Codependency is more than a relationship problem. It’s a wound to our psyche and individual development. Make no mistake. It’s to no fault of our own. Codependency is adaptive and helped us survive growing up in a dysfunctional family system. But that adjustment costs us our individuality, authenticity, and our future quality of life. The beliefs and behaviors we learned then lead to problems in adult relationships. In fact, they tend to recreate the dysfunctional family of our past.
Codependency is both learned and passed on generationally. It starts in childhood, usually because of codependent parenting, including being raised by an addict or mentally or emotionally ill parent. To survive, we’re required to adapt to the needs, actions, and emotions of our parents at the expense of developing an individual Self.
Repetitious patterning shaped our personality style with supporting beliefs, which were both learned and inferred from parental behavior. They were formed by our immature infant-toddler mind in the context of total dependency on our parents. An example is, “I must not cry (or express anger) to be safe, held, and loved.”
We developed a codependent persona, employing strategies of power, pleasing, or withdrawal to endure dysfunctional parenting. Appropriately using all of these is healthy, but codependents compulsively rely mostly on only one or two. In Conquering Shame and Codependency, I describe these coping mechanisms and personalities as: The Master, The Accommodator, and The Bystander.
Pediatrician and psychiatrist Donald Winnicott believed that early childhood trauma threatens annihilation of the Self. It’s a disorientating shock that affects us on multiple systems. Trauma marginalizes thinking and impairs our ability to successfully achieve developmental tasks. Imagine a vulnerable infant having to overcome the threat of extinction while navigating interpersonal relationships, which should feel safe. He or she must be hypervigilant to anticipate and interpret parental reactions and adjust accordingly. Normal interpersonal development suffers. Instead, maintaining attachment becomes our priority while we still have to cope with ongoing relational trauma in childhood and later as adults.
Hence, development of a fully-embodied Self is stunted by this system of accommodation. Effective parenting requires that parents see their child as separate individuals. They must attune to, empathize with, and honor their child’s experience. This allows us to feel safe and helps to develop an autonomous self. With codependent caregivers, we instead attune to them. We perversely organize our mental state to accommodate our parents.
For example, how can a child navigate safety and fill his or her need for love with an inattentive, anxious, critical, or controlling parent? An anxious or abusive parent makes us anxious and fearful. A controlling parent extinguishes self-trust and initiative. A critical or intrusive parent squelches us, producing insecurity and self-criticism. These early patterns skew our perceptions of ourselves, our work, and our relationships. All of these and other dysfunctional parenting styles breed shame — that we’re bad, inadequate, and unlovable.
The Cost of Codependency
Early insecure attachments with caregivers necessitate that we sideline our spontaneous felt experience. Over time, as our personality and reactions solidify. Our ability to self-reflect, to process new information, to adjust, and to respond becomes impaired. Our reactions become rigid and our cognitive distortions feel absolute.