Holidays have a way of triggering codependent patterns of behaviors that seem to arise out of nowhere changing us from successful and competent adults to emotionally turbulent teens. We become anxious about everything from not giving good enough gifts to reverting to our childhood role in the family. These holidays can press buttons that enliven codependent patterns of behavior embedded in our nervous system.

But don’t think you need to rush out and find a therapist or that there is something wrong with you Chances are you are like so many other people who are caught up with one foot in the Codependent Stage of Development and the other as a functioning adult.

When I refer to codependence. I am talking about self-protective behavioral patterns that emerged during the Codependent Stage. These self-protective behaviors are normal and natural for all human beings, not a mental illness or addiction. All of us are vulnerable to being triggered into codependent self-protective positions, especially during the holidays.

Don’t let automatic codependent behaviors hijack your holiday season. Find out what you can do to keep yourself from becoming self-protective.

Acting Out Codependent Behaviors During Holidays

While spending time with the family can trigger our nervous system and revive old feelings of insecurity, fear of emotionality, or becoming invisible, there is a lot we can do to keep ourselves in the present moment. Our brains are wired with unconscious patterns of behavior and we can flip the switch to “ON” with our thoughts or by being in proximity to our family.

Even when we are self-aware, we leave our own home and the minute we cross the threshold into proximity with the family, we slip into the old role. Surprising isn’t it. We were an adult when we left and the minute we see our brother, it’s like “let the games begin” Suddenly you’re winding up for the power struggle.

And while you’ve made headway becoming friends with your mother and/or father, mom’s suddenly telling you what to do and your dad is ignoring you and paying attention to his “favorite.” You may, despite the success you’ve achieved in your life, revert to clumsy behavior or pouting when someone teases you.

4 Codependent Behavior Patterns or Positions

Based on how our brain is wired, we each have a Codependent Relationship Position that we revert when we feel threatened and need to feel secure. It is likely the role we ended up taking in our family growing up. It isn’t who we are, but it may have become how we are perceived by others because we spent so much time in childhood in our self-protective position. As a result, behaviors that arise from fight, flight and freeze are more common than authentic behavior. The expectation that we adapt in order to belong can override the drive inside of us to become who we are meant to be, or our authentic self.

The following are the 4 self-protective codependent behavior patterns that emerge at Holidays because of the Relationship Position we revert to when we feel threatened or insecure in our relationships with family members.

Dominant Relationship Position

When you are relating to others from this position, you use behaviors that make you feel you are better than or superior to others in order to feel okay about yourself. This means you have to buy the best, most expensive presents or make a deal about how much trouble it was to find something. You have a need to show to others that you are successful, generous, and prosperous even though you have to go out on a financial limb to buy them.

You show the world that you are “good enough” by acting out at the expense of your financial well-being. You fear being judged by others and protect yourself from feeling inadequate by overcompensating with gifts. You don’t let anyone be equal to you and use teasing comments to devalue others. You don’t let others help you or know what’s going on with you. Stoically, you suffer silently, never letting on that you are in financial and emotional distress.

Adaptive Relationship Position

You survive relationships by becoming what people need you to be. Your authentic self disappears and you become a chameleon, trying to be all things to all people. You are intuitive and play the role of making everything work at the expense of your own happiness. You try to make sure everyone else’s needs are taken care of and play the role of peacekeeper when others act out emotionally.

Because you fear conflict, you protect yourself by focusing on others, preferring to be invisible than to suffer from the reality of what is going on in your family. You likely complain to one or two people about the dysfunction of family members after the event. You cope by drinking or eating too much, internalizing conflict, and soldiering on. 

Avoidant Relationship Position

Conforming to tradition or social norms feels threatening to you and so you refuse to conform or adapt to your family’s norms. While you are perfectly capable of going along with these holiday traditions, you passively rebel against the status quo. You arrive late, don’t bring what you said you were going to for the pot luck meal or spend more or less than what you all agreed upon for gifts.

Not having a strong sense of your own power and authority in the family, you fear being taken over by the demands to conform and act out by withdrawing or being contrary. You show your family that you are a powerful individual by acting out at the expense of peace and harmony. You frustrate others and when confronted, act as though you are the one who has been wronged. This leads to more withdrawal and avoidance of others.

