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Codependency: Loss of Self In Others
As a recovering codependent, one of my passions is working with other codependents because they are usually well-intentioned men and women who care deeply about others while never learning to care deeply about themselves, which is my history, too. My approach to working with codependents is to help them find a healthy balance between caring about others and caring for themselves, and as they do, it is gratifying to accompany them on their journey to discovering their True Selves - the persons they were meant to be before dysfunction and faulty learning convinced them that their needs and feelings were bad, wrong, dangerous, or a burden to others.
The majority of my clients, both online and face-to-face at my day job, are codependents. Why? Because I believe that unfulfilling relationships play a major role in the depression, anxiety, anger, and stress that many of my clients describe to me. Thus, when an active codependent becomes a recovering codependent, many problematic symptoms decrease significantly. New research is teaching us that healthy social connectedness is an important component of brain health because our brains are hard-wired to be connected to others. We need healthy relationships as part of a "well-brain environment," which we can create, that includes a healthy diet, good exercise, sufficient sleep, meaningful activities, and avoidance of toxic substances. Codependents need help in creating healthy relationships due to faulty learning about the value of their own needs and feelings.
Codependency is a dysfunction that causes individuals to lose themselves in relationships. Codependents ignore their feelings, needs, and problems while obsessing on the feelings, needs, and problems of others. They possess an exaggerated sense of responsibility for others and struggle with maintaining healthy boundaries. Thus, they experience relationships as stressful and often suffer from anxiety, depression, guilt, and resentment.
Codependency is born of growing up in a dysfunctional environment. Family dysfunction occurs when overwhelmed parents are unable to meet the needs of their children to a significant degree over a significant period of time. The parents' problems may stem from addiction, alcoholism, mental illness, physical illness, poverty, overwhelming loss, or community disintegration such as gang violence or war. The key point is this: when parents become chronically overwhelmed by problems, the mental health of their children can be affected, sometimes resulting in codependency.
How does dysfunction produce codependency? When parents or painful circumstances bring chaos or trauma to a family, the children are often forced to abandon being children and, instead, enter survival mode. In survival mode, they become hypervigilent and compulsively scan the environment to detect the next threat to their safety and well-being.
These children quickly learn to ignore their feelings and needs because they feel powerless to change their circumstances and/or have caretakers who are too overwhelmed to give the support they so desperately need. Or, worse, they have learned that they will be punished for expressing their feelings and needs. Thus, they reject introspection as a dangerous luxury that might interfere with being alert for the next external threat. Ultimately, these children learn to disconnect from their feelings and needs and, instead, develop a defensive strategy of trying to control others to feel safe and get the love and acceptance they crave.
Children of dysfunctional families come to believe they are responsible for the problems of others, especially those of their parents. As a result they develop low self-esteem, believing themselves to be incompetent or undeserving of love because they have failed their troubled parents. In other words, they internalize their parents' problems as their own. As such, they develop unrealistic expectations about what is and isn't their responsibility, and what they can and can't control in relationships.
Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families carry these distorted beliefs into adulthood. They feel over-responsible for everyone around them, including spouses, children, in-laws, friends, and co-workers. They perceive the problems of others as their own - just as they did with their parents' problems. They are riddled with anxiety, stress, and guilt in their relationships. They ignore their own needs, feelings, and problems, and, thus, become depressed and resentful. Ultimately, they feel like failures - just as in childhood - because their goal of solving everyone's problems is unobtainable.
Codependency becomes an addiction when codependents subconsciously seek out troubled individuals as a way to avoid dealing with their own problems. By compulsively trying to "fix" an alcoholic, a codependent can feel, by comparison, like a healthy person with no problems. Yet, if the alcoholic goes away, the codependent will compulsively seek out another troubled person to fix in order to avoid painful feelings of low self-esteem, inadequacy, and worthlessness. Like any addiction, codependency stymies personal growth as the codependent uses it to avoid dealing with emotional pain just as the alcoholic uses alcohol to avoid dealing with emotional pain.
Codependents are usually nice individuals who are very stressed from carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders. They are perceptive of others but not at all perceptive of themselves. Therapy with codependents involves teaching self-care skills, and most importantly, convincing them they are not selfish or in danger for choosing to take care of themselves. Click on the following link, What is Codependency, Really?, to learn more about codependency. Click on the following link to learn more about the True Self.
If you think you suffer from codependency, then online counseling could benefit you. The good news is that codependency is very treatable. Why? Because codependents already know how to take care of others. Now they must learn to take care of themselves. Click on the photo below to begin therapy.
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Text and photos by Carl Benedict except where noted
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