All of us at one time or another has lived vicariously through a hero or heroine on the television or in a captivating book. We’ve felt the power and the gratitude of saving someone in trouble and the adoration and recognition of whole societies for our heartfelt service to them. Mythology is full of examples of people that we’d like to be like and emulate and people whose places we’d like to be in. There is nothing wrong with feeling this as our emotional participation in that it teaches us things about the experiences that we need to integrate and incorporate into our psyches and self-concept. But then, we're told, "don't plant your feet in someone else's soil." Make your own choices. Conduct your own life. Yet, when we live in the wake of someone else’s boat, we never have to put ourselves at risk for being shown that we feel inadequate in some way as a function of our feared failures. What are we to do?
In the same way that we seek the shade of a tree to protect us from the intensity of the sun, many of us seek people with the skills and capabilities to protect us from others who might take advantage of us or harm us in a way that we believe we should have developed the skills and defenses to handle but have somehow fallen short due to some perceived inadequacy. Our propensity for seeking that sort of person usually comes from experiences that we’ve had that have overwhelmed us in our ability to stand up for our core values and personal integrity. These experiences can come from childhood beatings, sexual abuse, emotional blackmail or any other form of unwanted coercion coming from others, including parents, who have learned, even if unconsciously, that it is easier to find someone else to do their dirty work and take the fall for their own perceived inadequacies and improprieties. These accounts for what many psychologists have called being the scapegoat in a family or close group. Even with people who are accomplished and have personal integrity beyond reproach have been the objects of our sought protection. I believe that this type of seeking behavior on our part is simply an extension of our seeking protection from others as we would from our parents as small children. Until we learn to “defend ourselves” against abuse, erect personal boundaries without feelings of guilt or fear of penetration and have develop skills to make our own way in the world can we pull away from needing to live in and as someone else’s shadow. I use shadow in both the terms of what the tree provides and in terms of that unwanted part and qualities of ourselves that we struggle to repress or project on others so it won’t interfere with the preferred image we wish present to the world. We can do this consciously, like a parent for a child, or unconsciously, as in dependency oriented relationships. This type of role playing, if I can call it that, is one of us being the “protected” one and one of us being the “protector” has devastating consequences on our Self-Trust and confidence. The Parent-Child interplay explained by the theory of Transactional Analysis by Thomas Harris in "I'm Ok, You're OK" holds a key toward understanding the dynamic in play and what needs to be done in order to re-balance the relationship and restore adult status to both individuals. Let’s first look at the dynamic occurring in the “child,” the “protected” one, who is living in the shadow of another. Remember, this is one of two adults fulfilling a role to retain a real or imagined emotional security.
To begin with, remember walking into someone’s house and just feeling comfortable like putting on a pairs of slippers and a robe? Now imagine meeting a person with whom we feel the same way. This is probably the feeling that some of us describe as “finding our other half.” Being in someone else’s space can have dramatic effects on our ability to relax, be creative and feel “at home.” It’s not that they “make” us feel that way. It’s that we resonate with their space and the energy that they emit. There is a spectrum which we all fall into that will tell us if we’re seeking this out on the end which provides protection or on the end that provides an almost literal augmentation of our creativity and excitement in perceiving our effectiveness in the world. The kind of person we seek has everything to do with how we feel about ourselves and our participation in the world around us. If we feel that we are somehow lacking, inadequate or unable to make our way in the world, we will tend to seek someone who will provide a buffer, as our parents most likely did for us as a child, between us and what we perceive as the frightening aspects of dealing with an outside world that we feel no confidence in. In doing this we either remain or become the “child” as in Transactional Analysis. Choosing this role enables us to rely on another’s experience, guidance and accountability. Of course, there are many more dimensions available to us in choosing the role of “child” but for the child protection would be their main focus. I think the advantage of choosing a relationship with someone who could provide these things for us is obvious but for many our selection (choice) is unconscious. Because it is primarily an unconscious choice by those of us seeking protection, when our choice poses subsequent limitations on our freedom and confidence, we never realize that it is our same choice that has caused the construction of our own limitations that has made us dependent on the behavior of those we have selected. But it is only the disadvantages of that choice that we see and never realize the dynamics operating behind it while projecting the causes of our displeasure on our chosen partner. So a potential scenario might go like this. You are an older couple. One of you is afraid to drive so you sell your second car and let your spouse become the primary transporter. Now, as your life loses opportunities for enjoyment outside the house because your spouse may have the car, you now claim that your spouse is hampering your ability to enjoy life and get around. Now the protection you’ve selected seems like an isolation and manipulation. A compounding of that effect would be if we were the driver of the car and like having our spouse under our watchful eye by their being easily within our control. But when the obligation for us to transport them becomes more dominant than we prefer, we claim that our spouse, who doesn’t drive, is always there and cramping our style and taking up our time.
