A Breathwork Class—and Framework—for Healing Codependent Thinking
Codependency—a pattern of unhealthy emotional reliance on romantic partners that’s often categorized as relationship addiction—can feel impossible to escape if you’re in it. But it’s not a personality disorder; it’s a learned habit. That is: It’s not who you are but what you’re doing. And you can heal from that.
After using meditation, mindfulness, and radical self-compassion to recover from her own codependent and perfectionist thinking, Victoria Albina, NP, MPH, started a program to help other women do the same. She’s now been coaching clients through that process (her method involves breathwork, somatic experiencing, and exercises based on cognitive behavioral therapy) for twelve years.
In this guided pranayama breathwork practice, Albina targets the codependent thinking that interferes with our ability to cultivate healthy relationships. It’s less of a thinking exercise than a feeling one: The three-part breathwork pattern allows us to let go of what’s going on upstairs and tap into our intuition. Albina’s voice guides the rest. All you’ll need is some sort of eye mask—a clean sock works in a pinch—and a comfortable place to lie down.
To learn more, we got Albina on the phone to talk about identifying codependent behavior, recognizing the root causes of codependent thought patterns, and how to heal.
A Q&A with Victoria Albina
In a relationship, codependency is marked by a lack of healthy interdependency. In an interdependent relationship, both partners trust that they can meet their own needs as whole, autonomous beings and then show up to the relationship for mutual love, support, and care. They don’t need to ask the other to complete them.
The central trait of codependent thinking, on the other hand, is the abandonment of personal responsibility for your own mental, emotional, financial, and social well-being. In a codependent pattern, you take on an inordinate amount of responsibility for other people’s happiness, and you may resent them if they don’t allow you to prove your worth by managing their emotions. At the same time, you may blame others for your own unhappiness and resent them for not trying to manage your emotions the same way you do theirs.
Codependent thinking can present itself in many ways, including the following:
•Perfectionism and people-pleasing. Folks push themselves beyond their limits and capacities to try to keep everyone happy with them, even if it causes further detriment to themselves. They are always striving for their own internal concept of perfect, which is generally not attached to any realistic understanding of human capacities.
•A deep doubting of self-worth. This can look like trouble making decisions, from buying a house to what to have for dinner.
•Lack of connection with their own feelings beyond angry, sad, or glad.
•Believing they’re functionally and fundamentally alone in the world: The codependent thinker’s worldview is that everyone is against them, taking advantage of their kindness and desire to help.
When one person is thinking codependently, they’re fishing for external connection, validation, approval, and control from their partner to give them the support and resources they do not believe they are able to give themself. That can manifest in many different forms. Some examples include:
•Not feeling happy or at ease if the other person is upset or angry.
•Attempts to control the relationship through fighting, jabbing, or otherwise blaming their partner for their feelings.
•Resentment if their partner doesn’t go above and beyond for them in the way they do for their partner without their partner asking or even wanting them to. This can sound like: “Why can’t you just come with me to this party, after all that I do for you? I wrote all the birthday cards, cooked all the dinners, etc.”
•Expecting their partner to read their mind and meet their unvoiced needs and desires.
•Chronic complaining and disappointment, often accompanied by blaming, guilting, and shaming.
When both partners are in a codependent mindset, they both expect the other person to fill their emotional cup for them. This is often because they are unaware and unwilling to do that for themselves. This can lead to power struggles or a tit-for-tat relationship centered around the energy of score-keeping and discord. In this dynamic, each partner expects the other to be their everything—while also resenting them for not doing it right.
If you have codependent thinking, you’ll project it onto whatever or whomever you blame for your problems and make responsible for your well-being. This could range from your apartment being too loud for you to get work done to your boss being a jerk to your parents not supporting you in the way you’ve decided they should.
While of course the situations in our lives do affect us, our stories about how we would feel different if the circumstance were different is the trap of codependent thinking. The codependent thinker doesn’t brainstorm how to find another place to work if their apartment is too loud. They sit in their apartment complaining about it and resenting their neighbors. If they do brainstorm things like talking to the neighbors about the noise, they don’t believe in their capacity to engage in direct conversations or conflict, so they sidestep it and stew in resentment. When the codependent thinker labels their boss a total jerk, they go to that controlling, judging, blaming place and are unable to see how they’re cocreating the situation. They cannot see their part in it clearly. The codependent thinker will get aggressive in their attempts to control others when they feel most out of control, which can look like telling others how they should be behaving, speaking or being, often without consent from that other person.
