Codependency has become a buzzword of our time, and as with all buzzwords that acquire a certain cultural currency, the vital concepts behind it can sometimes be undermined with time. In the case of this particular buzzword, however, we cannot afford to let its meaning slip away. Codependency is one of our most destructive psychological habits, and, unfortunately, one of the most prevalent
What is codependency?
Contrary to what many people think, codependency does not only refer to dependent relationships that involve substance abuse. Its connotations are far broader. Someone who is codependent is one who has let another’s behavior or feelings affect them in a way that interferes with work, creativity, other relationships and personal growth.
Alternately, the word codependency also refers to people who are preoccupied with controlling other people’s behaviors and feelings. In either case, whether a person is excessively swayed by another, or excessively dominant, the result is an inability to feel balanced, whole, and empowered.
Distorted and damaged self-esteem is the root of codependency.
When we feel healthy and whole, we understand that we cannot control other people’s feelings, ideas, or behaviors. We make decisions that are best for us, and others are afforded this same right and responsibility.
However this healthy perspective is undermined when the sense of Self is damaged through frank emotional and physical abuse, through experiences that did not validate our point of view, or when our basic need for love, understanding, and empathy were not met by those who took care of us.
Walking through life with a distorted sense of Self is like seeing life through a foggy pair of eyeglasses. We cannot see the outside world clearly because our own ability to register and navigate healthy choices and ideas is impaired or undermined by past experience.
Jane M’s story is an example of persons testimony revealed in individual and group therapy.
Jane arrived at group therapy because she did not understand why she was not excelling in her career, and why she chose relationships in which she always functioned as the caretaker and fixer. She complained of vague symptoms of headache, stomach-ache, and fatigue in which there was no clear medical explanation, diagnosis, or treatments that helped. Through a series of weekly sessions and through feedback from her group, she began to realize that she was recreating patterns from her past that affected her inner sense of well being and her relationships.
Jane grew up with parents who were alcoholics. Aside from the difficult memories of intoxicated caregivers, Jane remembered that she evolved into the “family rescuer”. She cared for her parents without understanding that they were responsible for their own behaviors and feelings, and became a surrogate parent to her brother. In essence, she took upon herself the difficult burdens of her parents and brother by thinking that she caused or was responsible for their actions and feelings. “If I did more for them, I thought I would be loved more.” All of this resulted in an undeveloped sense of self-esteem for Jane. Because she was so focused on keeping the family together, she neglected her own needs and wants, and lost her own identity. As an adult, she found that she was trying to please everyone at work and at home, at the expense of her own feelings and inner growth.
Through courageous and patient attempts to pursue therapy, Jane realized that the only one that she could be responsible for was herself. This was not a selfish attitude (which is what she previously thought) but, rather, a healthy one, since she was creating proper boundaries that were never learned. She also recognized how much of her personal time, energy and concentration was spent trying to correct, challenge, and cure her significant others’ problems over the years, including a fraught relationship with an alcoholic boyfriend. Despite her efforts, she was frustrated because she was not receiving balanced love and nurturing in return.
Over time, the fog upon Jane’s eyeglasses began to lift.
Her distorted sense of Self gave way to a new wholeness, vitality and freedom as she allowed herself to release intense, negative emotions arising from inner mistrust, guilt, rage, shame and blame. She reworked destructive patterns in her childhood of trying to rescue and fix her own caretakers, which prevented her from accepting herself and her limitations in helping others. She created new boundaries through a healthier sense of Self, and set limits with relatives, friends, and intimate partners on what she would and would not do by owning her own life and placing the responsibility of their problems upon themselves. She recognized that she had to recreate love, acceptance, and understanding in her present life through new creative projects and activities that she never received or had the opportunity for in her childhood.
As a result, Jane switched careers into a high paying job and found a partner who was understanding and nurturing. Her physical complaints gradually subsided; she even found new life in aerobics and yoga as part of her own well-being and spiritual quest.
Four trouble spots
Like Jane, those suffering from a feeling of distorted Self must contemplate whether four major areas correspond to their own life experience.
Low self-esteem is defined as: ongoing inadequate feelings; difficulties accepting praise; constant self-judgment and criticism; ongoing feelings of guilt, worthlessness, shame; fear of rejection; and severe reactions to criticism. These all point in the direction of a low self-worth that may have deep rooted origins and require inner healing.
Difficulty setting boundaries
Injury to the Self contributes to the difficulty in managing where our needs begin and another person’s ends. In a household in which fear and mistrust rule, our sense of Self shuts down. What results is isolation and withdrawal from how we truly feel. Repression and denial cover our own knowing of how to give and receive. If boundaries remain distorted, healthy needs are not met and there is imbalance in managing the needs of others. Rescuing and fixing others at the expense of our own well-being is one form of this, the extreme form is to caretake and enable those who are abusing alcohol and other substances to continue their destructive activities.
Problems meeting individual needs and wants
When Self is damaged through constant undermining of our own sense of trust and what is right for us, there is great difficulty in navigating our own needs and desires. Many suffering from this are fearful and judge themselves for seeking and finding their own highest and best in life. Until Self is healed, there is the ongoing struggle of not feeling “good enough” to create health and balance. Or, there is too much giving or withholding from others. The meter for understanding our own ability to choose and create health is in the quality of relationships, creativity, job satisfaction, as well as how we create our own personal space that is right for us. The central question to always ask is, “how peaceful and content are we, when we are alone with ourselves?”
Difficulties in creating balanced living
Highs and lows, ups and downs, extremes in behaviors, and difficulties finding time for one’s Self are all signs that require inner contemplation. For example, if you are a workaholic, is there a history of abuse or of being undervalued or unappreciated, so that there is something to prove? If there is reckless spending or chaotic relationships, is that a recreation from experiences with past caretakers? If there is neglect of creativity is that disavowing our need for balance in work and play? All are seeking happiness; one needs to perform one’s own healing work to elicit the motives and conflicts that prevent time for recreation, career, and our own inner spiritual development.
Ongoing consistent recovery work is key. As Jane experienced over time, consistent practice and intervention goes a long way in healing the distorted Self. Below are some avenues to explore.
Regular individual and group psychotherapy provide an outlet to ventilate feelings, confront resistances, open up and discuss difficult family patterns and their present day effect, and to work through old wounds through feedback of other members as well as the therapist.
Structured programs such as Al-anon, Alateen, and Codependents Anonymous all work to keep the focus on the individual and to dissect what role each person plays in contributing to the distorted sense of Self. The consistent and ongoing group support gradually allows those who have been abused, misunderstood, undervalued or unappreciated to create a new sense of empowerment and forward movement in their lives. These groups enhance self-esteem, help people to recreate and relearn healthy boundaries, validate personal needs that were unmet in the formidable years, and attempt to help members develop a sense of well-being for themselves.
Spiritual growth and development in whatever form or path for those open to this aspect allows free flow of creativity and accesses and enhances the healing process. Allowing and exploring the essence of the human condition in any form creates new hope and a sense of connection to life that was perhaps distorted and disrupted over time.
The miracle of the Self is that it is adaptable, malleable and that it can be healed. The disease of codependency can therefore be transformed to the healthy approach of co-creation with others in the world to lead a more fulfilling life. The eyeglasses become clear and finally the world can be seen as it really is.