Codependency, Trauma, and Healing
By Darlene Lancer, JD, MFT
Psychic Wounds of Codependency
Codependency is more than a relationship problem. It’s a wound to our psyche and individual development. Make no mistake. It’s to no fault of our own. Codependency is adaptive and helped us survive growing up in a dysfunctional family system. But that adjustment cost us our individuality, authenticity, and our future quality of life. The beliefs and behaviors we learned then led to problems in adult relationships. In fact, they tend to recreate the dysfunctional family of our past.
Origins of Codependency
Codependency is both learned and passed on generationally. It starts in childhood, usually because of codependent parenting, including being raised by an addict or mentally or emotionally ill parent. To survive, we’re required to adapt to the needs, actions, and emotions of our parents at the expense of developing an individual Self. Repetitious patterning shaped our personality style with supporting beliefs, which were both learned and inferred from parental behavior. They were formed by our immature infant-toddler mind in the context of total dependency on our parents. An example is, “I must not cry (or express anger) to be safe, held, and loved.”
We developed a codependent persona, employing strategies of power, pleasing, or withdrawal to endure dysfunctional parenting. Appropriately using all of these is healthy, but codependents compulsively rely mostly on only one or two. In Conquering Shame and Codependency, I describe these coping mechanisms and personalities as The Master, The Accommodator, and The Bystander.
Pediatrician and psychiatrist Donald Winnicott believed that early childhood trauma threatens annihilation of the Self. It’s a disorientating shock that affects us on multiple systems. Trauma marginalizes thinking and impairs our ability to successfully achieve developmental tasks. Imagine a vulnerable infant having to overcome the threat of extinction while navigating interpersonal relationships, which should feel safe. He or she must be hypervigilant to anticipate and interpret parental reactions and adjust accordingly. Normal interpersonal development suffers. Instead, maintaining attachment becomes our priority while we still have to cope with ongoing relational trauma in childhood and later as adults.
Hence, development of a fully-embodied Self is stunted by this system of accommodation. Effective parenting requires that parents see their child as separate individuals. They must attune to, empathize with, and honor their child’s experience. This allows us to feel safe and helps to develop an autonomous self. With codependent caregivers, we instead attune to them. We perversely organize our mental state to accommodate our parents.
For example, how can a child navigate safety and fill his or her need for love with an inattentive, anxious, critical, or controlling parent? An anxious or abusive parent makes us anxious and fearful. A controlling parent extinguishes self-trust and initiative. A critical or intrusive parent squelches us, producing insecurity and self-criticism. These early patterns skew our perceptions of ourselves, our work, and our relationships. All of these and other dysfunctional parenting styles breed shame—that we’re bad, inadequate, and unlovable.
The Cost of Codependency
Early insecure attachments with caregivers necessitate that we sideline our spontaneous felt experience. Over time, our personality and reactions solidify. Our ability to self-reflect, to process new information, to adjust, and to respond becomes impaired. Our reactions become rigid and our cognitive distortions feel absolute.
Consequently, our individual development is hampered by the selective inclusion and exclusion of data that might provide conflicting information. We develop a template of “should’s” and restrictions that operate beyond our awareness. We do so because at an archaic, psychic level the alternative feels terrifying that we’d risk losing our connection to another person (i.e., parent) and people in general. In support of this, we project our parents’ reactions onto other people.
For example, some of my female clients have impaired perceptions about their attractiveness and cannot be persuaded otherwise. A few may undergo unnecessary cosmetic surgeries despite a consensus that they’re beautiful. Similarly, for many codependents, setting boundaries or asking for their needs feels selfish. They have a strong resistance to doing so, notwithstanding that they’re being exploited by a selfish, narcissistic, or abusive partner.
The Challenge of Recovery
The antecedents of our codependent personality are buried in our past. For many of us, it started in infancy. Some of us recall a normal childhood and aren’t able to identify what went wrong. Thus, our thinking and reactions go unquestioned and are obstacles to learning from experience. Additionally, trauma’s effect on the nervous system makes it both difficult and frightening to uncover our feelings. Modifying our reactions and behavior feels perilous.
We continue to behave according to the early system of accommodation that operates outside our conscious awareness. We’re guided by beliefs we never question, such as the common codependent beliefs, “If I’m loved, then I’m lovable,” and “If I’m vulnerable (authentic), I’ll be judged and rejected.” Moreover, we interpret our experiences in ways that fortify fallacious, archaic beliefs. An unreturned text confirms that we’ve displeased someone. This can even happen in therapy when we want to be liked by our therapist or fear his or her displeasure, boredom, or abandonment. A friend (or therapist’s) lapsed attention proves that we’re a burden and/or unlikeable.
In intimate relationships, instead of questioning whether a partner meets our needs or is capable of loving, we conclude that we’re the problem. Our reactions to our misguided beliefs can perpetuate or escalate the problems we’re trying to remedy. We might unquestioningly repeat that pattern in subsequent relationships.
Freud’s death wish is nothing more than a shame reaction to a punitive critic that rigidly spews out commandments that mimic an abusive or controlling parent or was developed as a child to avoid the terror of emotional abandonment. Our inner dictates crush our spontaneity and ability to experience the full range of our emotions, particularly, joy. When our normal reactions to parental behavior are frequently shamed, eventually, we can’t access them. We become numb and live an “as-if” life that covers up rage, despair, and emptiness.
The Process of Recovery
We can heal our childhood trauma. In recovery, we learn missing skills, self-love, and healthy responses. Learning thrives in a safe, nonjudgmental environment, different from the stultifying one we grew up in that continues to dominate our mind. We need an atmosphere that welcomes experimentation and spontaneity where we can challenge the prohibitions embedded in our unconscious. Take these steps:
- Seek therapy with a competent therapist.
- Attend Codependents Anonymous meetings, and work with a sponsor.
- Get reacquainted with your feelings and needs. This can be a difficult process. Feelings live in the body. Pay attention to subtle shifts in your posture, gestures, and moods and feelings, such as deflation, numbness, anger, guilt, anxiety, hopelessness, and shame. Especially notice sudden shifts from feeling confident to insecure and present to numb or distracted. You may have just shifted from your real Self to your codependent personality – how you felt in childhood.
- Explore triggers that shift in your mood and feelings and their associated beliefs, thoughts, and memories.
- Do the exercises in Codependency for Dummies and Conquering Shame to accelerate this process.
- Challenge your beliefs. See “Deprogramming Codependent Brainwashing.”
- Write down and confront negative self-talk. Use the e-workbook 10 Steps to Self-Esteem to challenge your beliefs and inner critic.
- Experiment, play, and try new things.
© Darlene Lancer 2020
This article was originally published here, and is reprinted with the author’s kind permission.
Darlene Lancer is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and expert on relationships and codependency. She’s the author Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You and Codependency for Dummies and six ebooks, including: 10 Steps to Self-Esteem, How To Speak Your Mind – Become Assertive and Set Limits, Dealing with a Narcissist: 8 Steps to Raise Self-Esteem and Set Boundaries with Difficult People and Freedom from Guilt and Blame – Finding Self-Forgiveness, also available on Amazon. Ms. Lancer has counseled individuals and couples for 30 years and coaches internationally. She’s a sought after speaker in media and at professional conferences. Her articles appear in professional journals and Internet mental health websites, including on her own, www.whatiscodependency.com, where you can get a free copy of “14 Tips for Letting Go.”