Adult Children of Alcoholics and Co-Dependents often seek employment in careers or jobs that automatically generate high stress, often involve people in crisis, are high stimulus and require rapid fire problem solving and a high degree of personal responsibility.
When you work in a high stimulus environment, your adrenal glands are constantly firing. Often hyper-vigilance is a requirement of the job. Co-Dependents are raised to be acutely aware of others in their environment. The primary requirement of a Co-Dependent within their family is to learn to read the mood and determine the needs of the parent (often the alcoholic). From infancy, these children learn to read the atmospherics to know when the situation at home is dangerous or problematic. When the radar goes off to alert them, they instantly begin to process options for resolving the needs of the adult, for being able to soothe them and quiet them down just the same way one would a frightened horse or dog. Co-Dependent children learn to speak in a quiet soft voice that pacifies the adult. They learn to notice what the adult likes, items such as; food, drink, snacks, favorite blankets or TV shows, anything that will help the out of control raging adult become quiet and safe for the family to be around. You learn to fix their favorite meals, to anticipate when things are going poorly at work, and make sure that all is well at home. You learn to take on their rage when it is necessary in order to protect the other children or adults.
Some how the co-dependent knows that their job is to take on this responsibility. They know that they are stronger (perhaps because they learn to be dissociative in response to pain so they think it does not bother them as much to be hurt, or beaten.) They believe that the other children or adults in the family do not have the strength to handle the rage or adrenalin of the alcoholic.
An infant is supposed to be born into a household that pays attention to the infant; one that learns to understand or know what his cries mean and to provide hugging and nurturing responses to the needs of the child. When children are born into co-dependent households there is no focus given to the needs of the child. The child is a reflection of the level of satisfaction and “ok-ness” of the adult. The needs of the adult are the primary needs of the child. The child is not taught to ask the questions: How do I feel? What do I want? What makes me happy? These children are in a constant condition of survival mode for themselves or others and externally focused on identifying the needs of those around them. They learn to obtain their sense of ok-ness by pleasing and satisfying others. Safety is the primary goal, and safety is obtained by earning the right to be safe. Love is obtained by earning the right to be loved by satisfying the needs of others, even when those needs are never articulated. You are supposed to know what is needed, to anticipate it and to provide it without being asked. If you learn how to do this, then you can be relatively safe as a child. The problem is when you are an adult, you still approach relationships from this frame.
Grown up Co-Dependents enter relationships with an unwritten and unspoken contract. This contract exists entirely in their heads. Their contract is: I will love you (whomever they have selected) I will learn everything you need and want and provide it for you without being asked. In return I want from you two things: 1) I want you to give me my OK-ness (my attaboy’s) because I am unable to provide them for myself) and 2) I want you to promise never ever to leave me. The unconscious fear of the co-dependent is the fear of abandonment. These children grew up in households where love was never given, it was sold, and it was unpredictably but regularly withdrawn and readministered based on the manipulation by the adults for training or torment purposes. What these children learn is that they have to earn love, affection, acceptance and safety. They must earn it over and over again every single day. It is never secure and never an innate right. The messages these children hear from their parents are:“You are not loveable because you are, you are loveable because of what you do to please me. If you do not please me, then you are toast. Be afraid, be very afraid! Don’t cry, don’t make demands. Don’t talk outside the family, it is no one’s business but ours. If you cannot do these things the way I need you to, then you will be punished and/ or driven away. “
Growing up in this kind of environment and with this unspoken unwritten script causes you to learn to only be alive when you are alert. You are only capable of feeling when you are on maximum attention so that you can quickly shift among competing demands to compartmentalize to meet the needs of as many people as possible. You learn to juggle activities, focal points, behaviors, attitudes, and all with a smile and a warm reassurance that it is really no problem at all, because it is just what you do. You do not need praise, you do not need anything other than the satisfaction of doing a good job and being secure in your job. We seek out jobs in the emergency room, we become policemen, we become special operations soldiers, we teach in inner city schools, we take jobs at the epicenter of information flow and decision -making. This is where we live we make great second bananas. When we are not in these environments, we suffer from anxiety, we dissociate, we self medicate, we take on second or third jobs, we become thrill seekers and we learn not to feel, not to care, not to expect. We are never surprised when relationships or jobs end. We just move on to the next one and try to do a better job. Maybe this time we will get it right, maybe this time we will earn the right to be loved and ultimately to be safe and never be abandoned.
What clients like this never figure out is that the only way they can arrange to never be abandoned is to learn to love themselves, to learn to ask and discover what they feel, what they want, and to say no to others. Doing this is very hard. Therapists must gently and consistently teach them to say no and not justify or explain. They do not need the approval of someone else to say no. But they do not know this. You as a therapist must resist the seduction and temptation to rescue them from their anxiety when they try to say no and get flooded with fear. They will try to manipulate you into signaling what they “should” do and what you “want them to do” so that they can satisfy you and become safe. Your job is not to rescue them from their anxiety. Not to indicate to them what you want them to do and certainly not to tell them what you like. You must develop your ability to be comfortable in the presence of their anxiety. Remember, you are probably Co-Dependent as well. So you may feel unbearable anxiety when your clients are anxious. You must maintain your calm and do not rescue them, encourage them to stretch their tolerance for feeling anything at all, especially anything perceived as negative, such as anger. Do not help them go away somewhere, and do not resolve their anxiety by letting them focus on “doing” for you or someone else rather than “being” for themselves.
Eventually there is hope for the Co-Dependent if they are able to break the reflexive conditioning of being a caretaker as a way to be “safe” and “love-able.” They must learn that they cannot nor should they live to please everyone else. They must get in touch with their inner self and learn to listen to the messages from their bodies. They need to learn the answers to the questions: What do you want? What do you like? How do you feel? As a therapist, you need to get out of the way and stay out of the way. Be a strong reassuring consistent presence that does not reward them for pleasing you and does not punish them for not pleasing you by withdrawing your emotional connection from them no matter how they are behaving. You can teach them appropriate limits, you can say no to them and still care about them, and you can teach them to do these things with you so that they can begin to do them with others.