What Is Codependence and How Does It Affect My Life?

by Suzanne E. Harrill

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Part 2:

In the last issue, we discussed what codependency is, looked at the history of codependence, and how to identify the fine line between being selfless and taking care of others verse the disease of over-caring for others and fostering unhealthy dependency. Now we will look at the dysfunctional family to remind ourselves of some of the ways we learned to be codependent. It is never too late to heal the parts of ourselves that are wounded, shut down., and repeating unhealthy patterns of emotional dependency. Educating ourselves begins the process of transforming codependency into responsible nurturing and giving to others.

Let us look at the dysfunctional family system briefly to see how many people have been conditioned to have emotional and relationship addictions, which create codependency. You remember that in a dysfunctional family, problems are denied and not discussed, and certainly you are not to discuss them with anyone outside the family. It is a closed family system where no new information or interpretations of situations can come in; so professional help is out. Therefore, you must stumble along pretending there are no problems, looking good to the outside world, but at the same time feeling the family problems and knowing at the emotional level that they are there. You receive no confirmation or data about what these problems are from your parents.

As a child when you felt there were problems and the adults denied them, then you began to doubt what you thought and felt about problems not being addressed. Slowly you turned away from paying attention to your thoughts and feelings, becoming focused outside of yourself by doing instead of feeling. You may have done such things as focus on being a good student, achieving at sports, giving often, being good and not demanding attention, or being overly responsible, to name a few. As you practiced the family rule, to stop listening to your inner self telling you the truth about what you were thinking and feeling, it stopped the awareness and growth process. Eventually the dysfunctional family system trains you to lose touch with who you are. You feel lonely, insecure, abandoned, and stop trusting your voice of intuition, as well as other people. This is carried over to adulthood.

Many times in the dysfunctional family, the adults have so many problems that the child’s needs for proper psychosocial development are not met. There are certain ages that children need more attention than others. There is a fine balance between over- and under- involvement of a parent at each stage. When a parent is unaware and does not know age appropriate nurturing, safety, love, attention, or affection, they over or under give to the child in each of the stages. When a child does not get his/her dependency needs met, this contributes to emotional and physical dependencies, in adulthood.

Next let us discuss the developmental process of dependency in infancy to interdependency in healthy, adult relationships. At birth everyone is totally helpless and dependent on adults to survive. It is very proper for a baby to need a lot of attention, holding, and responding to its needs. Trust is learned in the first year of life by how well those dependency needs are met. As the baby becomes mobile there is an important stage of counter-dependency. With the safety of mom or the caregiver nearby, the baby explores the environment; always making sure mom is near.

Eye contact is important here to convey interest on the part of mom sending a message, "I will let you explore as long as it is safe for you and will set limits on what you do to take care of you." As you can see, it would be very easy to curb this natural curiosity to explore your world. If you are kept in a confined space like a playpen for long period of time, if mom is so busy she does not give the constant reassurance of eye contact to you as a toddler, or if she overprotects you and hovers over your every move, you will not develop properly.

There are degrees of independence that can be encouraged as a child naturally wants to grow to be an individual separate from mom. For example a two-year-old wants to dress him/herself, even if it includes putting a shirt on inside out, wearing colors that do not match, or putting the shoes on the wrong feet. They like to make their own peanut butter and jelly sandwiches as well. In normal development the parent knows to let go and let the young child do many things for themselves, even if not done perfectly. What happens many times is the adult does not encourage this independence and stops the desire of the child to be independent. Comments like, "Oh, let me do that for you. You are making a mess," are discouraging to normal independent development. The opposite can be detrimental also; such as, letting the two-year-old do too much, therefore neglecting the child and not setting appropriate limits on the independent behaviors. This can easily happen when the birth of the next child is close.

Somewhere around four years of age a child figures out that mom is not all knowing and all seeing. They figure out such things as, "If mom is not looking, I can cross the street and visit my friend." Here we have the desire to separate, to think and do things for self. Again this has to be responded to sensitively, but this is basically a time to encourage the child to do much for him/herself. It is a good time for example, to allow the child to choose what they want to wear each day and to do some things without the caregiver watching every move.

