1. Codependence as a Concept:
Those who identify with the adult child syndrome-that is, were brought up in a dysfunctional, alcoholic, or abusive home-of-origin and suffer from arrested development-often are also afflicted with a disease known as “codependence.” What does it have to do with the fundamental syndrome and what is it to begin with?
The understanding of a concept can often be augmented with comparisons, which increase the clarity of one when discussed in relation to the other. In this case, oddly, it can be achieved with the field of astronomy and what is known as a binary star.
Consisting of two identical stars, each locks on to the other’s gravity and perpetually orbits the other until one or the other ultimately dies out. They can be considered “codependent,” because they look toward the other and therefore rely on it for their existence. They are not independent.
Adult children may, at times, engage in their own binary star symbiosis with people. But why?
2. Origin of the Term:
Those who live with or are closely associated with those who are chemically or alcoholically dependent for their daily functioning can be considered “codependent,” because they quickly become “dependent” with and through them. Although the primary person may be considered the one afflicted with the disease, the secondary one or ones, who are usually the children chronically exposed to his or her behavior, adopt a byproduct of it, struggling to keep it together and function as optimally and efficiently as they can in the world after childhood circumstances progressively pulled them apart. Liquor and/or other substances need not be present.
Indeed, para-alcoholism, an early term for codependence, implies that a person’s actions are driven by the unresolved, painful emotions and fears he was forced to shelve in order to survive the unstable and sometimes detrimental effects of being raised by the alcoholic himself.
3. Origins, Definitions, and Manifestations of the Disease:
The codependent seed is planted when a person turns his responsibility for his life and happiness to either his ego (false self) or others, becoming preoccupied with them to the extent that he temporarily rises above his own pain and, in its extreme, can entirely forget who he even is, when he consistently mirrors someone else-in other words, if he looks out here to the other, he will not have to look in there to himself.
“Codependence, (a major manifestation of the adult child syndrome), is a disease of lost self-hood,” according to Dr. Charles L. Whitfield in his book, “Co-Dependence: Healing the Human Condition” (Health Communications, 1991, p. 3). “It can mimic, be associated with, aggravate, and even lead to many of the physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual conditions that befall us in daily life.
“When we focus outside of ourselves, we lose touch with what is inside of us: beliefs, thoughts, feelings, decisions, choices, experiences, wants, needs, sensations, intuitions… These and more are part of an exquisite feedback system that we can call our inner life.”
In short, a person can sever his connection with his consciousness and consciousness is who he really is.
Like expecting a home appliance to operate without plugging it into an electric socket, a codependent may merge with and feed off of another to such an extent that he no longer believes he can function independently.
The origins of the malady are the same as those which cause the adult child syndrome.
“The hallmark of codependency is taking care of people who should have been taking care of you,” according to Dr. Susan Powers of the Caron Treatment Centers.
Instead of being self-centered and expecting to get their needs met, children from dysfunctional, alcoholic, or abusive homes are forced, at a very early age, to become other- or parent-centered, meeting their needs, attempting to resolve or fix their deficiencies, and sometimes making Herculean efforts to achieve their love in what may be considered an ultimate role reversal.
If this dynamic could be verbally expressed, the parent would say, “What I can’t do, you’re expected to do yourself, substituting you for me.”
And this reality may well extend beyond themselves, since they are often forced to replace their parents during times that their younger siblings have need for them, becoming surrogate mothers and fathers.
In essence, they disregard their own need for a parent and become one themselves. Instead of being nurtured, they cultivate codependence, since it places them on a path that will entail seeking it in others.
“Our experience shows that the codependent rupture, which creates an outward focus to gain love and affection, is created by a dysfunctional childhood… ,” according to the “Adult Children of Alcoholics” textbook (World Service Organization, 2006, p. 60.) “The soul rupture is the abandonment by our parents or caregivers… (and) sets us up for a life of looking outward for love and safety that never comes.”
This condition is only exacerbated by the same parents who neither support nor permit a child to express or heal his hurts-and may actually be met with denial or shame if he tries to do so-leaving him little choice but to stuff and swallow them, resulting in a repressed, but mounting accumulation of unresolved negative emotions. After repeated squelching of a child’s observations, feelings, and reactions-in essence, his reality-he progressively disconnects from his true self and denies his crucial inner cues.
Unraveling, he is poised on the threshold that leads from in to out-that is, toward others and away from himself, sparking the conflict between his once true and since replaced false self, which manifests itself as codependence.
