Codependency: Some thoughts

Today I want to write about something that became an often-used term in popular literature. It is not a clinical term and is not in the DSM. Yet it is a term that most people have heard and think they understand. The term is codependence. I want to write about it as an outgrowth of some comments that were made on my blog “Who is behind the mask?” Several people wrote comments about knowing that they were wearing masks and using them to project images of power, capacity, need, and dependence. From the things they had to say, I began to think more about the concept of codependence.
My conceptualization of codependence is a term that grew out of the literature and public conversation around the idea of Adult Children of Alcoholics. Clinicians began to notice that people who were Adult Children of Alcoholics had common character and behavioral traits. We began to identify these traits and to look for causality and treatment approaches that would be helpful. In identifying people who fit the newly developed profile, we began to hear that even though people fit the character and behavior traits, they insisted that there was no alcohol history in their backgrounds. In our wisdom, we generally responded: “Well, denial is the primary characteristic, and this is just an example of denial!” Eventually, we came to understand that we had the cart before the horse. What we were calling the set, Adult Children of Alcoholics, was in actually the subset of larger group. We began to use the term “Codependence” to identify this larger group. What we found was that people who fit the profile of a codependent might not have the issue of alcohol abuse and its concomitant adaptations in their background, but that those who did fit the same profile as others whom we now call co-dependent.
What is the profile and what are the issues of the codependent? There are many. Elementary among them is that they never learned to feel their own feelings, label them accurately, and deal with them. They have not learned to ask themselves these questions: What do I want? What do I feel? What is best for me in this situation? Instead, they learned very early in life that in order to get attention and to be safe, they had to figure out what others wanted and provide it. They had to make the devil’s bargain of learning to meet the needs of others in order to be safe and acceptable, as well as, suppress their own needs and feelings. Part of the lesson learned by codependents is that they are not inherently attractive or worthy. They do not inherently have the right or ability to present themselves naturally and know that others will find them to be desirable and valuable. They learn that they have to constantly earn their place. They earn it by not getting in the way, not making “unreasonable” demands on others, or wanting anything that would put any kind of burden on anyone else. Sadly, as children, they cannot get the attention of their parents when they have needs or fears. The messages they receive from their world is that they must hide their fears and must not present needs for others to satisfy. In order to exist and be safe, they learn that they must control themselves and submerge their feelings so that they can focus on the adults in their lives and figure out what those adults want or need so that the child will be safe and have the most basic needs taken care of.
The insidious portion of this survival strategy is that when raised in this kind of dysfunctional household, the children learn to internalize a pattern of survival that is based on submerging their reality. They learn to adapt a camouflage mask that is focused on meeting the needs of the parent figure. So the codependent makes the devil’s bargain when they look for relationships in their adolescence or adult lives.
What is this “devil’s bargain?” They find someone that they can match rhythms with and study them to learn how to please them and make them happy. The unstated contract they use is “I will learn how to love you in a way that makes you happy and satisfies all your needs.” In return I only want two things from you. One, I want you to promise me that you will never leave me. This caveat is in response to the reality that their parents constantly abandoned them emotionally and often physically. Fear of abandonment is the gravest and most constant fear of the codependent. They all know in their innermost selves that eventually the “other” to whom they have given themselves will wake up and see that they really have no value or worth and that “other” will then just walk away. The second part of the contract is the expectation. This is to say that you will give me my atta-boy or atta-girl. Co-dependents do not have a sense of internalized OK-ness. They must receive indications of self-worth and value from outside of themselves. They did not learn the lesson that healthy babies from healthy families learn; that they can like, love, and respect themselves because of the strength of their sense of self. Healthy children develop this confidence because someone else told them they were OK. The problem with this contract is that it never works. They are always abandoned and they never get a “pure” stroke of approval from anyone. The best they can hope for is a “yeah, but…” i.e. the dinner is great, but the house is a mess……….
These children never internalized their value and self-worth. Therefore they spend their lives in service of obtaining a sense of safety and OK-ness from outside themselves. They do not learn to “listen” to themselves and know what they want because what they want has never mattered. They were never taught to hear that inner voice and attend to it as a guide for choice and behavior. They learned to be “good” and to do “right” in order to please others and live.
When working with codependents as a clinician, I constantly ask them to go inside and ask themselves, what do I feel? What do I want? They consistently resist this message because they do not know how to do it. When they try, they hear NO voice telling them anything. It is my job to convince them that it is a necessary, worthwhile, and workable journey. If they work it they can eventually learn to feel their feelings. Then they can learn how to make choices based on their own goals, needs, and desires. Eventually, they can learn to internalize their own OK-ness and not have to receive it from someone else as a payment for a service provided. In order to overcome codependence, the lesson and the journey are: Develop an internalized OK-ness by becoming self-aware and self-validating.

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2 Responses to Codependency: Some thoughts

  1. Louie says:

    Good post, I absolutely look ahead to updates of your stuff.

  2. Keep up the excellent piece of work Codependency: Some thoughts | Brett Newcomb I read few posts on this internet site and I think that your web blog is very interesting and has got sets of fantastic info .

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