Imagine a climber on the side of a mountain.
She gets tired, sits down to rest.  She looks up at the top of the mountain, where’s she’s been heading.  Then down at the bottom, where she started.  Both seem so far away.
Fuck it, she thinks.  And proceeds to make camp.
Camping’s easier than climbing, so she settles in.
The camp becomes permanent.  The camp becomes home.
Occasionally I find myself working with clients like this.  I call them resigned codependents.
They begin therapy, then get discouraged.  Decide the work is too hard.  Decide they can’t do any better.  Or that they don’t deserve any better.  (All essentially the same decision.)
Look.  Codependency’s an addiction.  Freeing yourself from any addiction is a hard climb.  It’s difficult and painful and scary to try giving up something that’s always felt absolutely essential.
But camping on a mountain is no picnic either.  Expect bad weather year round.  Expect storms of anxiety, depression, hopelessness.  Count on life feeling permanently insecure and imbalanced.
If you find yourself here, don’t give up.
Break camp.
Read a book.  Got to a meeting.  Find a climbing buddy.
Or hire a Sherpa to help you get moving again.  There are plenty out there who can help.  Some know the mountain well, and are pretty good at coaching folks to higher elevations.
Just don’t give up.
You get one lifetime.
A mountainside is no place to spend it.

19 responses to “Resigned

  • Fiesta

    This is very well said! Even outside of a professional therapy context so many people end up “stuck” on their campsites. I’m just curious Steve, when you observe clients getting into these habits, how do you help them out of it?

    • Steve Hauptman

      Well, the first step is always to point it out, so if they continue camping at least they’re doing it consciously. But after that it really depends on the client.

      More specifically, it depends on what’s causing the anxiety that keeps them stuck. Some really don’t believe they deserve better, so we work on self-esteem. Some need more encouragement, so we work on building their support system. Some are depressed but resisting medication, so we revisit that topic or look for other ways to reduce their depression. Some need more time, so I suggest we develop some sort of time frame.

      But for some clients pitching camp isn’t a habit so much as a choice. They really don’t want to go farther. Again, many possible explanations here. They may be scared of the unknown, or of leaving a familiar (if crappy) situation, or of being judged or criticized by others (e.g., for ending a bad marriage), or of leaving behind unhealthy relationships by getting healthy themselves. And some, as Fritz Perls said, didn’t come into therapy to change, but to feel more adequate in their neuroses. They’re committed to the Plan A they learned as children. The best I can do in such cases is help them make and live with their choices consciously.

  • Simona

    Beautifully stated!!

  • d00fus

    First of all, I think you have a marvelous blog that I have recommended to so many people because I haven’t found anything as useful as this in understanding my behaviors and patterns. I am planning to divorce my husband (of 6 months, together for 6 years). I had decided to call off the wedding because I didn’t quite see myself or my needs as a priority for him (he abandoned me at crucial points and was entirely unreliable/non-reciprocating although we had amazing chemistry and shared intellectual interests). Then, I agreed to get married and he promised certain changes. Those never occurred. In therapy, I discovered the co-dependent-narcissist dynamic. I had often tried to leave him, but willingly came back to him based on his beautiful promises (which still sound sincere to me). What I have always pondered and struggle with is that the “quasi-buddhist/letting go of control” philosophy suggests about not having expectations from people and focusing on one’s own feelings and realize their ephemeral and often uncomfortable nature. If that is the case, should I stay with the narcissistic partner? Be compassionate toward him and learn to meet my own needs by myself and find validation in my own self? If I am only responsible for my misery, I could theoretically stay in this relationship and work on myself and turn a blind eye to mistreatment. I am ready to leave and have even filled the paper work, but can’t quite work around this. If the prescribed course is to be self-sufficient in meeting material and emotional needs and finding validation in one’s own self, then why should you leave? Where is the justification for that? Should I once again listen to his promises, which he may/may not fulfill, but prepare to meet my needs on my own? At what point is it camping rather than a healthy compromise in a relationship? I’d be super grateful for your answer. Many, many thanks for this excellent resource.

  • Steve Hauptman

    There are two reasons, I think, why what I call “split-level” (i.e., codependent/narcissist) relationships are so hard to heal.