The opportunity for our tendency to create co-dependence for personal advantage is always present. If we are self-accountable and take responsibility for our own circumstances, it almost never occurs. But if we aren’t or don’t, we almost always fall into the trap. When this occurs, we see the advantage of “putting our feet in someone else’s soil” but almost never see the disadvantages of the practice until it’s time to “pay” for the advantage that we’ve “bargained” for and then we see it as a limitation or interference. The other part of the codependency dance is played by we the “protector” or “parent” in Transactional Analysis seeking advantage and comfort for ourselves also through manipulation of those we’ve “pledged” to protect. Hence, we do it by putting other people into our service. In doing this we believe that we are eliciting an obligation from the “protectee” on the pretense that we are being noble by providing protection and advantage to those whom we are manipulating. We may also do this unconsciously and then, almost always, flatly deny being manipulative when accused.
In contrast to seeking advantages and encountering “hidden” consequences, this type of connection can be done with both parties consciously consenting to aid our partner with full knowledge and acceptance of not only the advantages gained but of any consequences that might follow. Rarely does the openly agreed sharing elicit difficulties unless it is done with an open agreement on the surface but with an additional hidden agenda underneath with one or both parties being unaware of it.
There is nothing wrong with “planting your feet in someone else’s soil” as long as we do it with accountability involving awareness and an understanding and acceptance of what we offer or even imply, consciously or not, in return. Much of the difficulty we have in assessing what kind of “agreement” we are dealing with has everything to do with what parts of the encounter we are consciously aware of and which parts we are not. And often times, what we are “not aware of” is often rationalized away by utilizing a double meaning where the acknowledged meaning works in our favor and augments our public image and the one that does not is either denied or stripped of applicability through its selective validation. We can see and understand this easily with any action where we can have both a noble and selfish motivation.
At the root of any of these difficulties is always our perception of our accountability. If we are unable to accept accountability for something that is deemed inappropriate, ungracious or selfish, we usually seek the double meaning route to disguise our internally acknowledged motivation through cloaking our shadow (parts of ourselves that we feel are undesirable and then project on others) with socially and self-deceptive reasoning. It only begins to compound as a real problem when we actually start believing our own deceptively contrived scenarios.
The need for perpetuating social and self-deception is a direct result of never having developed an adequate sense of Self-Trust. When we’ve been trained not to trust ourselves or our own experience, which our contemporary western culture has most certainly been evolving us toward through exaggerating the importance of science and the physical world over feelings and intuition, we come to see ourselves as being inadequate in the eyes of the world and fear that that same inadequacy will be exposed if we don’t somehow hide it through shifting our accountability toward someone else. In other words, when Self-Trust is lacking, the minimum amount of courage required for becoming voluntarily accountable is never reached. So we resort to subterfuge, conscious or not, to cover ourselves.
The art of constructing plausible denial has, undoubtedly, become a serious problem. It has augmented personal acquisition and opportunism through interpersonal and socially and self-deceptive “planning” infecting every part of our culture involving morals, values and etiquette. It is the survival part of our animal nature that has seeped through and undermined our attempts to create distance between our actively denied animal nature and our projected pretense of evolutionary and spiritual superiority. Co-dependence eminently fits the requirement for disguising our self-deception while permitting the allowance of answering our primordial urges without our professed accountability. If we’re going to “plant our feet in someone else’s soil,’ we had best have a clear sense and understanding of what we are doing with a predominant propensity toward being accountable. This means developing a strong sense of Self-Trust. Only then will our emotional psyches be “mature” enough to be able to maintain an honest and mutually beneficial relationship with our chosen partners without any “surprises.”