When I sometimes take the time to analyse my patients at any given point, there are always many codependents among them. This might be because I have had my own issues with this and like to work with them or it might just be an indication of the size of the issue. Contrary to people who have narcissist behaviour traits, codependents tend to blame themselves and take more responsibility than they need to. However, there is a controlling dark side of codependency in that there is usually an expectation of return of favour to keep them secure in their surroundings and with the people around them. Codependents are not averse to using such punishment methods as the silent treatment and victim behaviour to keep people in line.
I actually enjoy working with this group because once they come to a point of awareness about their behaviour, they can be helped. Learning to set boundaries around themselves and others, defining who they are and creating a sense of worthy self all help. Doing this can mean recovery and even though it could mean relationships around them change (something they fight against), it doesn’t need to be negative.
I usually employ a two-pronged approach to treatment. Firstly, I use classic CBT tools to deal with irrational thought patterns in the present to bring in more realistic thinking. Secondly, I create a world through imagery that goes a long way to dealing with the deeper issues that caused the codependency in the first place. Let me just say here that nine times out of ten, codependency is caused by an incorrect parenting style in childhood. Even though this becomes evidently clear, it is not a case of blaming the parents. We deal solely with the many protection mechanisms that were created to counter the dysfunction felt. As parents, we all make mistakes but as children, we cannot reason enough to make sense of it, we take it on ourselves and create what we see as a safe place for us behind strong walls. This behaviour becomes habitual even in adulthood.
I start by asking the client to create an image of the child that once was. When I ask them to do this, I leave it very open and they often draw a picture of themselves at the very age the dysfunction started. Working with this image, it often becomes clear very quickly how the codependency started by seeing what was going on in the family. Typical scenarios are an overwhelmed mother, an emotionally distant father or sibling rivalry…mostly all three at once. The reaction to this forms an inner critic who reminds us of things with ‘shoulds’ and ‘musts’. This is often a very powerful concept with codependents and this voice keeps them stuck in an insecure place.
These two ‘figures’ are part of what is known as our internal family. Even the inner critic was formed originally as a taskmaster to keep rigid boundaries for protection. It may have helped in childhood but is usually totally inappropriate for adulthood yet it often reigns supreme. Many techniques call for fighting it, calling it names. I like the idea of releasing it from its duties and thanking it for its hard and dutiful work over the years. It is, after all, just carrying out our original orders to the letter albeit in a dysfunctional way.
Once the work is done to release the inner critic from its duties and weaken its power, it needs to be replaced by more functional characters that allow the child to venture out but still learn the boundaries it needs. This is done by introducing the Inner Champion, a motivational, impulsive, risk-taking character who pushes the child to explore. We temper this with the Inner Parent. ..a functional, reasoning, boundary setting character who can be relied on to be consistent, honest and true. These characters when developed fully can release the child from the prison of the inner critic and help it healthily venture out into the world. This then brings us back to the present day where the lessons learned from this process can be effectively transplanted into the adults life and it is amazing how fruitful this process can be for all concerned.