Co-dependency and low self-worth are intimately related. The co-dependent derives their sense of self-worth from the outside. Co-dependency is characterized by preoccupation and extreme dependency (emotionally, socially, and sometimes physically) on a person or an object. Eventually, this dependency becomes a pathological condition affecting the co-dependent in all other relationships. They define their sense of self through the attempts to receive love and acceptance from another.
Co-dependency is an illness. It is a chronic condition of behavioral compulsions, delusions, and of emotional denial and repression resulting in a lifestyle of low self-esteem, and a feeling of powerlessness that can lead to medical implications.
Pia Mellody and other pioneers of the theory of co-dependence suggest that child abuse is a major cause. Although molestation or physical violence can cause co-dependent behavior, more subtle abuse, such as having to grow up with an addictive family member, can also put people at risk. This can include parental behavior that is not nurturing and induces shame.
Often children are inculcated with maladaptive conditions of worth that foster a false sense of responsibility, parentification and shame. Attributions that demand unreasonable demands to take care of others by subsuming one’s own healthy self-interest is a key cause of co-dependent behaviors.
Common childhood expressions can teach children to neglect their own needs to meet external demands, such as: “Never confront an authority!”; “Authority rests in the parents (teachers, bosses, leaders), no matter what”; “Always put on a happy face” and “Never let others know how you feel”; “Children should be seen and not heard”; “Don’t be a crybaby”; “You should be ashamed of yourself”; “Who do you think you are?” These messages, over time, result in feelings of inadequacy, i.e., “never good enough” and anger, i.e. feeling “locked up,” it is not nice to show anger and feelings of unworthiness.
Girls, who are at greater risk of becoming co-dependent, are socialized to put others’ needs before their own and are more likely to define themselves through their relationships with others.
Children of addicts are at great risk of becoming co-dependent. Children who grow up with alcoholic parents, for instance, know that something is wrong with one or both parents but often deny what they see, hear, feel and smell: fighting, crying, hangovers, vomiting. As the addiction worsens, these children might have to assume increasing responsibility for everything from making dinner and doing laundry to raising younger siblings. This teaches them to live in reaction to others. They begin to understand that who they are is dictated by what others say or do. They learn that a family is not a safe place to love, grow or communicate.
Co-dependents without other addictions substitute taking care of others as one of their dysfunctional behaviors. When this doesn’t make them feel better, they might try even harder, rather than abandon the behavior, in an effort to feel loved. But any love they might receive would be inadequate. These co-dependents actually are searching for the self-love that somehow was disturbed through earlier experiences of abuse or invalidation. This disturbance causes and accelerates the shame that motivates co-dependent behavior. The co-dependent cycle becomes shame, suffering and self-abuse, followed by more shame, suffering and self-abuse. Despite the search for comfort from external sources, co-dependents may eventually come to realize that they must change internally to feel better.
There is a fine line between a sense of compassion for someone, and taking on the role as an enabler/co-dependent. As a co-dependent, you have to look at your motivation for continued rescue of the dependent or addicted person. Do you feel in some way responsible for the dependent person’s condition in life, his/her substance use or failure to cope? Can you see the difference between rescue and support? Certainly, support in the face of continued “acting out” by the dependent person may, in fact, be motivated by the co-dependent’s need to see themselves as a good mother/father/friend/co-worker without realizing that the continued rescue deprives the dependent person of the vital sense of self-responsibility necessary for recovery.
Real support actually assists the addict in taking self-responsibility and moves the person toward recovery and, ultimately, higher self-esteem. Rescue robs the addict of his self-responsibility and the consequences of his actions. It locks the addict into an unhealthy system that leads to greater unmanageability. Many times the addict ends up resenting the rescuer because of the loss of control over their lives. The actions of an enabler may in fact be leading to the dependent person’s death through his rescue behaviors.
Dr. Paul Standal’s advice is to get help in separating one’s rescue behaviors from healthy support behaviors. Support behaviors are those that encourage or reinforce movement towards recovery by encouraging self-responsibility. Rescue behaviors are behaviors that help the addict maintain the charade that they have control over their lives. They are behaviors that obscure the fact that the addict’s life as unmanageable. Rescue would be giving money to the dependent person for rent (substances). Support would be driving him to his therapist appointment or AA meeting, or going himself to see a counselor.
Major Symptoms of Codependency
1. Denial: This is denial that the condition exists. The word “I” is never used; instead the third person is used in describing a problem. This can lead to a chronic state of delusion.
2. Compulsions: Smoking, eating, working, spending, alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex, and relationships. Custodians of each other’s solitude—Gertha (what/to whom is this referring? Reference is incomplete or unclear).
3. Fear of anger
7. Pretending things are OK
8. Look for care-taking situations
9. Worthlessness; shame
10. Problems in relationships: “Why am I always hurting in my relationships?”
Repressive Rules Resulting in Chronic State of Anxiety or Depression
1. “No talk” rule
2. Indirect communication
3. Non-spontaneous and non-creative
4. “ Don’t be selfish” rule
5. Do as I say , not as I do
6. Individual exists for the system
Complications from Co-dependency
1. Low self-worth: I am not worthy of a better lifestyle.
2. Scarcity principle: It is better than what I’ve been used to, so I should be satisfied with what I’ve got. This results in perceived powerlessness: “I’d better not rock the boat.” Safety is survival.
3. Medical complications: Ulcers, high blood pressure, colitis, heart problems, asthma, allergies, cancer, and any “closing down” of the body functions.
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