Codependency is a thinking and behavioral problem. Codependents buy into the idea, promoted by acquired shame, that they are unlovable, not good enough or simply wrong and try to heal this by enabling and controlling others so they feel secure. They have an armory of tools at their disposal to do this. Rage, victimhood, silent treatment, martyring are just a few and codependents always look for the opportunity to be the savior of a crisis, scoring them points with their codependent object. Imagine how exhausting it is in terms of mental energy to keep this going, often with partners who have their own control agenda. Healing means using that mental energy for themselves and not on others.
Just how is this done in a mind that is so conditioned for external validation? A mind of a child that developed around emotionally unaware or distant caregivers and was given the impression it was of no value. The roots of codependency lie deep in child development and the inability or unwillingness of caregivers to learn the lessons of their own upbringing. Hence, many people are now having to reparent themselves as adults while being greatly affected by the influences of childhood. This is made more difficult by the need for connection with others which should be a seamless, pleasurable experience but ends up fraught with anxiety and fear.
Much of the issue lies in our inability to stay in the present moment and judge events for what they are instead of what we fear them to be based on experience. We fail to realise that thinking is just our way of noticing our world but we tend to give our thoughts much more power than needed by dwelling and applying our experiences to them when they could really be seen as just “passing” or reflections on the moment.
Many codependents who have done the work to become aware of what they are and where they come from are left with a dilemma. This means going through the process of unblending with others and releasing themselves from enmeshment. For some, it will be about ending dysfunctional or abusive relationships. Above all, it means becoming comfortable in being an individual with relationship and personal values and a sense of independence and individuality.
As I am writing, I am aware that this is often easier said than done but is not impossible. They have also gone through the work of reconnecting with deeper parts of their psyche and come to know how their developed thinking parts influence their view of themselves. To move on, they have to let go of the idea that they “need” to be in a relationship. This idea stems from relational and developmental trauma experienced as a child where connection with caregivers was broken and the child “worked” hard to connect, believing it could only be secure if such connection happened, a process that should be natural. In this process, there is no self-love but a love deficit and the need to control the environment, including the reaction of others, to feel secure. The following documents how one can continue after all of this work has been done and a codependent in the phase where new thinking will move them away from the thinking of the past.
I like to use different therapy models in different stages of recovery. I like the deep aspect of Inner Child work and I find Parts work as prescribed by IFS as especially effective. When we get to the stage described above, I tend to use aspects of ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Theory) and the pivot system or redirection, it advocates. This is very effective in changing thinking and is as follows:
Defusion: See our thoughts with enough distance so we can choose what to do next. This is a thinking process that pivots from what ACT describes as fusion to defusion and redirects the need for coherence and yearning. Cognitive fusion means that we take our thoughts as literal and absolute and we allow them to overdetermine what we do about our thoughts. We fill our minds full of the terrible and awful and make a judgment on that. Defusion means seeing your thoughts as just thinking or noticing your environment and seeing them for what they are… fleeting attempts to make sense of our environment. For codependents, this means tuning into reality not fantasy and what that means for them. In a way, we are distancing ourselves from the destructive thoughts that cause psychological rigidity.
Self: Notice the story we have constructed about ourselves, about who we are. This means moving away from our conceptualised self or ego and not believing the stories told to us and about us. And redirects the yearning for connection and belonging. This is essential for codependents. Our stories, that is what we hold true about ourselves, can be helpful but when looked at rigidly, they hold us in a rigid grip that doesn‘t allow us to see reality or be honest with ourselves. Stories are mantras that come from our childhood such as “I am not good enough” or “That is all there is for me” and we defend them rigorously. The alternative is to become an observer and a witness or just being consciously aware of events in the moment without judgment or prejudice. This allows us to see that we are more than the propaganda that was fed to us. Those who can do this are tapping into their spiritual self.
Acceptance: Allow ourselves to feel even when those feelings are painful. A pivot from avoidance to acceptance and redirects the yearning to feel. Avoidance tells us that we need to run away from feelings of pain and the events that trigger that pain. Our minds tell us it is the easiest way to avoid pain and we will feel better when we feel good. This leads to addiction and codependency where staying in relationships being addicted to the small amount of good avoids the pain of change. However, avoidance only compounds our issues and makes it difficult to feel. If we can use acceptance, we try to embrace the whole experience with openness and curiosity and not in a victimized state. As ACT states, Acceptance pivots from feeling GOOD to FEELING good.
Presence: Direct attention to the present moment.This requires redirecting from rigid thinking governed by the past or an imagined future to conscious attention in the present moment. Rigid attention means ruminating about the past or mindlessly disappearing mentally with time wasting and addiction. The thoughts concerning past and present are our mind‘s way of not becoming lost by trying to make sense of sensory input through our experiences. Instead, we find ourselves often in mental fog, stuck as to what to do. For codependents, this is often defined in the internal battle they have in their mind between logic and emotion. The alternative is flexibility in viewing experiences and being in the here and now. This means choosing to pay heed to only thoughts that are helpful to us and moving on from thoughts that are not.
Values: Choose the values of being and doing. This requires redirecting from socially compliant goals to chosen values and deals with the yearning for self-direction and purpose. We often choose our path in life based on what we feel we have to do or to be compliant with the people around us. Research states that motivation for such goals is not sustainable and often builds resentment. Goals are not motivating because we are either concentrating on achieving them (future) or what to do after achieving them (past). Values on the other hand, are personal qualities of being and doing and govern the way we see relationships and the way we want to be treated. Setting values is a lifelong journey of meaning but above all, they are your personal values that define you as a person. For codependents who often become enmeshed in the life of others, this is an essential end point in recovery.
Action: Create habits that support choices and values. Pivoting from constant resistance to committed action and redirects the yearning to be competent. Taking action is all about creating and maintaining positive and effective habits. We often try to create habits in one foul swoop that becomes overwhelming and leads to procrastination. Taking positive action means new habits in smaller steps in line with our values. A codependent will find this part extremely scary.