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What Is Co-dependency?




Excerpted from
Drama Games: Techniques for Self-Development
By Tian Dayton, Ph.D.

Co-dependency is the pre personality disorder that develops when someone lives alongside another co-dependent, an addicted person or a dysfunctional person. It is losing of oneself to the pervasive illness. It happens gradually as more and more energy goes into coping rather than growing and living; when defending against painful emotional situations takes precedence over meeting healthy developmental needs.

Co-dependency profoundly affects an individual's ability to have healthy relationships with people as well as with major life situations such as work and play, food, money and sex. Boundaries in the codependent tend to be fuzzy and inappropriate. They' often do not knew where they leave off and the other person or situation begins. Co-dependents frequently have grown up in families where addiction is present but they can be from any type of dysfunctional family. If they are from addicted families they will also be "adult children of addiction." This population courts unmanageability. Indeed, they have been "looking good" and "managing" since childhood, in the absence of appropriate parental management, and this has become their habit pattern. When they' grow up they attempt to do the same in their adult relationships. They try to control, fix and direct the people in their lives and then wonder why relationships never work out. They say that they desire peace but have their highest comfort levels with crises and can feel threatened and uncomfortable when life runs smoothly.

Their focus is constantly on taking care of other people and ignoring themselves. Because their needs were not attended to when growing up they tend to treat themselves as they' were treated as children, ignoring and discounting their own needs.

This disease has deep, powerful roots that can produce anything from mild dysfunction and inappropriate behavior to violence, incest and highly destructive behavior. Because co-dependents feel they are different, they isolate themselves or hide their pain under a mask of success and normalcy. No one knows how much they hurt inside or how long and how deep they carry emotions of pain, shame and anger. Oftentimes when an addict recovers from their substance abuse they discover it is their co-dependency issues that are the deeper cause of their problems and the next thing to work on.

Growing Up In A Co-dependent Family

The family, to use Virginia Satir's metaphor, is like a mobile. If you make an adjustment to one part the rest of the parts will adjust as well, moving about until it reestablishes balance or equilibrium. If one member of a family becomes ill or changes the rest of the family will change too.

The alcoholic family might be characterized by selective reinforcement. What works one day will not necessarily work another day, rules are constantly changing. Hence family members have a feeling of walking on eggshells, a need to overanticipate or divine the confusing components of a given situation. The atmosphere becomes unreliable and family members feel overwhelmed. They feel that if only they could understand just a little bit better - if only they could make themselves just a little bit better - if only they could try just a little bit harder, things would be okay; Dad wouldn't drink, Mom wouldn't cry, brother wouldn't try to achieve so hard, sister wouldn't a a out, I wouldn't feel so helpless, alone and essentially impotent. If only. . . .

This chaos and confusion is seldom talked about Feelings are held inside so long that they become inaccessible even to the person feeling them; they are not expressed and understood. This situation creates a disease called co-dependency. Children who have grown up in alcoholic families carry this disease into adulthood. Statistically, they are four times more at risk for drinking than the average person. But that is not all, their co-dependency illness usually causes them to form unhealthy relationships simply because they feel familiar. Codependents can become seriously compulsive about work, food, sex, power, money, children, loved ones, parents and/or mood-altering drugs. For example, they will work for the same reasons that an alcoholic would drink - to relieve anxiety, enhance a low self-image, to numb feelings, create distance, gain acceptance and love and so on. These compulsions will be accompanied by the same type of denial that can surround an alcoholic drinking.

D. W. Winnicott refers to the "good-enough parent." This parent has managed to meet their child's needs satisfactorily enough so that the child could build a healthy personality and become a healthy, productive adult. According to Winnicott, the continued presence of the mother or a mother figure is essential while the child is accommodating the destructiveness that is part of his or her make-up. "The infant gradually becomes able to tolerate feeling anxious (guilty) about the destructive elements in instinctual experiences because he knows there will be an opportunity for repairing and rebuilding ..." For the child growing up in an alcoholic family the opportunity for repairing and rebuilding is seriously hampered. Rather than learning how to accommodate inner destructiveness through a stable set of reactions from a mother or father, the parents' reactions are unstable in character. This provokes anxiety in the child and he does not know what to do with his destructiveness. He may find it least complicated to turn his destructive tendencies onto himself or randomly project them onto objects outside of himself. He may begin to develop the same sort of behavior patterns that his parents demonstrate. The tragedy is that both parents will be preoccupied with their own problems and will have little energy left to assist their child in the difficult process of growing up. To further complicate matters, both parties will be steeped in their own denial about their illness and will tend to minimize whatever is going on with their children that might threaten them. One of the only ways the child's pain will be heard is if he seriously acts out. At this point the family will focus on him as the problem and turn him into the scapegoat. This will bring relief to the system and they will again avoid dealing with their sick family unit that has become dependent on problems.

With all this going on it is no wonder that each member of an alcoholic family develops a co-dependent illness with a progression of its own. The good news is that it is being recognized, addressed and treated and that there is a happy and healthy recovery process which not only addresses the illness but is a productive, vital and spiritual approach to a clear anti happy life.



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