In therapy, and especially with codependents, much time is spent trying to discover things. This includes why we act like we do, think like we do and we fall in love with the people we do. For some, understanding this is a key aspect of recovery. Once this is worked out, change can be instigated. While the action needed can be often guardedly placed under the heading “easier said than done”, change is certainly not impossible if the will is there.

Just where does one start with peeling back those layers of experience and conditioning? I always talk about going back to where it all started, of course, in childhood. This takes us back to a time when our choices were limited and we needed our parents’ guidance and knowledge. They could not always give us this while dealing with issues of their own. Looking back will give us a view over how our individual connection with caregivers might have meant we acquired shame and how we overextended ourselves in order to find validation. It is worth looking briefly at how this usually should work and why it generally doesn’t.

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The most important part of a child’s life, in my opinion, is the first six months of life. Thrust into a new world, babies learn trust and security through having their needs met fully by the mother as they break the sleeping cycle. A baby’s basic needs are feeding, changing, and comforting back to sleep. Babies and toddlers are extremely egocentric and they get their “narcissistic supply” by demanding time and attention from caregivers. This is initially aimed at the mother and good parenting suggests that the mother will gradually reduce the baby’s “supply” by resisting demands for attention by setting boundaries and limits. A child will then transfer the “need for supply” to the father who must do the same thing. If the parents are not aware of this process or cannot or will not limit the “supply”, and provide healthy limits, children will “fantasy bond” in a process of denial, dissociation and shame. In effect, the child takes on the burden of the parents shame and carries it forward. Children who have this broken bond and/or are subjected to shame-based parenting will do all they can to comply with parents’ wishes and to connect. They often do this by being the “good child” and overachieving at school, for example, to win their parents’ favour. Others rebel, distance themselves, and become “difficult”, “problem cases”. These schemas will be transferred to future relationships in what is known as “repetition compulsion”.

How we grow up is important, who we grow up with is equally important and also in what “system” we grow up in.

Let’s explain that a bit more:

When two people come together and commit themselves to each other, they immediately create a system. This system is a framework with rules set by the “founding couple” that all future members must comply with. This includes children and later children’s partners. Everyone is either assigned a role or they assume a role within the system in accordance with the parents’ wishes. As John Bradshaw rightly says:

When a child is born to shame-based parenting, the deck is stacked against the child. The job of parents is to model ideal behaviour in setting boundaries, how to relate to others, how to express emotions and how to communicate. Shame based parents create needy marriages and then create needy shame based systems. All members then concentrate on finding balance for the system and not their own needs.”

Children, when finding this balance will either comply with the system making themselves “star” or “golden children” who carry the main burden of making the parents fulfilled and feeling better about themselves. Those who rebel carry the role of the “lost” child and through their rebellion and non-compliance with their parents needs and wishes, allow the system to concentrate on them as difficult or a problem, meaning essentially, that other members can escape their own pain.

One often sees that when one member leaves the system. Another will take their place to restore balance. When a parent leaves the system, a child will often take on a parenting role, even parenting the remaining parent.

In adulthood, many children will attempt to recreate the same system they grew up in. The theory goes that most who comply are more likely to learn to be codependent, while the “lost” children will become emotionally distant and to the extreme, narcissistic.

Ask yourself this:

1- How does your current relationship mirror the system you grew up in?

2- Do you identify as a golden or lost child? What has that meant for you?

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