Forced, additionally, to focus on his parent’s moods, attitudes, and behaviors further plants the roots of this condition, but nevertheless becomes a necessary survival tactic for two primary reasons.
First and foremost, children assume responsibility for their parents’ deficiencies and ill treatment by justifying it, erroneously reasoning that their own flaws, lack of worth, and general unloveability are the culprits for the withholds of their validation and acceptance, thus shifting the burden from the ones who should be carrying it to the one who should not.
Secondly, adopting a sixth sense concerning their parents’ moods becomes a safety gauge and enables them to emotionally and physiologically prepare themselves for what has most likely become habitual and even cyclical negative confrontations of verbal and physical abuse.
As episodes of “expected abnormalcy,” they add insurmountable layers of trauma to the original, but no longer remembered one. Unable, then or now, to use the body’s fight or flight survival mechanisms, yet still drowned in a flood of stress hormones (cortisol) and elevated energy, they have no choice but to tuck themselves into the inner child protective sanctuary they created at a very young age as the only realizable “solution” to the parental-threatened and -inflicted danger, enduring, tolerating, and downright surviving the unfair power play and “punishment” they may believe is being administered because of “deserved discipline.”
Like signals, a mere frown on or cringe of a parent’s face may prime the child for the episodes he knows will assuredly follow. So thick can the tension in the air become at these times, that he can probably cut it with a knife.
Part of the wounding, which reduces a person’s sense of self and esteem and increases his feeling of emptiness, occurs as a result of projective identification. Volatility charged, yet unable to get to the center of or bore through his emotional pain, a parent may project, like a movie on to a screen, parts of himself on to another, such as his vulnerable, captive child, until that child takes on and identifies with the projection.
Releasing and relieving himself, the sender, (the parent) does not have to own or even take responsibility for his negative feelings. If the recipient (the child) ultimately acts them out after repeated projected implanting, whose emotions now mount into uncontainable proportions, the sender may berate or belittle him for them, in an ultimate out-of-persona dynamic, which transfers emotions from one to the other.
“If we have unhealthy boundaries, we are like sponges that absorb the painful, conflicted material of others sent from their inner life,” wrote Whitfield in “Co-Dependence: Healing the Human Condition” (Health Communications, 1991, p. 93). “It is clearly not ours, yet we soak it up.
“(This only causes) the true self to go into hiding to protect itself from the overwhelming pain of mistreatment, abuse, lack of being affirmed and mirrored in a healthy way, and the double and other negative messages from toxic others around it,” he noted.
These incidents, needless to say, become breeding grounds for both the adult child syndrome and its codependent manifestation.
“The adult child syndrome is somewhat interchangeable with the diagnosis of codependence,” according to the “Adult Children of Alcoholics” textbook (World Service Organization, 2006, pp. 6-7). “There are many definitions for codependence; however, the general consensus is that codependent people tend to focus on the wants and needs of others rather than their own. By doing so, the codependent or adult child can avoid his or her own feelings of low self-worth… A codependent focuses on others and their problems to such an extent that the codependent’s life is often adversely affected.”
Part of a codependent’s breeding occurs because a child needs his parents for his emotional and psychological development, yet he often dips into a dry well when he connects with them to achieve this goal, emerging dissatisfied, unfulfilled, and almost stung by the negative, rejecting energy. He may, in fact, implement several strategies to attain what he vitally needs, but will often fail, since his parents themselves never received what he seeks because of their own dysfunctional or incomplete childhoods.
If they could be considered profit-and-loss statements, they would most likely show an emotional deficit and, eventually, so, too, will the child, prompting his ultimate outward- and other- focus.
Bombarded with parental blame and shame, a child can quickly believe that he causes others’ negative or detrimental actions by virtue of his sheer existence, as if he were a negatively influencing entity and may carry both this belief and its burden for most of his life.
“As children, we took responsibility for our parents’ anger, rage, blame, or pitifulness… ,” according to the “Adult Children of Alcoholics” textbook (World Service Organization, 2006, p. 7). “This mistaken perception, born in childhood, is the root of our codependent behavior as adults.”
Dr. Charles L. Whitfield uncovers an even deeper cause.
“The cause of codependence is a wounding of the true self to such an extent that, to survive, it had to go into hiding most of the time, with the subsequent running of its life by the false or codependent self,” he wrote in “Co-Dependence: Healing the Human Condition” (Health Communications, 1991, p. 22). “It is thus a disease of lost self-hood.”
