Codependence: understanding, awareness, healing.
“If I am I because I am I
and you are you because you are you,
then I am and you are.
But if I am I because you are you,
and you are you because I am I,
then I am not and you are not.” (1)
This little poem exquisitely conveys the essence of codependence.
I believe it was H.D. Thoreau that wrote: “Most men live lives of silent desperation”. Sadly, I find this to be true! This silent desperation has a name: codependence. And not only is it people that suffer from codependence: schools, companies, governments, in fact our entire western society is codependent at the core. And this not only saddens me, it frightens me!
The core symptoms
There are two fundamental ways that codependence ruins your life. One is by sabotaging your relationship with yourself; the other is by sabotaging your relationship with other people (2).
The main symptoms of how codependence ruins your relationship with yourself are:
- Difficulties experiences appropriate levels of self-esteem
- Difficulties expressing your reality
- Difficulties setting boundaries
- Difficulties meeting your adult needs and wants
- Difficulties expressing your reality moderately
The main symptoms of how codependence ruins your relationship with others are:
- Control and manipulation
- Damaged spirituality
- Avoiding reality
- Difficulties with intimate relationships
The life of codependence
Being codependent is very painful.
The perhaps most painful aspect of codependence is the feeling that there is something very wrong with you, and that no matter what you do you are never good enough. This is the codependent’s secret shame and most codependents don’t like themselves. I think this is one reason why so many codependents suffer from a chronic, low-grade depression. Codependents also find it hard to believe that anyone would want them. And they very often feel they don’t belong.
I used to believe that people who did not want me must be seeing me clearly, whereas the people who wanted me, well, they had to be seriously flawed like me. Otherwise, how could they possibly want me? So for most of my life I rejected the people wanting me in favor of the people not wanting me, desperately trying to get them to like me and constantly being rejected. This caused me much misery and suffering. As crazy as this sound, this is typical codependent thinking and behavior.
Another aspect of codependence is that of not knowing Who-you-are. I didn’t know for most of my life Who-I-am. This aspect of codependence makes my heart go out to all codependent people, for how can life ever be anything but empty when you are Not? Today, happily, I know for sure Who-I-am: there is a certainty, a knowing, of myself as a person with an identity of my own.
When you don’t have a strong sense of self you become a reflection of other peoples hopes, wishes, expectations, and opinions about you. You will attempt to control other people hopes, wishes, expectations and opinions about you, so that you will like what is being reflected back to you, and then you internalise the reflections. ”If you like me, then I can like me, too.” Even if the reflection is not what you have hoped for, you will still internalise it: “She doesn’t like what I am doing? Then there must be something wrong with me!”
As a codependent it is very difficult to relax in company: You constantly have to be aware of everyone else’s thoughts, feelings and behavior so you can adjust yourself accordingly and thus, by manipulating yourself, you manipulate others to reflect back to you that you are likable and wanted.
Most codependents are superb people pleasers and have difficulties saying no. They feel personally responsible for keeping everyone happy. That is, everyone but themselves.
Codependence is other-focused, not self-focused. Codependents have difficulties accepting responsibility for their own lives and happiness — they can’t because they are codependent! And by not taking responsibility for themselves other people and life events become the forces that shape a codependents life. Thus a codependent becomes a victim of life.
Codependents are often also very sensitive people. Lacking boundaries everything becomes personal. And it hurts more often than not.
Codependent character defects
Perfectionism, people pleasing, struggling for power, tolerating abuse, staying in non-satisfactory relationships, score-keeping, not speaking your truth, over-commitment, irresponsibility, holding grudges, getting even, jealousy… (3) .
Three major character defects are those of minimization, denial and delusion.
Minimization is refusing to see how bad a situation really is. Denial is when you can see a problem in someone else, but is unable to see that you have exactly the same problem. And delusion is when you in spite of all evidence to the contrary continue to believe something to be true (4).
Codependence recovery involves seeing the truth. An excellent tool for breaking through denials and delusions is The Work of Byron Katie (5).
Boundaries are about what’s me and what’s not-me and about being responsible to rather than responsible for (6). As codependence is other-centered and other-focused what’s you and what’s me get all mixed together.