When your mindset is a codependent one, there is always that pull to create enmeshed relationships wherever you can. So you take things personally that have nothing to do with you. That could be the look on a store clerk’s face, or a friend not being able to chat when you want them to, or your sister asking you to pay her back the money she loaned you. Without realizing it, you’re walking around the world asking: Who can I make responsible for me, my life, my wellness, and my emotional state?
Codependency that manifests in adulthood is often formed during childhood. This is especially common when there is narcissism, chaos, or crisis in the family or if caretakers haven’t had the privilege or capacity to do their own healing. Children in those types of households are at higher risk of developing codependent habits. That’s because when we grow up in these ego-driven or unstable environments, we learn that it feels safer to go along with things, get along with others, and attend to other people’s thoughts and feelings before our own because that is the way we get through our childhood without further harm. It’s a survival technique.
Here’s what that might look like: We’re told, “I know you had a hard day, but look happy before Dad gets home.” We fake that feeling of happiness in order to be good and feel safe. Over time, that pattern creates an automatic response that persists as we get older. Then in adulthood, when we see someone we love is unhappy, we end up engaging in this same codependent response: We say or do or be something to try to shift that person’s mood or experience, even if it doesn’t match what we’re feeling.
Yes. We can think of codependency as a series of thought habits in which you put someone else’s thoughts, feelings, actions, and results ahead of your own and therefore make your emotional state dependent on that person’s emotional state. We often form these habits as children, and as adults, we get to recognize where this pattern is keeping us from having healthy boundaries, speaking up for ourselves, and taking care of ourselves first.
In my six-month program, The Feminist Wellness Guide to Overcoming Codependency, we learn how to feel our feelings in our bodies in a real way and see and then shift our habitual, survival-based thinking so we can begin to thrive. I do is through two parallel frameworks that I’ve rigged together: a somatic framework and a cognitive behavioral framework.
Somatic awareness: I deeply believe that the first step in healing is awareness, and that starts with learning how to feel your feelings in a deep and physical way. For many of us, our culture, our society, and our families of origin have so often taught us to push away feelings that are scary or dangerous. When our thought habits and feeling habits are decades old, it’s challenging to understanding the feelings within us that are driving our dysfunctional behaviors. And it’s important to get in touch with them in that way: You can’t heal what you can’t see.
In my practice, breathwork is the portal for understanding our feelings as a felt experience and not just a cognitive one. If I feel sad, that cognitive experience might be something like: I feel sad because there’s a pandemic and my friend’s dad died. Whereas the felt experience of sadness, for me, is that I feel a clenching blue tightness in my chest. It feels heavy, as if it’s weighing down my energy.
Cognitive behavioral work: I combine the somatic aspects we discussed with an attention to our thoughts and the feelings they create for us, knowing that each thought triggers the release of what Candace Pert calls the “molecules of emotion.” It starts with a cognitive behavioral modality I’ve called the thought work protocol, which helps us to see how our chronic thinking creates feelings in our bodies.
Thinking you’re terrible, unlovable, unfixable, deeply stuck, and broken creates a groove in your mind that your body will believe to be true. In order to support our bodies in releasing self-doubt and self-denial, we look at what happens within us that triggers that body-wide chemical response. That means we have to get honest with ourselves about our habitual, ingrained thoughts—and we often can’t see these thoughts clearly until we stop and write them down. It’s only when we know what’s really going on inside of us that we can start to change that story.
And this is why the feeling in your body is so important: You can try to change your outlook cognitively all day long, but if you’re not in touch with what you feel and don’t bring your attention to that feeling, your efforts are usually not going to be sustainable. Your brain is going to go back to the old story. All chemicals that govern your emotions in your body are still racing around. We need to heal that first.
Victoria Albina is a life coach and a breathwork meditation facilitator for women recovering from codependency and alcoholism. She is the host of the podcast Feminist Wellness. Albina has a master’s in public health from Boston University and trained as a nurse practitioner at the University of California, San Francisco. She has previously practiced in holistic medical practices, hospice centers, and family practices as well as with Army National Guard soldiers.