The final stage in this process is to teach children interdependence. The child needs to know when they go too far with independent actions and thoughts. They need feedback when they reach a certain point in their actions, desires, or decisions that they are not being fair to others and are out of balance. We live with others and their needs also have to be taken into consideration too when we live our life. Everything you do affects me and everything I do affects you. Dependency and independence are both aspects of interdependence. Limits are put on total independence to include living in a world with others. When you do not have the proper nurturing at the proper time in early development, from dependency to interdependency, then you get caught into the web of dysfunctional behaviors. Most of us have some problems as the result of this growth process of not being parented optimally.

The good news is that growth is not limited to childhood. You continue going through these stages and growth opportunities constantly appear throughout your life. That is why it is so important to recognize what is "off" in your upbringing so you can heal the wounded parts of your conditioned self. This is where the inner child idea comes from. We can re-parent the younger, immature parts of ourselves and heal our consciousness.

Besides our dysfunctional families and the parental skills of unaware parents, there are dysfunctional belief systems that perpetuate codependence. One example is the religious teaching that says it is better to give than receive. This is a very high truth, if you are serving those less fortunate, less aware, or less able than yourself. It does not say it is better to give more than you receive when in an egalitarian, mature relationship. If you are dealing with a peer, spouse, or family member (exception young children and the elderly that cannot take care of themselves) there needs to be a balance, an equal exchange of energy.

Things get out of balance if you give out of proportion and match up with others who take out of proportion. This pattern draws people together many times in relationships. This lopsided energy exchange will make each feel victimized by the other over time. The giver many times gives because there is a hidden expectation of receiving something – a future favor, a pat on the back, words of endearment, or acknowledgment that one is a good or nice person, etc. When these "rewards" do not show up, the giver eventually feels taken advantage of and many times gets angry or hurt. The giving here has been conditional. In unconditional giving there is no expectation of a return and what you can give is given without resentment.

Interestingly enough the receiver many times is not even asking for the things the giver gives. Many times the recipient feels that emotional and physical boundaries are being invaded and that there are hidden expectations to give something back. This person many times gets angry about being pestered and their space being invaded. Both are responsible for the pattern, however, the giver and the receiver. To make positive changes in a mature relationship requires both being honest and looking at the unhealthy patterns that need to be changed.

Having the traits of giving and responding to others is usually a good thing. It becomes negative or codependent when you do not take care of your needs first, you stop another’s growth by giving what another needs to do for him/herself, or you ignore your own problems by helping others with their problems. There are healthy places to use the trait of giving to others. It is very simple, give from your overflow and help others who need what is being offered. The degree to which you fill yourself up physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually is the degree to which you can give unconditionally. When your giving is unconditional and you think about what is appropriate for you and the other person, it is not codependent. It is the opposite.

The key to clear, clean giving and avoiding codependence is to work on your own healing, beginning with learning what your needs are and meeting them. As you get to know yourself, you will learn to tune into yourself periodically throughout the day to listen to the needs of your inner self in order to find balance. Notice simple things such as whether you are bored and need people and more activity today, or you are tired, need less socializing and physical activity today and would benefit by being alone. If you need attention, admit it and look for appropriate ways to nurture yourself. If you need to be touched, you may treat yourself to a massage periodically.

The main point is to take responsibility for your own nurturing, to get your needs and wants met daily so your giving comes from a good place. Stop giving time, attention, and emotional energy when you do not have it to give, which depletes you. Giving while emotionally needy or empty has a hidden agenda, a hook of an expectation of a return. Learn to heal the needy parts of yourself and to meet your needs.

On the journey to wholeness it is important to look at your patterns of giving to determine whether or not you are giving for the right reasons and actually helping others. Codependency is dysfunctional because you are unaware of yourself, your needs, and the needs of the other person. Here you take care of others to fill a void within self, not realizing that it is doing damage to you, as well as to others. We have looked at codependency and how it gets started in the family of origin and ways heal it. As you grow, heal and learn to transform your codependency, you will responsibly give to others and have the privilege of truly being of service. You will have equal, mature, loving relationships with friends and family based on choice.


From Chapter Five in, The Harrill Solution: Secrets of Successful Relationships Revealed.




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