One of the reasons I work happily with codependents is that I am one myself with symptoms to a large extent worked through. However, I do have to constantly monitor my reactions to things and especially my marriage where symptoms are more likely to appear. In my work, I am different and I have found a healthy balance between helping and helping too much. This was not always the case and early in my career, I was often seen involving myself far too much. Over the years, I have learnt that the boundaries I set determine how successful the therapeutic relationship will ultimately be. In my marriage, I have to be constantly aware of my tendency to fix any real or imagined problem that I perceive to be there. This is the hardest part, standing back and allowing my wife to solve things on her own. There is a fine balance to be found but the general rule is that if she needs me, she will communicate that.
I have often said that codependency is something that needs to be managed rather than cured. It is not a disorder that can be medicated away. It is a result of childhood and relational trauma meaning that children are left with trying to form a bond and connection with adults who cannot or will not engage enough to do that, for various reasons. The child is left to overachieve and focus on a fantasy bond which follows them into adulthood with the mindset that they have to disproportionately give to get. It is a complex issue that has not been embraced by the therapy industry to a large extent but seemingly affects millions of people worldwide. People report being codependent on relationships, individuals and sometimes their work. Codependents are often workaholics who find overachieving and overwork tempting due to the fact that it brings validation from others but usually not from Self.
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There are many methods available for codependent recovery, including step programs in the same ilk as AA or NA. There are individual methods put together by therapists who see the need to name codependency as an issue rather than seeing it as a symptom of something else diagnosable and treated with medication. Many of them deal with fundamentals of “self-love” asa guiding principle: While this is very important, just how do you get there? A good example exists in one of the therapy groups I facilitate. The members have come to a point of awareness of what is holding them back, where those influences comes from and what they need to do to overcome it. The missing part is the action to mostly carry it out and this is decisive.
When codependents first come into therapy, they are used to doing things a certain way for their own security. That means other’s needs first, external validation and denial of the right of the Self to exist. They have been taught by their childhood that they have to “work” for love and validation and that they don’t matter. This is often backed up by toxic shame acquired from caregivers that teaches them they are not good enough, unlovable or just wrong and bad. They believe it even though it is unlikely to be true. They were led to believe it at a vulnerable age, so it must be true. Any method that hopes to counter codependency, needs to have the aim to break this construct of thinking. So what needs to happen.
Stage 1 Awareness of Fantasy Thinking
At the start of therapy, many codependents are unaware of their issues and where and how they developed. They have formed a specific, unrealistic view of themselves based on the blueprint they have been following since childhood and are likely in, or have been in, relationships that are either abusive or unfulfilling. The first stage is to revisit the younger self and discover childhood stories in the form of the inner child, how that child felt, what happened in terms of significant events. This is done with non-dominant hand drawing, a process that works with the emotional mind and taps into locked thoughts and feelings. A psychological process known as “splitting” will often take place here. This says that the “in the moment” child is replaced by a “protective” version of themselves to help deal with issues at hand. This version is the one that often develops into adulthood.
Stage 2: Analysis of the Psyche
Once this done and a safe place has been found, an analysis of childhood protection measures can be started. Most children growing up in dysfunctional circumstances will dissociate from the present moment and develop a “not me” personality that deals with trauma. Starting off as protective measures, these develop into firm thinking “parts” that firmly dictate thinking and behavior and form an adult paradigm. In the course of a day, many of us may think, for example, “a part of me wants to do this and yet, at the same time, another part of me wants just the opposite”. Sometimes, this is felt as an inner conflict or “stuckness”. Usually, we simply notice this conflict and override one of the arguments. In a healthy personality, there is a fluid shifting from one part to another depending on what approach is needed, what is appropriate, or what is necessary under the circumstances. We may have difficulties with a partner, or we may feel as if something is “missing” in our life, or we may feel depressed. Most of us have, over time, become dominated by a few strong parts that “run the show” successfully. Typical parts include:
The inner Critic: A controlling voice that consolidates negative thinking about Self.