Submissive Relationship Position

You have likely always felt unloved and undervalued in your family. Even when you try to do things for others it never seems like it’s enough. Emotions drive your perception of the holidays and your feelings of not being good enough cause you to see everything through that lens. You feel you aren’t given as much as others and believe you are unloved. You arrive emotional, late or otherwise distressed.

You interpret questions or comments as attacks on you and are quick to sulk or cry when you feel wronged. You feel victimized by the family and believe you are the one who has to submit to what everyone else wants. You don’t realize that others walk on eggshells around you and the power that your emotions actually exert over the family. You suffer from the stories you tell yourself about being unloved.

We have to forget everything we’ve read about codependence. We need to think of it as a stage we got stuck at rather than a disease, an addiction or a psychopathology. This empowers us to grow and develop our AUTHENTIC SELF. To stop surviving and start thriving!

How to Prevent Codependent Behaviors from Spoiling the Holiday Season

Self-protective patterns of behavior are wired into our nervous system. Don’t expect them to go away. Instead, practice new behaviors until they become stronger than the self-protective pattern in your nervous system.

Here are some things you can do to prevent codependent behavior patterns:

Own your buttons: Like it or not, your buttons are your sensitivities and you have to stop blaming the button pusher. These triggers reveal your insecurity, fear, low self-esteem, or unmet needs. They cause they nervous system to react automatically and emotionally to protect you as though you are a vulnerable child. It’s your button and diffusing it will stop you from shifting to your Codependent Relationship Position.

Learn to Depersonalize: Just because a family member is out of line doesn’t mean you have to react to them. Often siblings and parents will say things they have always said, just to get a reaction. Or out of their own insecurity or anxiety, they insult, devalue or otherwise embarrass you. Don’t make their comments about you. So if your mother says “Is that what you are wearing to dinner?” in a tone that implies “Oh my gosh, what are you thinking wearing that!” simply respond “yes, I am Captain Obvious.” 

Don’t drink too much: While some holiday cheer can take the edge off the tension in family get-togethers, too much reduces our ability to use our executive function to self manage. Next thing you know you have said something in jest and your sister is crying in the bathroom. And remember the rule of thumb “Never argue with someone who’s drunk.” No one wins.

Stop trying to stop Holiday acting out: If every year your father makes a big deal of what he has spent on presents or your mother is disappointed because yet again, no one bought her what she actually wanted (because she always says “I have everything I need.”), notice your reaction and let it go. No rolling the eyes, sighing or trying to show them the error of their ways. The less energy you put into caretaking the feelings of others when they act out, the better you will feel.

Don’t get pulled into drama: If you have a relative that shows up late, distressed or otherwise emotional, take an empathetic, transactional approach. Don’t let your emotional reaction add fuel to the fire. Whatever is going on with them is not a dramatic event that needs to spoil the party. A comment like “Sounds like you’ve had a rough time. Come settle in and say hi to everyone.” is a good way to transition them from the state that they are in to visiting mode.

Remember, relationships are not the place for you to compete or prove your value. Comparing yourself, your gifts, your looks to your siblings, vying for your parents attention, one-upping others with your success stories only lead to dysfunctional codependent patterns becoming more entrenched. Do you really need to point out you mother’s grey hair? Do you have to tell your overweight cousin about a great diet you’ve heard about? Not really, so curb the impulse to dominant, avoid, adapt or submit and focus on creating a wonderful family event. 

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We specialize in helping clients identify codependent and other dysfunctional behaviors in relationships. We have several counseling approaches we take – individual, group, couples – to help individuals break free of the dysfunctional codependent behaviors that are destructive to relationships. Contact us for a consultation to find out how we can help. 

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Anne and Heather are organizational and leadership development experts at Caliber Leadership Systems, a boutique consulting firm specializing in dismantling of dysfunction in organizations.  They are dedicated to empowering individuals, leaders, and organizations to achieve their potential by leveraging their expertise in the neurobiology of human development combined with system thinking approach. They wear many hats – Consultants, Executive Coaches, Trainers, Speakers and Authors – adapting their expertise and solutions to meet the needs of their clients. They bring a unique depth and breadth of knowledge and experience that gives clients the benefit of all of our disciplines to help them achieve their goals

As experts in human development and behavioral change, leadership and organizational transformation, interpersonal dynamics and the achievement of potential, Anne and Heather have worked with thousands of leaders and individuals from around the world, been featured in dozens of publications, spoken at professional conferences, and written several series of books on personality type and the brain based on the Striving Styles® and Myers-Briggs Type Indicator®.

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