By Avis Rumney
This is the core dilemma for the codependent. Someone who becomes codependent has generally learned since childhood to focus on the needs of others. When a child grows up with a parent who is depressed, alcoholic, ill, or prone to criticism, anger or rage, the youngster intuits that his survival and safety depend on his parent’s mood. In these situations, a child becomes attuned to the emotional state of the parent and learns to calibrate his behavior to fit his perception of what will soothe the parent or ease the situation. In quest of safety, the developing child continues to focus on what is going on outside of him, on what others need and on what he can do to best control the environment or meet the unspoken wishes of others.
This is a very big job for a child, and one that is inherently impossible – no amount of accommodating behavior can really “fix” another person or control events. It is not surprising that a child who grows up in a family where these dynamics predominate can end up feeling anxious and overwhelmed. This child is also likely to feel defeated and inadequate because his task is insurmountable. Yet his very existence is at stake and this is not a quest he can easily relinquish.
The emotional pressure to take care of others and to try to control others’ behavior and feelings becomes embedded in the individual’s core. His feelings, thoughts and behaviors become inextricably intertwined in the compulsion to monitor others and to manipulate situations to produce a semblance of safety and security.
The term “codependent” originally was applied to someone in a relationship with an alcoholic or addict. The addict is dependent on his drug to survive and is driven by the anxiety of an overwhelming, uncontrollable urge to drink or use. The codependent is dependent on controlling the addict to survive and is driven by an equally overpowering compulsion to manage the addict. Partners, children, or others in relationship with an addict can be affected by an addict’s unpredictable behavior. Similar survival fears fuel the behavior of a child growing up in a family where his safety feels precarious and threatened.
For a person who has grown up with these pressures, it can be very difficult as an adult to behave differently when it becomes apparent that these tactics are not creating the desired results. The codependent may find that intervening on behalf of others is frustrating and energy-depleting. Putting others’ needs first eventually sparks resentment. When the codependent’s generosity is taken for granted, he can feel used instead of feeling safer. Yet the anxiety that drives the codependent to act persists – this is hard-wired. Behaviors, which were valuable and useful as children while growing up in less than ideal households do not serve well as adults. No longer do these actions seem to mollify others and encourage peace. They are conducive neither to healthy relationships nor to serenity in life. As grownups, we need to learn to rely on other resources, within and outside of ourselves, to create the safety we need.
Codependency is different from the caretaking that is essential in situations where an infant, child, or person with an illness or disabilities is dependent on another. The distinction is that the parent of an infant or child, or the caregiver of someone who is ill, fosters the well-being of the dependent person by performing tasks that the other person truly does not have the capacity for, rather than tasks that the other person could do but isn’t. Sometimes this distinction gets muddied as children begin to grow up and their well-meaning parents continue doing for the children tasks the kids need to learn to handle on their own. In these cases, parents rob their kids of the opportunity to learn new challenges. Parents often walk a narrow tightrope as they foster their kid’s development. They need to distinguish when help is truly helpful, and when it is better to let junior learn to tie his own shoelaces and ask for rides instead of simply expecting Mom will provide automatic taxi service.
Another distinction is important – people can be generous and giving without their generosity being maligned and labeled as co-dependence. The distinction here rests mainly on the motives behind the actions and the feelings evoked in the giver. True generosity is from the heart, with no need by the giver to create safety, or forestall feelings of potential rejection, and no expectation of any particular response or return on the part of the recipient. Thus, resentment does not follow generosity – the gift, once given, is surrendered. Of course, the giver may feel pleasure or reward in giving, but his state is not conditional on the response of the recipient.
If you suspect you have codependent traits, here are some steps to take to help yourself:
Awareness is the first step. You cannot change any behavior without being aware of it. Begin to notice the feelings that come up when you are doing or offering to do something. Ask yourself what your motive is – is this something you want to do? Or are you anxious or concerned about the consequences for someone else if you don’t do this?
Scan your feelings for incidents of resentment. Resentment can be a clue that you are taking care of someone else rather than paying attention to what you need and want.
Be patient with yourself. If you notice impulses to take care of others, or resentment for actions you have taken in the past, know that these behaviors have been your protection and have helped assure your safety in the past. These behaviors have doubtless been there for a long time, and learning and implementing new ways to act is a process that takes time.
Do not judge or criticize yourself for the ways you have acted. You did the best you could with the information you had.
Let yourself be curious about how these behaviors have helped you and in what circumstances they have come up.
Find resources and support for yourself. The anxiety and loss that accompany behavior change can be painful, and support is an important component of recovering from dysfunctional behaviors. This could mean seeking the help of a therapist or of a 12-step program such as Al-Anon.
Notice what you can and what you cannot control. You cannot control another person, or the outcome of events. You can control your own actions.
Give yourself permission to take care of yourself. Your focus has been outside of yourself: on taking care of others. This may mean that you don’t know what you want, and that it is uncomfortable to look inside and particularly to feel confused or anxious or directionless. Change is hard work – and you might need some help at first to begin moving in a new direction.
For help with issues involving codependency, please contact Avis Rumney at AvisRumney@me.com or (415) 602-1403.