“… The child’s vulnerable true self… is wounded so often that to protect (it), it defensively submerges (splits off) deep within the unconscious part of the psyche,” he also noted (p. 27).
This split, one of the many detriments of codependence, arrests this development, as his inner child remains mired in the initial trauma that necessitated its creation. Although his chronological age may advance, his emotional and psychological progress remains suspended, creating the adult child. His body and physical statue may suggest the first part of this “adult” designation to others, but his reactions may more closely approximate the second “child” part of it.
Conflicted, he may engage in an internal battle he does not entirely understand, as his adult side wishes and needs to function at an age-appropriate level, but his child half clings to the sting of his unresolved harm, seeking sanctuary and safety. He is unable to satisfy both.
People naturally seek relief from pain and addictions and compulsions, a second manifestation of codependence, is one of the methods they employ, especially since they lack any understanding about their affliction. Because they spark the brain’s reward system, however, they only provide temporary, fleeting fixes, not solutions.
Exacerbating this dilemma is the fact that they flow from a false sense of self, which itself can only be mollified, quelled, or deceptively filled by these means.
Since their childhood circumstances were both familiar and normal to them, they subconsciously may also attract, now as adult children, those with similar upbringings by means of sixth-sense intuitions or identifications, creating a third codependent manifestation.
“… On (an even) deeper level,” according to Whitefield in “Co-Dependence: Healing the Human Condition” (Health Communications, 1991, p. 54), “they may also be drawn to one another in a search to heal their unfinished business and, perhaps more importantly, their lost self.”
Nevertheless, inter-relating with others who themselves function from the deficit-dug holes in their souls, they only re-create the childhood dynamics they experienced with their parents, substituting their partners for them and suffering a secondary form of wounding over and above the primary one sustained in childhood. In effect, they become another link in the intergenerational chain.
Even if they encounter whole, loving people, who are able to provide the needed acceptance and validation they crave, they are unable to accept it, since they do not function from the true self that otherwise could-nor, in the event, do they even believe that they deserve it. It bounces off of them like an image on a mirror, only creating yet a fourth byproduct of codependence.
Aside from the codependent foundation laid in childhood by dysfunctional parents, who themselves were wounded and caused the adult child syndrome upon which its codependent aspect was based, the condition is far more prevalent in society than may at first be apparent. Continually, but sometimes subtly modeled, it can almost be considered contagious.
4. Identifying Codependence:
One of the frustrating aspects of codependence is that it either wears a disguise or remains altogether hidden, prompting the behavioral modifications and almost-scripted roles of those who suffer from it, such as rescuer, people-pleaser, perfectionist, overachiever, victim, martyr, lost child, comedian, mascot, bully, and even abuser, that deludes others to the fact that it is present. The motivation for such behavior is not always immediately apparent.
Nevertheless, there are several traits which characterize codependence.
Sparked by the need to protect the traumatized inner child and arising, in part, from disordered relationships, it results, first and foremost, in the creation of the false self, which replaces the genuine, intrinsic one, and becomes the root of all other addictions and compulsions. The emptier a person feels inside, the more he seeks to fill that void outside.
“Codependence is not only the most common addiction,” according to Whitefield in “Co-Dependence: Healing the Human Condition” (Health Communications, 1991, pp. 5-6), “it is the base out of which all our other addictions and compulsions emerge. Underneath nearly every addiction and compulsion lies codependence. And what runs them is twofold: a sense of shame that our true self is somehow defective or inadequate, combined with the innate and healthy drive of our true self that does not realize and (cannot) express itself. The addiction, compulsion, or disorder becomes the manifestation of the erroneous notion that something outside ourselves can make us happy and fulfilled.”
And underlying codependence is shame and a deep belief that the person is inadequate, incomplete, and flawed.
Avoiding his own negative feelings and painful past, he becomes externally and other-focused, yet is unable to genuinely connect with them, with himself, or with a Higher Power of his understanding through the false or pseudo-self he was forced to create. In fact, this has the opposite or repelling effect.
His boundaries, another aspect of the disease, may be distorted, undefined, and extend beyond himself.
Finally, as a defense, codependence is learned, acquired, progressive, and inextricably tied to the adult child syndrome, since the false self serves as the link between the two.
5. Codependence and the Brain:
Codependence is both additive and breeds addictions. People’s actions are usually motivated by rewards and, in this case, the reward is the temporary disconnection from their painful pasts by focusing on others and the belief that doing so will bring them happiness and fulfillment, as they attempt to avoid their own emptiness and negative self-feelings.