To help my clients and students create boundaries I introduce them to concept of “my business/your business/God’s business”(7). My business is my reality: What I think, feel, desire, my behavior, my beliefs and my choices. Your business is your thoughts, feelings, desires, behaviors, beliefs and choices. And God’s business is everything else. “He shouldn’t say these things!” Whose business are you in? His! It is none of your business what he says and does. Once you get into the habit of asking yourself whose business you are in, you will end up laughing at yourself — a lot!
A participant on a recent codependence course told me that her boyfriend (who did not attend the codependence course) has a habit of asking her opinion and permission before doing anything at all. Applying the “my business/your business/God’s business” thinking, she has consistently responded: “What you do is none of my business. You are a grown man and what you do is your business.” As I think about this very non-codependent response, what hits me is the long-term positive effects this will have on their relationship. She is giving him respect and by respecting him, esteeming him. And as he is set free to follow his own reality, there will be no resentment poisoning their relationship from her controlling him and his life.
Codependence is rooted in childhood and growing up in a dysfunctional family. The legacy of growing up in a dysfunctional family is codependence. The heart of codependence is the shame core, which says: “I am flawed as a human being” (8).
The shame-core is created when child experiences abandonment caused by various forms of abuse or neglect, some very obvious others more subtle. A very subtle form of abandonment, yet profoundly traumatizing, is one I experienced in my own childhood: That of the parent not being present in the body and grounded. My mother was an avid reader of romance novels. I recall the overwhelming feelings of abandonment, despair and despondency when I realized that my mother didn’t want me, she wanted to loose herself in a romantic fantasy. The message she gave me was: “I don’t value you enough to want to be with you and relate to you.” As a child I took this to mean that there must have been something wrong with me, otherwise she’d have wanted to be with me. So subtly is the shame-core and low self-esteem created. Once the shame-core and low self-esteem has been created all the other symptoms of codependence develop.
(To parents that participate in my codependence courses I always emphasize that they need to be present in their body to make their children feel safe and loved. As they start to do that, they all see fast and amazing changes in their children. A mother of a five-year old girl reported one of the more dramatic changes: Everyday the girl cried when taken to the kindergarten. No amount of talking and comforting could stop it. Only when the mother made a determined effort to actually get into her body around her girl, did her daughter stop resisting kindergarten and was soon happy to go.)
The root chakra
Root chakra damage is almost uniform in our society and culture (9). Partly because of the way newborn children are treated (isolation from mother into nurseries, no breastfeeding, too early left to sleep isolated in their own room). Mostly because our society is mainly made up of dysfunctional families, and dysfunctional parents abandon their children; the world becomes unsafe and unpleasant and we don’t want to be here. And partly because to be grounded in our root chakra and to be fully present in our bodies would mean to feel our all feelings, something most codependents would rather avoid.
The first chakra is first and foremost concerned with what is: What is reality? When life becomes too unpleasant and unsafe we avoid it. We developed the character defences of minimization, denial and delusion to avoid reality. This is root chakra dysfunction. Byron Katie points out that almost all of our suffering stems from arguing with reality (10). I have found this to be true. When I stop fighting reality and come down into my root chakra, i.e. come fully into my body, and accept reality…it often hurts, but it does bring an end to suffering, and certainly motivate me to create a different reality.
The root chakra also has to do with the right to be, to be yourself, something you were not allowed to in your dysfunctional family upbringing. Many times people tell me they feel they need to apologize for existing, for taking up space, for breathing. Once you restore your right to be, it is much easier to take responsibility for your own life– because you have claimed your right to have a life.
A healthy root chakra fills you up with strong, positive life energy. And it strengthens your energy field. The feeling of inner emptiness, that so many codependents report, I believe is related to a disconnected root chakra and a weak energy field. A weak energy field, with holes in it, leaves you very vulnerable to taking in other people’s stuff. I realized some years ago, that what I needed was to fill myself up with me not other people.
I remember once in my early days of codependence recovery having the very visceral experience of having put pieces of myself onto other people (in order to manipulate myself to manipulate them — according to how I interpreted their body language and words). Since I was with a group of twenty people I had taken twenty pieces of myself — which left almost nothing of myself for me!
A healthy strong energy field helps you set boundaries. When you are filled up with yourself and only yourself, it becomes much easier to sense your Self and to stay in your own business.
Essential to codependence recovery is the healing of the root chakra. You know you are recovering when you start noticing that you are not present in your body and grounded, and you don’t like it.
The sacral chakra
The second chakra has to do with feelings. Mad, sad, glad or afraid: What do you feel?
