Codependents gain a lot of strength from what they do for others. In fact, it is an essential process for them if they are to feel good about themselves. It is a never-ending quest for connection that unless unchecked, will lead to disappointment, rejection and the feeling of self-blame. We use the term Codependent more and more often in our description of relationships and especially dysfunctional relationships. However, what is it like to be codependent on a daily basis? I believe it differs depending on which side of the narcissist/codependent fence you are. The narcissists who prey on the vulnerabilities of their victims will see them as weak and will generally despise them while taking full advantage of their good nature. One prominent YouTube channel run by an individual who markets himself as a narcissist, claims that codependents are “parasites” who leech the lifeblood from the people they attach themselves to. This is the message he sends to the codependents he says he can help. From a codependent point of view, they will see themselves as victims who give all and receive very little.
To truly understand codependency, we must go back to where it all started and what didn’t happen and a few things that did. I firmly believe that we come into this world a blank slate and soak up everything from the environment around us. The most crucial part of that is the interaction with the people who are supposed to teach us how the world and relationships work, our parents. Given that it is often a case of the blind leading the blind, many things can go wrong and generally do. No parent is perfect but we can endure and survive an “ok” childhood, where parents are aware that their interaction is crucial and decisive. Many are not and it has an effect on the development of the child.
Codependency is a connection issue and children who do not connect with their caregivers will then continue to attempt to connect with a “moving target” as they grow into adulthood. By “moving target”, I mean emotionally distant individuals who find commitment difficult, or in a worst case scenario, manipulative and abusive partners who take full advantage.
In a developmental sense, the lack of connection with parents and the issues that lead to codependency, will mean that we often become stuck in one developmental phase or another. This could be the codependent phase (18 months to 5 ), where we are needing our parents to show us the boundaries and limits of our behaviour when we are desperately trying to push those boundaries. This is mostly where we pick up toxic shame as our parents try to control us rather than guide us. It could be the counter-dependent phase where we start to become independent from our parents and distance ourselves (usually 5 to 11). It could even be the dependent phase (0 to 18 months) where we look to someone to completely take care of all our needs. We need to navigate these phases successfully to reach a point where we can separate from our parents and become a fully functioning adult. Parents do not need to be perfect but do need to be aware, willing and knowledgeable enough to help their children through.
One of the consequences of being “stuck” in developmental phases is that we do not attain emotional maturity or separation from our parents. We then go into adulthood trying to fix those issues with other people in a process Freud called repetition compulsion. Our child-like self appears and reappears in situations where we feel triggered in relationships, work, conflict and personal growth. In terms of codependency, we mirror the tactics we used to provoke attention and validation by overachieving, caregiving, fixing and sacrificing. These are our coping skills or defence mechanisms that turn into our thinking parts like the critic, shame and escape voices.
In effect, a childhood as described above means being a fully functioning adult is going to be difficult. An adult that can make conscious choices, face consequences, set reasonable targets and not be dragged back to the past. According to Carl Rogers, a fully functioning person is one who is in touch with their deepest and innermost feelings and desires. These individuals understand their own emotions and place deep trust in their own instincts and urges. Unconditional positive regard for self plays an essential role in becoming a fully functioning person. Rogers wrote in 1962:
“Such a person experiences in the present, with immediacy. He is able to live in his feelings and reactions of the moment. He is not bound by the structure of his past learnings, but these are a present resource for him insofar as they relate to the experience of the moment. He lives freely, subjectively, in an existential confrontation of this moment in life.”
Recovery from codependency means finding or forming the part of you described above. It is always there but is often subdued or exiled. Finding that voice and maintaining it is the key to moving successfully into the adult world.