The Nature of Codependency

My analogy of co-dependency which is people pleasing is being like X-Men character Mystique. In the sense not that one takes or can take the physical shape and appearance of another but in the sense that as co-dependents we shift ourselves to accommodate others, we base our identities on mirroring others, on being who they want us to be or we think they want us to be.

We create and live through a false self because we allow others to define us, we shift ourselves for approval. If I’m who someone wants me to be or like them, I don’t risk rejection and abandonment. I can be loved; I will be seen as enough. I can only be seen this way; I can only be heard if I don’t speak my truth but agree with others. I can only be accepted if I’m everything but me.

Codependency is the reliance on other people for approval and a sense of identity. The need to be perfect and defined by others. It’s a loss of control and giving away our power. It’s a loss of our authenticity, our potential, our values, our morals, our boundaries… In fact, the absence of boundaries plays a pivotal role and the fear of setting them, this is why co-dependent people later in life are at risk of ending up being taken advantage off and further abused, not because it’s their fault but because others chose to abuse them by exploiting these very vulnerabilities. In addition, co-dependents fear that having boundaries make them bad or selfish because many times as children they were shamed for having their needs or denied their rights.

Gabor Mate said children need two things; authenticity and attachment.

What happens in codependency is that authenticity is sacrificed for attachment.

In the fear of being abandoned by others, the result is that we sacrifice our own needs and self-love and abandon ourselves.

Co-dependent people don’t have a solid sense of who they are, because co-dependency is a natural reaction to trauma that develops in the formative years and childhood and is due to having experienced developmental trauma. Trauma or abuse robs us of our sense of self amongst other things. Many times it wasn’t okay to be ourselves, to be a child with needs and curiosity and test boundaries and be dependent and needing of nurture, the messages we received were; you are not okay as you are, you are too much, you are not enough, you cannot be accepted or loved for being you, you are not valuable, you’re not lovable…these messages can be subtle and don’t even need to be verbally made. When a child fears these things, they feel rejected and fear being abandoned. For a child abandonment is like murder. Co-dependency develops as a survival strategy, because children are dependent on survival by the adults. These patterns don’t just automatically vanish when someone turns of age. Being an adult is more than just about age.

These patterns follow us into adult relationships, many times seeing us end up in abusive relationships. The trauma response that co-dependency falls into is the fawn response.

The ‘please‘ or ‘fawn‘ response is an often overlooked survival mechanism to a traumatic situation, experience or circumstance. As any survival response; like flight, fight or freeze, a please or fawn response is to manage a state of danger or potential danger.

We may have learned that if as children we utilised the fight response and challenged our parents or protested their mistreatment of us, it only led us to being or feeling punished. This robs us of our assertive skills and silences us into subservience and submission. It also does one of the most destructive things ever that others utilise later in life to hurt us and that’s it deletes our ability to say no, to the point the word no loses all existence. This is why it’s hard for co-dependents to say no, to set boundaries and why they fear doing so will occur a negative action or response. Flight really isn’t much of an option since children depend on the adults in their lives and can’t just easily run away and some go into the freeze response where they dissociate from their toxic environment or people around them.

Many co-dependents were parentified in childhood. Parentification is also linked to childhood trauma and often made invisible just like the child may feel. It occurs when the roles are reversed between a child and a parent, where the child has to step up as the caretaker, mediator, or protector of the family. It is a form of mental abuse and boundary violation.  Again, we see that a codependent has grown up in a dysfunctional family setting where lack of boundaries were to be found. 

This sense of becoming a carer was damaging yet made the child feel they were needed and had a purpose and that if they gave of themselves, they could finally be accepted and loved.

‘Love’ very often came with conditions of worth. Conditions of worth were coined by Carl Rogers, the founder of the Person-Centred approach which is a way of being not doing. Rogers said that conditions of worth are what we develop when we take on board other people’s values and ideas about how we should be. When we are children, we learn what pleases those around us (parents, relatives…) and what gains us approval. This is what sets the stage later to people pleasing and why I mentioned at the start of the article why we become like chameleons or Mystique in X-men.

We also learn what gains us disapproval, for some this can be as simple as making mistakes and the reason why perfectionism is also linked to co-dependency and the child becoming the ‘perfect’ child who is always obedient and polite. Co-dependents are extremely loyal to those that are toxic and can allow mistreatment without seeing it as this because of their past history and conditioning.

It is a need for any child to feel wanted, enough, loved, seen, heard, accepted and to feel they belong and nurtured and it is as much of a requirement as food, shelter, water…Because as children we rely on these for survival we end up doing what is needed to get them (please).

What can add to not feeling enough or unwanted and linked with conditions of worth in later life is also society and how in order to feel like we belong, we are expected and told to be a certain way or act a certain way.

Boys and men don’t cry. Girls and women are not ladylike if they do certain things, gender stereotypes are good at this, advertisements that label certain aspects as flaws in order to make business and work on our self-esteem or create and generate this lack of low self-esteem. Women need to look a certain way to be attractive to men, men need to be macho and have a six pack, success is seen as wealth…This can open the original wound and create added layers making one never feel accepted, wanted, loved or enough as they are or it can create codependency from adolescents and adulthood only. The danger of placing value on these things and believing these conditioned lies, is that if we don’t have these things (if we are not ‘perfect’) then our worth can feel challenged.

 Pete walker defines trauma-based co-dependency as:

‘a syndrome of self-abandonment and self-abnegation’.

He also explains the implicit code of the fawn type is that it is:

  • To listen rather than talk
  • To agree than to dissent
  • To offer care than to ask for help
  • To elicit the other than to express self
  • To leave choices to the other rather than express preferences.

It is only with learning how to apply and carry out boundaries, when we find our voice, are able to offer ourselves our own love and acceptance can we break free of co-dependency and start to become our authentic selves and learn who we truly are or set free the person we always were but that was prisoned.