By Don Laird, MS, NCC, LPC
Who among us has not experienced the family member who “needs to be needed?” The person who for various reasons becomes the family rescuer? A “martyr,” “savior” or “saint” that will come through for others even at the expense of their own well-being? Codependency, by its very definition, means that there is someone on the other end, a mutual dependent relationship, and that someone is usually a family member or a significant other. Co-dependency is a term traditionally associated with the treatment of addiction and recovery, but for our purposes let’s review it in another light.
The question that comes to mind is why would someone want to be a full-time rescuer? What benefit is there for a mother or grandmother (or caregiver) who is driven to a point of being unhappy, resentful, chronically stressed, and physically or emotionally ill?
People who struggle with codependency almost always grow up with an adult family member who demands perpetual emotional care. Often, this is a parent who never reached full emotional maturity. The phenomena of the helicopter parent comes to mind as this is someone who won’t allow for his or her child to experience the world as both a place of kindness and a place where you do indeed get hurt, sometimes badly. The codependent needs to be needed, and this is where things often fall apart when their way of understanding the world is threatened.
“I am because I serve.” Love, confidence and self-esteem get knotted up with unending service. The codependent grows up starving for love and affection, someone who will “complete them” or “fill the void.” They feel significant not for who they are, but for what they do for others. The world is only as safe as they deem it to be and, therefore, they must protect those they love in the unhealthiest way possible by sacrificing their own sense of being. As a result, there can be little to no internal change for this person, that energy is redirected into trying to change the world around them. What psychological stability they can attain is contingent on making people dependent on them. This makes them fragile, resistant to change, and by all accounts the family martyr.
This is not to imply someone who is co-dependent lacks empathy, thoughtfulness or understanding. Those qualities can be quite genuine. The issue is ingrained in what tacit emotional agenda accompanies them. This could oscillate between exhaustive periods of giving and sudden “I need to love me first” moments of resentment. The choice is never me and you, but an emotionally immature me or you. People cannot be related to as equals, but instead are seen as those who are in need of my service, AND they should be eternally grateful for my efforts.
Codependency involves a deeply rooted and highly persistent combination of attitudes, values, beliefs, and habits that will not be solved by a reading a self-help book or by a getting a prescription from the family doctor. Moreover, deciding to be “self-loving” won’t do anything either. “Loving me before I can love others” (as pop-psychology insists we instill as a daily mantra) suggests the same type of “self-sacrifice” that drives a co-dependent individual in a most unhealthy way – “See, I am learning to love myself so I can serve others better.”
Relational conflicts require relational healing. Therapy is perhaps one of the few ways to create a relational world outside of the co-dependent’s universe. In most unresolved emotional conflicts past events remain shrouded in grief, regret and loss. These conflicts are often reinforced by attempts to self sooth or “cure” the feelings.
Beneath the worry and anxiety of someone with codependency sits an unconscious desire to obtain love, security and approval. Yet, for better or worse, the external world is not built to meet this internal need. Facing and allowing for loss and letting go submits an individual to a deep and valuable period of mourning. For the ill family member who could not be cured, for the child who did not get into the “right” school, for the vacation that did not go as planned, for the loss of love and support, misdirected energy is pulled out of persistent rescuing and gives it back to oneself. Though difficult and a times painful, mourning can ignite the process of healing. Creating a new role for those who were at one time in need of my “saving” allowing them to be who or what they actually are instead of trying to rescue them, also increases a sense of emotional maturity.
We should always remember that those who struggle with codependency are highly sensitive and caring individuals. Somewhere along the way the emotional speedometer went from 0 to 60 in a heartbeat and was never quite able to decrease to a healthier rate. Co-dependency is not a “problem” to be “cured,” but a life issue to be explored and discussed. If you feel you are struggling because of issues of co-dependency, give me a call at (412) 367-0575 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
In good health,