The Roots Of Codependency Examined

It has been said that a large part of the global population is codependent on something or somebody. That something could be work, substances, alcohol. That somebody could be a partner, parent or boss. Yes, there are many ways to be codependent and many are codependent towards more than one “object” leading to a fairly miserable life of sacrifice, search for validation and controlling others.

I work with many codependents and I consider it a speciality of mine. I identified myself a codependent long ago and still work hard at managing the various aspects of it and it is a case of management, not cure. I understand and know exactly what it means including falling for the classic three stage narcissist relationship trap. In my work with clients struggling with codependency, I have come to realise that a clear pattern exists in childhood that leaves children predisposed to codependency in adult life. Listen to these statements from codependents and maybe you will see what I mean :

“It was my job to make sure my drunken father got home safe. Nobody gave me this job, I just felt without him there, we would not be safe. i saw my mum fretting about it and I did it for her”

“I tried my hardest to make my parents proud of me….yet nothing I did was good enough. Even when I got into university, it was the wrong university. I just kept trying harder. I feel if I don’t, my world will crash”

“I feel my parents didn’t love me and blamed me for everything that went wrong. It made me feel guilty. My mother distanced herself from me and my father punished me. I remember being locked in an outside shed for hours on end. They used to tell me that the family would be better off without me and that I should be locked away. I believed it.”

“I was taught that I had to take care of my parent’s needs from an early age. Mine were not important and I thought I only existed to serve them.”

It is my observation that most codependents grew up in houses where they were encouraged to be caretakers, to subdue their own needs or taught that whatever they did was not up to scratch. This is where the shame and guilt often starts, a key element of codependency. While there is little research to find a cause for narcissism, many studies believe that opposite factors could be a cause. Over lavish praise, abilities being embroidered by over indulgent parents in competition with other parents and the “golden child syndrome” all play a role in providing a child with a superiority complex. Codependents are often afflicted with the opposite…..low self esteem.

If you add into the mix the typical inconsistent, often punitive parenting style that codependents are often subjected to, then the recipe is complete. I have recognised that many parents of codependents were also brought up in codependent households themselves and are often with a certain “type” of person. There is often a combination of an overwhelmed mother and an emotionally distant “breadwinner” father who felt that providing financially was his only job. He took no interest in raising the children and was often called upon to punish when needed. Many of these emotionally distant men were either alcoholics or philanderers leaving the secure base that is essential for children to grow, fragile.

Think about the following situations and the resulting behavior: 

A text message from your partner’s former lover sends you into a spiral of rage, insecurity and self-doubt. They reassure you but you are convinced they are cheating.

You want to change your job but fail to apply for a new one because you are convinced that you are not good enough to get it.

You allow people to walk all over you because you are not assertive and like to avoid conflict, resulting in regret and self loathing.

You are in a dysfunctional relationship but cannot find the courage to leave….fearing what might come next.

These situations are typical of the way many people live their lives. For them, this is normal. They feel that this is their lot..they don’t deserve anything better. When we look for the reasons for this, the past and especially upbringing is the first place to look. While the old cliché goes that therapists always blame the parents, their influence or lack of, is a vital cog in the wheel of development and can set the mould for the subsequent adult’s view of the world. However, there are other factors too.

As we grow up, we face daunting challenges that need to be overcome. In favorable circumstances with loving parents, understanding teachers and society in general, these challenges can be managed fairly easily and the transition to mature adult is a functional one. However, in reality many young people will face overwhelming hurdles in order to bring themselves out of adolescence. Here I look at some of these potential hurdles. In this article, the subject of abuse in various forms is not covered. Some of these issues are key in the formation of codependency.

Early attachment problems :

Developmental psychology describes the tendency for a child to seek closeness with a specific person, usually the mother. The child does this to create a secure, reliable base that is a vital biological function important for survival. From this base, the child can explore the world and master its surroundings. However, some children do not have this opportunity due to abusive or neglectful parents, death of a parent or other events a prevent secure bonding. Those children who have a strong attachment to parents experience a far better self-image and deal with stress better (Burge, et al 1997) . It is also seen to improve such factors as body image, academic performance and sexuality. Insecure attachments have been linked with substance abuse, eating disorders and high-risk sexual behavior and codependency.  It is also more likely that infants who had anxious attachments to care givers grew up to experience more anxiety as an adult.

Alcoholic Parents

Many codependents will tell stories of having to cope with parents who were alcoholics and how that created a certain dynamic in the family. Children are often placed in the situation that they have to care for not only the alcoholic but for the other parent as well, who would clearly not cope very well. This puts children in a caretaking situation and having to parent their parents. Their own needs are subdued as they try to keep the secure vase intact. These children often go through cycles of being abused during their parent’s drunken spells. 

Unhelpful parenting styles :

The family is the primary provider of the emotional, intellectual and physical environment that a child grows up in.  This is also clearly the biggest influence on the child’s view of the world and its ability to cope later in life. The ability of the parents to make this environment “good enough” for correct adjustment and healthy functioning is key to this process. It would be wrong at this point to say that parents are the only factor. There are many examples of children from loving families who still experience issues later.  However, it is also true to say that when parents regard their own needs as more important than those of the child, the family becomes dysfunctional, leading to a variety of consequences for the child. The biggest responsibility for parents is to coach children through various developmental phases, addressing unacceptable behavior and promoting socially acceptable behavior instead. Such behavior generally starts in early childhood and when not addressed or even noticed, can lead to much more extreme behavior later in life. Some parents even engage in these behavior patterns themselves, increasing the likelihood that the child will do the same.  It has been consistently demonstrated that anti-social behavior by parents , especially fathers, is connected to youth and adolescent behavior of the same ilk. (West,1982). 

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