    The first is that both partners are addicts.

    Sure, they look different. The narcissist’s control addiction is usually more overt (“Me first” is his theme song) while the codependent’s is more covert (“Yes, dear” is hers). But both operate from the assumption that control is essential to getting what they want, and they seek it compulsively and unconsciously. An addict’s first relationship is always with his or her addiction. Dueling addictions make healthy relating impossible.

    The second reason is that, usually because of their family backgrounds, split-level partners generally have no idea what healthy relationship looks or feels like.

    That is, they’ve never seen what I call mutuality. In a mutualistic relationship both partners know in their bones that what’s good for one is good for the other. This belief – a sort of faith, really – reduces the anxiety behind compulsive controlling, and replaces the need for competition, manipulation and deceit. In such relationships nobody gets lost or sacrificed or betrayed. Both partners can risk being themselves and let the other do the same. It’s as healthy as relationships get.

    That’s the goal, then, when I work with split-level couples.

    But reaching it requires real work on both parts. Codependents need to become braver, more honest and assertive. Narcissists need to be become more sensitive, empathic and flexible.

    Which brings me to your situation. Sounds like you’ve already put up with a fair share of narcissism on your husband’s part. And I don’t see “turning a blind eye” to mistreatment as even close to a healthy choice.

    If we were working together I’d probably ask you this: “Let’s assume he’s incapable of changing, as many narcissists are. Do you really want to spend the rest of your life feeling this way?”

    I hope your answer would be, “No. I need more, and I deserve better.”

    Thanks for liking the blog. .

  • d00fus

    Steve, thanks so much for your thoughtful and prompt answer. I wish I could be working with you–but I am in Manhattan and the logistics are difficult 🙂

  • d00fus

    I filed the papers today. I’ll email him tomorrow. He’s called incessantly over the week. I finally picked up last night (because we’ve had 3-4 hour long, unproductive conversations before and I felt that I couldn’t take the aftermath of those calls anymore). His thrust now is: (a) wait to file papers; (b) what can I do to make you trust me? The answer to (b) is nothing that I can think of. Why did you wait for so long and ignore my stated intention to file papers? Why did you refuse to come spend a week with me to work things out (workaholic, new start-up, long-distance relationship)?
    But I am still very sad though. What a waste of such incredible chemistry and six years of my 20s.

    • Steve Hauptman

      I’m sorry you’re sad, and of course I don’t know the whole story. But my impulse is to say: Atta girl.

  • d00fus

    I guess I am finally taking my “red pill.” But I am very afraid what will happen 🙂

  • d00fus

    Perhaps writing something on how to get our inner Bert to commit to healthy change? What can you do once you decide you’re no longer camping? How to stop dwelling on what “was?” Perhaps you already have written on this. In that case, please point me to it. Thanks for the encouragement.

    • Steve Hauptman

      All good questions. Up to now I’ve spent more time here describing the problem than the solution. Time to correct that. So I started writing a series (“Notes on recovery”) that I’ll begin running next week. I’d also like to use it to open a dialogue with anyone who wants to join in.
      So all feedback and questions are welcome.

      Hang in there, d00fus. 🙂

  • d00fus

    Thanks, I am trying! It’s easy to run back in to his arms and the same dysfunction. Everyday I sway from my decision and talk to supportive family & friends to stay on course (feels like Odysseus and the Sirens in my head) . Trying to reduce contact. And I will watch for the new series and participate to the extent I can.

  • Tricky | Monkeytraps

    […] Like those others I’ve written about here lately — compulsive apologizing (Apology), self-editing (Friends), comfort-seeking (Comfort), self-blame (All my fault), persevorating (Gum), reenacting old battles (Dandelion fights), blaming (Blaming), expecting (Killers) and giving up (Resigned). […]

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    […] Like those others I’ve written about lately in Monkeytraps — compulsive apologizing (Apology), self-editing (Friends), comfort-seeking (Comfort), self-blame (All my fault), persevorating (Gum), reenacting old battles (Dandelion fights), blaming (Blaming), expecting (Killers) and giving up (Resigned). […]

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    […] knows just what I mean.  It was one of his sessions that inspired Resigned, which compared discouraged clients to mountain climbers who camp on the side of the […]

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