Avoidance/Escape: The basis of instant gratification and addiction and procrastination.
Guilt: Another manager voice that mirrors interaction with caregivers
Shame: A remnant of ineffective parenting.
Anger: Repressed emotions that were not allowed to be expressed.
These concepts are “personalized” by turning them into characters in an “internal family” and assessing how they have continued to protect the “child” in adult years, leading to such mental health struggles such as codependency, low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and addiction.
Stage 3: The Real Self
The most important concept of the above is the formation of a “mentoring inner parental voice” that will negotiate with the inner family to release protection. This is the logical, realistic, compassionate “in the moment” voice that unites the child that was lost. At the center of this diverse collection of Parts is the Self, which we may experience as a “core self” or “true self”. The Self has two factors: “The first factor (Self Qualities) contains items relating to the experience of being “in Self”, i.e. feeling calm, balanced, worthy, connected, confident, joyful, peaceful, etc. The second factor (Self-Leadership) contains items relating to the ability to bring oneself back to balance when one has been hurt or stressed, i.e., the ability to resolve inner conflicts, to stay calm under pressure, to self-sooth, etc. The amount of “Self-energy” present can be noticed by the presence of those Self qualities. In an experience of trauma (including neglect of various degrees), certain parts take over the personality for survival purposes by assuming strong roles (a Pleaser, for instance). With a protective intention, they displace the leadership position of Self. In time, what was initially a protective measure, solidifies into patterns that are difficult to change– even though they may be clearly self-destructive. As protector parts continue to override the Self, the valuable, compassionate, internal leadership is lost. Other people may love and rely on their Pleaser part but the person who is dominated by a Pleaser may become exhausted with the demands of taking care of others by sacrificing the needs of her or his own parts.
I have found that when this kind of internal domination happens, other parts in the system lose confidence in the leadership capacity of the Self. They come to believe that the domineering parts have taken over the personality. It is as if a “coup” was staged subduing true leadership of the psyche. The dominant parts come to believe that they are, in fact, the total personality. Whenever we describe ourselves as “procrastinators” or “weak-willed” or “bossy”, or any number of critical assessments, we are identified with a primary part which believes it is “who we are”.
Stage 4: Transformation to Reality
It is important that once awareness is found that definitive action is taken. Combining aspects of coaching and behavioral change, a client will attempt to face and overcome fears.
This could include:
Setting boundaries and maintaining them.
Dealing with self-esteem issues and internal conflict.
Dealing with addiction, codependency and eating disorders.
Stage 5: Putting It All Together
Change becomes a habit. New habits define change. I am fully convinced that once a codependent gets to this stage, it is a case of maintaining new and healthy habits and thinking patterns. This includes looking after themselves in terms of: Practicing healthy eating, sleeping, relaxation and exercise regimes.
Learning relationship values.
Codependency is a learned behavior that develops from childhood developmental trauma and a lack of connection with caregivers. This results in a never-ending quest for connection in future relationships with other people as a way to heal. These relationships are often a symptom rather than the cause of codependency and they are the vehicle that allows it to thrive. While much literature on codependency recovery focuses on behavioral change such as setting boundaries and self-care, I strongly believe that we must also go deep into the psyche and heal the root of codependency found in childhood. Once that is done, behavioral change can be implemented and much easier maintained.
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Dr. Nicholas Jenner, a therapist, coach, and speaker, has over 20 years of experience in the field of therapy and coaching. His specialty lies in treating codependency, a condition that is often characterized by a compulsive dependence on a partner, friend, or family member for emotional or psychological sustenance. Dr. Jenner’s approach to treating codependency involves using Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy, a treatment method that has gained widespread popularity in recent years. He identifies the underlying causes of codependent behavior by exploring his patients’ internal “parts,” or their different emotional states, to develop strategies to break free from it. Dr. Jenner has authored numerous works on the topic and offers online therapy services to assist individuals in developing healthy relationships and achieving emotional independence.