At the heart of this process is a willingness to work on oneself and to accept that co-dependency is an issue in relationships. This means accepting responsibility for change and not passing that responsibility (or blame) onto others. It takes courage to look at and assess early life experiences and learn new skills that will help deal with early trauma or abuse. It also takes a willingness to look critically at relationships, some of which may have been adding to the problem, and to put these relationships on a new footing. It is also vitally important to find a therapist who understands that he or she may also have or have had issues with co-dependency and has recognised and worked on these issues. When these factors are accepted, the following would be the framework for work in therapy that could lead to recovery :
1. See the Patterns: A factor in early trauma and abuse is the use of defense mechanisms in order to survive. One of these is a denial that things that have attributed to co-dependency actually took place. It may have been the case that to keep up appearances or to make things easier for parents, a child is encouraged to ignore or subdue feelings or opinions. At worst, children are taught to deny feelings or that is wrong to show them. As co-dependency is generally seen as a feeling disorder, this can have a devastating impact on relationships and growth generally. Many adults also believe that co-dependent behavior is “normal” to act this way is just the same as everyone else. Many believe the relationships they are in are strong and are surprised to learn that they are not and in fact, they are toxic and draining. Understanding the complex issues involved is the first step and this often comes out when therapy is sought for other reasons.
2. Get a sense of Understanding: While there are many theories about the causes of co-dependency, it is most likely to be the caused by developmental trauma and growing up in dysfunctional surroundings. Under these conditions, bonding does not take place effectively during the first few months of life. Other theories base findings on genetics and the link to substance abusers. Part of any therapeutic work would be to look at and assess early life experiences and influences and to understand how these have shaped development.
3. Look at relationships: Once that sense of understanding that co-dependency is caused by trauma that prevents effective relationship building comes to awareness, present relationships can be analyzed for co-dependent patterns. When full bonding does not take place, there is an incomplete “inner child” who has never finished the separation process from caregivers. Work in therapy gives new skills and tools which can complete this process. This means putting relationships on a new footing which could also mean some relationships become less or more important.
4. Explore the Triggers: A trigger is a reaction to stimuli that reminds us of another situation. This can be positive, for example… a warm summer day can trigger memories of carefree childhood holidays. However, it can also be a process that evokes negative feelings and the emotions and behavior that accompanied them. This often happens on a subconscious level and leads to automatic thoughts and reactions. One of the less desirable traits in co-dependency is the need to protect ourselves from people who display characteristics that we do not like in ourselves. Anger and insult is often triggered and blame and judgment follow. This is part of the denial process mentioned earlier and can lead to a “twist”in reality where we label others and have a need to be “right” and “good”. Unfortunately, this means someone else must be “wrong” or “bad”. These projections can be confronted and challenged gently in therapy.
5. The issue of Self-Hate: A major factor in developmental trauma is the lack of bonding and subsequent lack of separation from a mother or family. In a sense of denial, this separation may take place in another way by labelling family “bad” or “wrong”, usually sending the message to Self that it is also “bad” or “wrong”. The second step in denial is that these feelings are then labelled as “bad” and they can control your life , relationships and destroy self-esteem. These are purely projections based on an incomplete separation process. If the understanding is that these are due to a lack of self-esteem, they can be corrected. A process will take place over time where material and external stimulus is not needed as much as the Self starts to recover.
6. Become Assertive: Many people who are co-dependent are either over demanding and controlling or to the extreme, subversive and the eternal “doormat”. This has developed from a distorted view of relationships, the boundaries in relationships and what is acceptable. Being assertive means asking for what you want without aggression and giving without resentment. Part of this process is also the ability to say “no” without guilt or fear of repercussion. As self-esteem builds, this process becomes easier.
7. Learn to Feel Again: The ability to show feelings and later learn what is appropriate is often taken away from children. Parents scorn at children who show emotion and anger. This gives the message that anger and other feelings must be justified before showing them. However, it sends the clear message that emotion and feelings generally are wrong. As an adult it is important to be able to recognise and express those feelings that were denied as a child. Only then can a new learning process take place. The paradox is that co-dependent people often show anger in relationships, even though this was denied them as children. It is, however, often inappropriate anger based on triggers and automatic thoughts. In therapy, these factors would be assessed and realistically challenged.
8. The Inner Child: When a child who grows up in a dysfunctional ,co-dependent household, he or she is taught to please others rather than pleasing themselves. This causes a child to create a False Self rather than a True Self. Part of the True Self is an innocent inner child that is not fully developed. This could be for various reasons : bullying, abuse, and a range of other issues. A child will often hide this trauma from the world and consequently from its True Self, leaving the inner child undeveloped. Reconnecting with and healing the inner child is an essential part of therapy.
9. Define Boundaries: Everyone has a psychological space that includes thoughts, feelings and behavior that belongs solely to him or her. People with co-dependent issues have had their psychological space invaded so often as children that they are no longer aware of this space or when it is being violated. Part of the therapeutic process of recovery would be to define and maintain these boundaries anew.
10. Relearn or learn how to be Intimate: Though there is often a desire for intimacy in co-dependency, this is often feared. The fear is one of control, abandonment, hurt or to be engulfed by those they are intimate with. This is down to the incomplete bonding process and the mistrust of relationships. Work with a therapist can provide the security, unconditional regard and support needed to bond safely with others.
The most important part of the above process is to find a therapist who has taken his or her own journey to interdependency and understands the steps needed. It is always prudent to ask a therapist about his or own co-dependent issues and how they were handled. It the therapist finds this request strange or is not prepared to answer, then maybe another therapist should be found. If this journey is to be taken, it needs to be done with someone who knows the way.