Codependency is a complex issue and many therapists doubt its existence. They might agree somewhat with the classic definition of codependency where an enabling partner helps an addict maintain his addiction but the idea of codependency in relationships, the love addiction, is disputed. However, codependency in relationships is something I see and work with every day in my practice and I am convinced it is a concept that affects many relationships.
Once this is established, the question is, what can be done about it? How do you unravel the roots of codependency and the enmeshment with another person? Where do you start to deal with thoughts and feelings first established in childhood? How do you break the cycle of sacrifice and enabling? There are, of course, many approaches aimed at dealing with codependency and its effects and therapists and organisations have their favourites. I have dealt with codependents for years and I have found that combining two therapies, powerful individually but life-changing when used together, to be truly effective. The two therapies in question are Inner Child and Internal Family Systems therapy. First some definition:
Inner Child Therapy:
The inner child is the creative, spontaneous, loving, trusting, confident and spiritual part of us that may have gotten lost or learned to hide earlier in life due to feelings of fear and shame stemming from experiences of trauma and betrayal. This may have been due to abuse, mistreatment or misunderstanding in childhood. It is a rare child who has adults around him or her all the time who are able to be fully present to his or her aliveness. As adults, we can return to childhood memories and ‘retrieve’ and heal that lost or hidden part of us to bring creativity, spontaneity, love, trust, confidence and deep spirituality fully back into our lives. Inner Child therapy is a deep and profound psychotherapeutic healing experience. It goes to the source of the problem and cuts through much of the intellectual chatter which prevents us from living our dreams.
Internal Family Systems Therapy:
(IFS) therapy talks about thinking parts or a “fragmented self”. It offers a valuable model which identifies three common categories of parts: exiles, managers, and firefighters. Exiles carry the burdens of trauma including the emotions and memories. Managers work to stay in control of vulnerable feelings often by working hard or manifesting as a relentless inner critic. Firefighters “act out” with addictions or self-harming behaviours in order to prevent exiles from emerging. Parts work therapy holds a basic understanding that the members our family of origin are internalised as parts of our sense of self when we are children and remain within us as we grow to become adults.
These therapies are very different in their approach and application under normal circumstances but the definitions above might give a clue to how they can be used together. Below is a brief description of how this works.
My belief is that the “inner child” (named exile in IFS) carries our core wound, the trauma that we brought into adulthood and forms our core beliefs about the world and our place in it. Often statements like “I’m not good enough”, “I’m unlovable” come straight from this. These core beliefs are on a very deep psychological level and are hard to shift.
On a layer above are the “parts” that IFS describes. This is the self-talk that goes on in our head when we are triggered. The managers (inner critic, guilt) berate us with what we should or shouldn’t do, how bad we are and how our life is a mess. The firefighters (escape) give us an easy way out into addiction and avoidance but hand us back to the managers when the instant gratification is over. The role of these “parts” is remind us of our core wound and to stop us moving forward and potentially facing disappointment, rejection or pain. It is the classic self-talk that we all listen to. They are the remnants of the protection measures we adopted as children and often mirror the personalities of our original family.
To be able to heal the core wound, we must negotiate with and counter these parts of us that are protecting it and allow direct access to the “inner child” and the trauma it carries. This is done by developing a rational, practical inner mentor who will help with this process.