yourself that proceed your emotional reactivity. For some people, this might include certain physical reactions like clenched fists, tension in your stomach or other parts of the body, a strong feeling of energy surging through your body, feeling flushed, hands trembling, feeling lightheaded, feeling like you're going to explode, and other similar reactions. You might also notice your thoughts going in a certain volatile direction ("I hate him," "She's so stupid," "Why is he doing this to me?" etc).

When I discuss this with clients in my psychotherapy practice in NYC during the early stage of therapy, many clients will often tell me that there are no prior warnings or cues for them that they're about to lose their temper or overreact emotionally. However, I usually respond to them by saying that that there are, in fact, warning signals--they just haven't learned to recognize them yet. We know this because we recognize that there is a connection between the mind and the body, meaning that your thoughts and physical sensations are connected. Learning to recognize the warning signals or cues to emotional reactivity requires that you slow down. You might be justified in feeling angry or upset, but your anger doesn't entitle you to lose your temper or say or do things that you'll regret later.

Stress Management:
In order to learn to slow down, you need to find other ways to reduce your stress. Everyone is different, so each person must find his or her own way to handle stress, whether that means learning to meditate, taking a yoga class, going for regular walks, remembering to breath deeply, countng to 10, playing with your pet, talking to close friends, praying, attending an Al-Anon meeting, or whatever other healthy activity you decide to do to reduce your stress and level of frustration. If you're managing your daily stress so that it doesn't build up and spill over, you're less likely to lose your temper or overreact emotionally.

Once you're engaging in healthy stress management activities, you can learn to slow yourself down so that you begin to see and feel the cues that precede an overreaction. Once you recognize those cues, then you can make a deliberate choice as to how you want to handle the situation instead of being at the mercy of your emotions.

Learning to Separate Your Feelings about Your Partner's Behavior from How You Feel About Your Partner:
Once you've calmed down enough to gain some perspective, you might recognize that you still love your spouse or partner, but you don't like his or her behavior. That's an important distinction. Not liking his or her behavior is different from not liking your partner.

Ultimately, you might decide that the relationship isn't working and you might leave. However, you will have gone through the decision making process in a more emotionally balanced way rather than reacting impulsively. Breakups that occur on an impulse often bring the people back to Square One. They often feel that there was something important missing when they broke up, that they made the decision without thinking, and then they reconcile. But, often, nothing changes in the relationship. So, they are left with the same problem that they started with, and the cycle continues: anger, breakup, reconciliation, anger, and so on.

When you "detach with love" from your partner, you are stepping back emotionally to take a breath, calm yourself, and get some perspective on the situation. You're also taking care of yourself during this time because you recognize that becoming emotionally overwrought on a regular basis has physical and emotional consequences for you, your partner and also your children, if there are children involved.

Learning to be Less Emotionally Reactive Can be Difficult:
Learning to be less reactive and develop emotional equilibrium can be very challenging. Even after you've begun to make progress in developing more emotional balance in your life, it's not unusual for there to be lapses into old behavior. If being emotionally reactive has been a lifelong pattern, it's understandable that you might have some lapses in the process. (Of course, when I talk about lapses that are understandable, I'm not referring to domestic violence. If your anger leads to physical violence, you need immediate help to deal with your problems with anger management and, in the meantime, that might mean that you and your partner separate so that you're both safe.)

If you recognize that you've reverted to old behavior, rather than giving up, be compassionate with yourself and recommit to maintaining emotional balance. When you think about it, you might realize that you've stopped doing the things that helped you to stay emotionally balanced in the first place. It's easy to become complacent, especially after you've had a certain amount of success. So, re-establish the routines or healthy behaviors that helped you and begin again.

What to Do if You're Unable to Reduce Your Emotional Reactivity
If you've tried the suggestions that I've outlined above (including attending Al-Anon if you are in a relationship with an person addicted to alcohol or drugs) and you find that you're still unable to achieve emotional equilibrium, you might benefit from seeing a licensed psychotherapist who has expertise with codependent relationships.

I am a psychotherapist in NYC who has helped many individuals and couples to become less emotionally reactive so that they can develop emotional balance in their relationships.

To find out more about Al-Anon, visit their website: http://www.alanon.org

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me: josephineolivia@aol.com.