A major component of codependence is emotional repression and suppression. Codependence recovery requires emotional awareness. It does not mean that you always have to be able to put a name on what you feel and to know why you feel what you feel. Emotional awareness means knowing you are having feelings and feeling them. Emotional awareness equals emotional intelligence. Research shows that emotionally intelligent people are the happiest and most content people (11).
Pia Mellody describes four different feeling realities (12).
- Appropriate adult feelings: Recognized by being in proportion to what caused them.
- Empathy: Feeling someone else’s feeling, and sometimes taking them on as your own. If you feel crazy and don’t know why you are feeling what you are feeling, you have most likely absorbed someone else’s feeling.
- Frozen and carried feelings from childhood: Both are recognized by being an emotional overreaction to the situation triggering those feelings. They are overwhelming and can make you feel childlike, vulnerable, paralysed and crazy.
Learning to recognize which kind of feelings you are feeling will allow you handle you emotional reality much better — you will no longer be a victim of your feelings.
Codependence recovery means getting boundaries so you don’t internalize other people’s feelings, and it means healing all your frozen and carried feelings from childhood. You heal those frozen and carried feelings by allowing them to surface and move out. In other words: By feeling them!
Codependents are masters at avoiding all or some feelings, according to which feelings, if any, were allowed to be expressed in their childhood home.
The other chakras
I have here focused on the root and sacral chakras as that is where codependence healing and recovery start, but of course all the chakras are affected by codependence and they all need to be healed. To cover all them in detail, though, would require a separate article. To briefly refer to the other chakras: the solar plexus chakra relates to clear thinking and empowerment, the heart chakra to loving and functional relationships, the throat chakra to expressing your reality, the third eye to seeing what is and altruism, and the crown chakra to a healthy spirituality.
A paradigm shift
A paradigm is the way we “see” the world — the way we perceive, understand and interprete the world. Out of our paradigms our behaviors, thinking, feelings, desires and attitudes arise. Instead of working on our behaviors, thinking, feeling, desires and attitudes, which will cause only temporary changes, we need to go to the root of those, to our underlying paradigms. When we experience a paradigm shift, the way we perceive, understand, and interprete the world will change. And from that paradigm shift our behaviors, thinking, feeling and attitudes transform — a transformation that will last forever (13).
Codependence recovery requires, and is, a major paradigm shift. As a participant on one codependence course told me recently: “My life completely changed. I don’t even look at things the same way anymore!”
Healing and recovery
Healing and recovery from codependence means being willing to see reality: the full truth of what happened in your childhood and the full truth of your life as it is today.
First, you need to come out of denial about your codependence. Second, you need to see exactly how your codependence sabotages your life today, and the lives of those around you. Third, you need to do your original pain work: Codependents have loads of suppressed feelings of hurt, anger, sadness and fear from their childhood. These need to be purged and released. And this, the release of old feelings (call it emotional detoxification), together with your knowledge of how codependence sabotages your life today, is what will finally allow you to make different and better choices about yourself and your life.
I hold courses on codependence and have seen amazing results and complete life changes in very short time. I have seen true paradigm shifts. I have seen people relieved to find out they are not crazy, only codependent, and that there is an end to living in silent desperation. I have seen people stand in their power, and claim their right to live their lives for themselves. I have seen people start to set boundaries, and experience the relief it gives. I have seen people start to say NO!
Your life is yours to live: How do you want to live it?
1. Bradshaw J On the family. Health Communications, Inc.. 1988
2. Mellody P et Al. Facing codependence. Harper & Row. 1989
3. Mellody P et Al. Breaking free: A codependence workbook. Harper & Row. 1989
4. Mellody P et Al. Facing codependence. Harper & Row. 1989
5. Katie B Loving what is. Random House. 2002
6. Cloud H and Townsend Jboundaries. Zondervan Publishing House. 1992
7. Katie B Loving what is. Random House. 2002
8. Bradshaw J On the family. Health Communications, Inc.. 1988
9. Anodea J and Vega S The sevenfold journey. The Crossing Press. 1993
10. Katie B Loving what is. Random House. 2002
11. Goleman D Emotional intelligence. Bantam. 1997
12. Mellody P et Al. Facing codependence. Harper & Row. 1989
13. Covey S The seven habits of highly succesful people. Simon and Schuster. 1989