Although they feel flawed because of their upbringing, the real flaw is that an external source can fill and replace an internal one. The more they look toward others, the more they deny and disconnect from their own needs, wants, and deficits.
“This love deficit condemns us to an existence of addiction, para-alcoholism, codependence, or seeking some other outward source to heal an inward feeling of being unwanted or defective,” according to the “Adult Children of Alcoholics” textbook (World Service Organization, 2006, p. 438).
Although certain strategies can temporarily relieve their adverse condition, such as avoiding, depending, obsessing, and compulsing, excessive reliance upon them, as ultimately occurs with codependence, exaggerates them and elevates them to addiction levels, transforming their “benefits” into deficits. Yet doing so is not a solution, since it fails to address the underlying reason for it and only ends up creating what can be considered a byproduct problem.
The more a person seeks gratification to rise above his unresolved past, the more he reinforces the neuro-pathway to pleasure in his brain, cementing the belief that this “other-person” addiction can provide satisfaction through external means-so much so, in fact, that the moment his “fix” is removed or is even threatened to be removed, he crashes and falls back into his pit of pain.
Like all addictions, however, its affects to not end there: indeed, the brain eventually creates a tolerance for them, demanding ever greater quantities, frequencies, and intensities to satisfy him, until he becomes that proverbial binary star, orbiting around others, unable to function without them, as he becomes nothing more than his mirror image.
“Just as we develop a tolerance to the effects of chemicals, we develop a tolerance to the effects of our behaviors… ,” according to Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse and Joseph Cruse in their book, “Understanding Codependency: The Science Behind it and How to Break the Cycle” (Health Communications, 2012, p. 33). “This vicious, one-way circle is a trap that ends in depression, isolation, institutions, and sometimes death.”
Excessive psychological and emotional reliance on others is, in essence, an exaggeration of normal personality traits and can ultimately disable a person, culminating in the disease of codependence. The way the body can quickly become dependent upon mood-altering chemicals, it can equally become physically dependent upon behaviors to the point that compulsions serve as his armament.
“The disease of codependency can be seen as a personal struggle with a variety of compulsive disorders,” Wegscheider-Cruse and Cruse wrote (Ibid, p. 131). “People… have lived in a condition of denial, distorted feelings, and compulsive behaviors, and as a result they have developed low self-worth, deep shame, inadequacy, and anger.”
But the codependent erroneously believes two mistruths. One is that he is intrinsically flawed and the other is that someone outside of himself can fill what he already possesses inside of himself.
Problems can be painful, but can often point to solutions-or, at the very least, that they need to be sought.
“Rather than being simply an escape from reality,” wrote Whitfield in “Co-Dependence: Healing the Human Condition” (Health Communications, 1991, p. 98), “codependence is also a search. It starts out as a search for happiness and fulfillment outside ourselves. After repeated frustration, it ultimately becomes a search for inner wholeness and completion.”
Unless recovery is undertaken, usually through therapy and twelve-step program venues, and understanding is achieved, the mistreatment, dysfunction, and abuse that causes a person’s early wound and transforms him into an adult child will only perpetuate, suppressing, paralyzing, or altogether removing the tenets of positive emotions, trust, and love needed for healthy human life and increasing the chances of its byproduct, codependence, by placing him on the fruitless path of looking outside of himself for fulfillment until it reaches addiction levels.
“Recovery involves re-accepting and honoring your individuality,” according to Dr. Susan Powers of the Caron Treatment Centers.
You are you, as created, and not the image of what others will have you be attained by means of unhealthy attachments.
Desensitizing traumas, resolving core issues, and progressively regaining trust leads to the gentle recovering of your true or authentic self, enabling it to express itself and provide the internal fulfillment that was always present, but was distorted and deflated through childhood wounding.
“… The child within-our true self-is the only part of us that can connect to God and thus realize a fulfilling spirituality,” noted Whitfield in “Co-Dependence: Healing the Human Condition” (Health Communications, 1991, p. 20).
And the late John Bradshaw emphasized the value of flowing from your authentic self when he stated, “I am me and for this alone I came.”
Adult Children of Alcoholics. Torrance, California: Adult Children of Alcoholics World Service Organization, 2006.
Wegscheider-Cruse, Sharon, and Cruse, Joseph. Understanding Codependency: The Science Behind it and How to Break the Cycle. Deerfield Beach, Florida: Health Communications, Inc., 2012.
Whitfield, Charles L., M.D. Co-Dependence: Healing the Human Condition. Deerfield Beach, Florida: Health Communications, Inc., 1991.