I remember the first time I heard the term “codependency”. In spite of having been working with addiction for quite some time, that was not a term I had been familiar with. What I learned many years later when I began specialized training in trauma is that codependency is very connected to childhood trauma. Often when children grow up in violent or abusive households, they learn to do whatever they need to do in order to survive. This could include making excuses for a caregiver’s poor behaviors, sacrificing yourself in order to protect your caregiver, and ignoring your needs for the sake of others. Over time this becomes a conditioned response to a fear inducing stimuli.
So what is Codependency?
Pia Mellody, one of the leading experts in the field of codependency, describes five aspects of codependency resulting from five types of abuse in childhood. At birth, the inherent nature of a child is that they are valuable, vulnerable, imperfect, dependent, and spontaneous and open. When these things are unavailable or not allowed, this can be experienced as traumatizing to the child.
Self Esteem– This is described as anytime someone feels greater than or less than someone else. While we often think of low self esteem when discussing struggles with self esteem, people can also develop a feeling of being greater than everyone around them. This can be a result of being falsely empowered as a child. For example- If dad passes away and mom relies on her seven year old boy to become the “man of the house”, this can take the child out of the role of child and put them into an adult role. This would be an example of an inappropriate role for a seven-year-old. That child could feel falsely empowered and feel an overly developed sense of responsibility and can create a sense of being better than their peers. This can also happen when parents put a child in the middle of their conflicts. This can give a child a lot more power than they are intended to have, i.e. “I am responsible for my parents staying together”. Healthy self-esteem is not based on external circumstances but rather acknowledging that every human being has worth and value just for being alive. Issues in self esteem can result in negative control issues and relational esteem issues.
Boundaries- This is about how we protect ourselves in relationships with others. When a child is traumatized, they may not learn to protect themselves or they may learn to turn off their needs all together and become completely invulnerable and shut down. Boundaries involve being able to protect ourselves but also keeping us from being offensive toward others. Examples of boundary violations may include yelling and screaming, name calling, manipulation, standing too close to someone without their permission, or demanding unsafe sexual practices. When a child grows up in an environment that is unsafe, they are unable to learn and practice setting healthy boundaries. Issues with boundaries can lead to resentment and rage issues as well as enmeshment and avoidance issues.
Difficulty Owning Ones Reality– This involves being comfortable with oneself and being accountable for the impact we have on others. If a child is expected to be perfect and is treated as a “little adult”, they will miss out on the experiences of learning that take place in childhood. When we are unable or not allowed to explore who we are in childhood, it can lead to a fractured identity as an adult. Codependency is about basing our identity on those around us and feeling unsafe or uncomfortable being alone. For example- Let’s see how this plays out with someone who makes a mistake at work. There are three ways one can handle this.
- I’m bad- Because I made a mistake, I must be incompetent. Often this can spiral into anxiety and irrational thought processes.
- I need to be perfect so I am going to lie and cover it up and hope no one finds out. This too can lead to anxiety.
I embrace my humanity and acknowledge my mistake. I may go to my boss and take accountability and attempt to find a solution
Dependency– By nature, children are dependent on those around them. As children, we are unable to function and exist in the world on our own. If you leave a baby alone in a house, they do not have the capacity, brain development, or experience to be able to survive on their own. The goal in growing up is to be able to learn to meet our own needs so that we can eventually go out into the world and survive on our own. Issues with dependency can show up as someone being too dependent or anti-dependent. When a caregiver meets all of a child’s needs and does not allow them the space to figure things out on their own, that child may grow up and expect others around them to meet all their needs. They may enter the world feeling unprepared and unable to fend for themselves. If a child is attacked or punished for having needs, that child may learn that having needs are inappropriate and may learn to turn off their needs. This can lead to feelings of guilt around asking for help. Often dependency issues can result in addiction, depression, and issues in relationships.
Other characteristic of codependency include difficulty trusting others, ignoring ones own feelings, overscheduling oneself to not disappoint others, fear of upsetting others, and inability to assert ones needs.
While we cannot go back and make changes to our childhood, codependency recovery is about learning to re-parent the self through affirming, nurturing, and limit setting. This can include giving oneself permission to feel different emotions, learning to tolerate painful emotions, identifying negative messages, and parenting the self without criticism, neglect, or indulgence. Codependency recovery involves learning to esteem from within, being able to be intimate with moderate vulnerability, being comfortable with oneself and accountable for actions, interdependence which is being able to meet one’s own needs and ask for help when they need it, and having the ability to contain oneself while maintaining a sense of spontaneity.
If you have experienced childhood trauma and identify with struggling with codependency, it can be helpful to work with a trauma specialist who can help you understand and work through your trauma.
If you are struggling with recovery and would like to know more about Shannon’s services, contact her today for a free consultation.
Bio: Shannon McHenry is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with a specialty focus in childhood trauma, rape and battering, and PTSD. She is a trauma therapist in Los Angeles and works with clients in her offices in Los Feliz and Torrance. Combining clinical experience with a passion to support women in repairing their relationships with themselves and others, she has supported many to create a long-lasting recovery from destructive behaviors. Call Shannon today to book your first appointment.