“Codependence is the pain in adulthood that comes from being wounded in childhood and leads to a high probability of relationship problems and addictive/compulsive behavior. It is a combination of immature thinking, feeling and behaving that generates an aversive relationship with the self (self-loathing), which the codependent individual acts out through self- destructive or unduly self-sacrificial behavior.”
The term codependence can be a confusing concept. Trying to figure out what it means can be difficult. Is it just a buzz word, a fad? Is it the invention of pop psychologists or a convenient marketing tool for the mental health industry?
The confusion can be complicated by the fact that experts may have different definitions. Some say codependence is preoccupation with other people and their problems, in an attempt to get one’s own unmet emotional needs satisfied. Others suggest that it was a pattern of painful dependence on others and on approval, to find meaning, identity, and value. Another might describe codependence as a disease of relationships in which the real problem is relationship with self!
A usable definition and one used by the Bridge is: Codependence is about growing up depending on someone, who’s depending on something, that’s not dependable. This could include anything from abusing alcohol and drugs to compulsive overworking, overeating, and overdoing almost anything. An example would be the child left in the car for one or more hours, enduring heat or cold, while his/her parents are working in the office.
Using the definition that Carol Cannon (co-founder of the Bridge) wrote, we can summarize the way the Bridge defines codependency:
“Codependence is the pain in adulthood that comes from being wounded in childhood, which leads to a high probability of relationship problems and/or addictive disorders in later life.”
At the Bridge our focus is on the emotional deficits that develop when children grow up in painful circumstances.
Children of addiction, neglect, abuse or any type of childhood trauma, acquire social and emotional habits and patterns that no longer work in adulthood. Survival behaviors such as compulsive caretaking, martyring, scapegoating, controlling, people-pleasing, and approval-seeking are classic examples.
One of the negative emotional patterns that codependents develop is categorical thinking. Everything is black and white with no shades in between. This always or never way of thinking leads them to over-react in social situations. Roger, for example, heard that some of the members of his Sunday school class were dissatisfied with his teaching methods. Instead of consulting with them on how to make the class more meaningful, he just resigned. His thoughts were, “Either they like me or they don’t”. There was no room for other alternatives.
Another childlike behavior of codependency is personalization – interpreting everything that is said and done in their immediate environment as if it were directed at them. This creates a paranoid perspective, which leads to defensiveness, hostility, and isolation. At a meeting with his self- help group, Mark questioned the unwitting use of sexist language that had begun to occur. Another member of the group, realizing that he was guilty, assumed that Mark was chiding him personally. He took offense and dropped out of the group, believing that it had to be about him.
Many codependents acquire is what is called obsessive over-analyzing. The mind goes round and round in circles until the emotional system either wears down or shuts down as a result of the overwhelming anxiety that is generated.
Another symptom of codependence is exaggerating or “awfulizing”. Children who have grown up in addictive or traumatized family systems learn to expect the worst. They are constantly waiting for the other shoe to fall. In adulthood, they are prone to place the worst possible interpretation on every event. They see neutral or even positive situations as negative, and they anticipate disaster. This expectation often sets off an emotional chain reaction that creates the very thing they most fear. People who are “stuck” in these immature emotional habits consider them normal. They don’t know any other way to think/believe/behave. Such individuals are not at fault! They need gentle and respectful guidance to break the painful patterns of behavior called codependency.