It has been said that a large part of the global population is codependent on something or somebody. That something could be work, substances, alcohol. That somebody could be a partner, parent or boss. Yes, there are many ways to be codependent and many are codependent towards more than one “object” leading to a fairly miserable life of sacrifice, search for validation and controlling others.
I work with many codependents and I consider it a specialty of mine. I identified myself a codependent long ago and still work hard at managing the various aspects of it and it is a case of management, not cure. I understand and know exactly what it means including falling for the classic three stage narcissist relationship trap. In my work with clients struggling with codependency, I have come to realise that a clear pattern exists in childhood that leaves children predisposed to codependency in adult life. A childhood very similar to my own. Listen to these statements from codependents and maybe you will see what I mean:
” It was my job to make sure my drunken father got home safe. Nobody gave me this job, I just felt without him there, we would not be safe. I saw my mum fretting about it and I did it for her”
” I tried my hardest to make my parents proud of me….yet nothing I did was good enough. Even when I got into university, it was the wrong university. I just kept trying harder. I feel if I don’t, my world will crash”
” I feel my parents didn’t love me and blamed me for everything that went wrong. It made me feel guilty. My mother distanced herself from me and my father punished me. I remember being locked in an outside shed for hours on end. They used to tell me that the family would be better off without me and that I should be locked away. I believed it.
” I was taught that I had to take care of my parent’s needs from an early age. Mine were not important and I thought I only existed to serve them”.
It is my observation that most codependents grew up in houses where they were encouraged to be caretakers, to subdue their own needs or taught that whatever they did was not up to scratch. This is where the shame and guilt often start, key elements of codependency. If you add into the mix the typical inconsistent, often punitive parenting style that codependents are often subjected to, then the recipe is complete. I have recognised that many parents of codependents were also brought up in codependent households themselves and are often with a certain “type” of person. There is often a combination of an overwhelmed mother and an emotionally distant “breadwinner” father who felt that providing financially was his only job. He took no interest in raising the children and was often called upon to punish when needed. Many of these emotionally distant men were either alcoholics or philanderers leaving the secure base that is essential for children to grow, fragile.
It is never too late to deal with codependency issues and come through. In effect, one can say that the baggage you have been asked to carry for others (your parents) can be dropped. You are not responsible for your conditioning, but you are 100 percent responsible for changing it. There are many cases of parents who in normal everyday interaction with their children are triggered back to their own past, affecting their judgement and behaviour. By leaving these issues unresolved, parents are not only missing the chance to become better parents, stopping the issues from affecting their children but also developing themselves. When we become parents, we bring emotional baggage into the relationship with our child. This baggage comes from our early significant experiences that formed the way we see and look at the world. A good example would be if a mother left the house without announcement to stop a child crying. Due to her leaving, a feeling of loss, insecurity and a loss of trust could occur. This would be consolidated by the child’s fruitless search for the mother leading to a sense of abandonment. As an adult, this child could have abandonment issues that would prevent a healthy relationship with his or her own offspring.
The role of parents in a child’s development has long been seen as crucial. Great minds like Freud and Peck, among many others have highlighted generations of parents’ inadequacies and the effect this has on the subsequent adult. This idea is borne out every day in my practice where clients seem to be held to the past by tentacles of guilt and obligation. Living dysfunctional lives and making the same mistakes with their own children, some seem unable to break the chains of parental influence, even later in life.
There is an old assumption that whatever you tell a therapist, he or she will always “blame the parents”. Most self-help and psychology work that concentrates on conditioning and change point primarily to the time when our caregivers had the most influence over us. This is not often seen as positive and is usually cited as the cause of all our ills. While it might not be the sole reason for adult dysfunction, it is certainly an extremely important time in all our lives. A time when we are truly looking for a blueprint and our parents are usually where we look.
Parents do not need to be perfect, but they do need to provide an environment that forms a bedrock for a child to grow into a functional adult. Many children growing up in “good enough” situations can move through vital developmental stages to adulthood with relative ease. By “good enough”, I mean they have been shown how to set and respect boundaries, subjected to positive discipline and “coached” through childhood. All this with a sense of stewardship and a sense of responsibility that comes from setting manageable goals and the reasonable expectation of success, but not fearing failure.
However, this is the exception rather than the rule and the effects on children when parents “get it wrong” can be far-reaching and devastating to the adult they become. We are not even talking here about the obvious consequences of sexual, emotional and physical abuse. We are not talking here about children being used as pawns in a divorce and neglected. It is clear that such abuse and neglect will certainly not produce a well-rounded, balanced individual. Many of my clients describe a basic family set up of an emotionally distant father and an overwhelmed mother. Some state that they felt no connection with either parent, never hugged or validated. Some felt an inconvenience to the very people who gave them life. Much of my work in therapy is to do with healing this core wound.
In this respect, the parents can always be held responsible. When two people bring a child into the world, they have the duty to provide an environment that helps that a child grow. I do not accept that people are ill-prepared for parenthood or their own conditioning stands in the way. As humans, we have the endless ability to learn and improve. Parents are made not born. The effects of this leave children predisposed to this dysfunction and unless they themselves learn, will adopt a parenting style of their own based on what they have learnt. I wonder just how many people really know just what they are getting into when they produce offspring.