Codependency: Part 2 - The Why
Looking for Part 1? Read Codependency: I Need to Find Someone to Make Me Whole
Part 2: The Why
If you’re at the beginning of your self-work, the following might sound possible but very unlikely. So know that ahead of time and push yourself to stay open. I had the same doubts. When someone suggested this reasoning to me I was like, “Nah, that’s not me, though. I am much more aware of what’s going on inside me.” So for the sake of getting the most out of this, try to remain in a constant state of “probably, and I just can’t see it.”
If you’re the hyper functional one in your relationships, you are focus-dependent on others who are vice-dependent. You also might be a blend of both– focusing on someone else’s problems and also soothing pain with vices. If you have vices that keep your focus partially occupied, you also likely feel like “damaged goods.” Whether you’re focus-dependent or vice-dependent, it’s a soothing mechanism – a method of empowerment you grew in childhood. Usually people with one or both are attracted to others who compliment their particular soothing style, like finding a perfect puzzle-piece for your particular voids. The other person is like the negative inverse of the role you grew up with – in other words, it feels comfortable and familiar. In the relationship that attracts you, you’re in a role that reminds you of how you coped with pain during childhood. More of those specifics shortly.
Focus-dependency ties to a need to control another person’s behavior and how they feel – whether or not they are happy and give you love and affection you desperately crave to feel whole. It’s a method for controlling the source of your own pain: I can get soothing from this other person if I just try hard enough. That can mean forcing the other person to give you care and love with manipulation, or forcing your help on another person who has said they cannot and will not change as a way of making them reliant on you. Think of the relationship like a soothing spigot: your methods are ways of trying to turn the faucet on. Why do you choose a project to work on vs a healthy partner? Because that is a reliable source of focus-soothing that will last you a lifetime! It means you can control the source – like cold water on a burn that’s deep within. It’s all very subterranean – you likely have no connection to the fact that this is a deep need operating inside you, because these dynamics are so old that they’re hidden from view. Having a project keeps you distracted from yourself and all the intense longing and emptiness inside, and with that – the pain has a name. Not to mention – temporary relief.
When I say you choose “projects” I mean a number of distractions: a project can also be a vice. For example – eating disorders are projects because they keep your attention occupied. It’s the label that goes on the dark pain and anxiety. Same goes for choosing unavailable people: it’s safe in that it creates a controllable external source for the inner pain. Therefore – we know where we are. The painful feelings inside make sense and they become much more manageable. For more about why pain is more manageable when it’s in your control, read up on lab rats and PTSD.
As a focus-dependent person, the reason you can’t see what you’re really doing or where it comes from is because of denial. Our brains protect us from what is too much to handle – especially when we’re young and helpless, so now your managing tactics have been scarred over and obscured by many years of experience – like a habit of not seeing. So if this doesn’t sound like you – that’s likely because it has become part of your identity. To question it is to threaten the one thing that is making you feel safe, so you will want to push this away as will anyone you’re in an unhealthy relationship with. The other person you’re focused on will likely shoot down all of this learning and receive it as an attack. That’s because all codependency is a mutual soothing tactic and it doesn’t work without the other person playing the opposite role.
Here’s the catch: you originally grew this habit because you were empowering yourself in the face of overwhelming pain and anxiety. Now it’s what’s preventing you from experiencing a healthy, rewarding relationship. If you believe you are this type of soother, it's very likely because of a parent/caregiver or an unstable situation that made you feel powerless as a child.
If you are a vice-dependent person, you are using a substance or a disorder as a way to keep yourself safe in the pain that exists deep inside you. Usually that pain is of low-self-worth or trauma, or both. How the vice comes about is pretty logical: it’s the easiest solution at a given time, one that makes you feel temporarily more in control of the pain. Whether that’s a drug, sex, cutting, binging, withholding food, or focusing on fixing someone else.
Both forms of soothing come about (roughly) like this:
- You have a parent who is a child – for all intensive purposes – and not a parent, who is there for you and all about your needs.
What I mean by not a parent, is someone who is either incapable of unconditional love because of addiction, abuse or depression, or someone emotionally stunted: unable to let go of their unmet needs from childhood. This is usually because they were too young – or just emotionally young – when you came into their life. Thus, they are unprepared to give unconditionally to you – their tank is empty and they’re needy as hell.
Often, young parents are not yet emotionally grown and whole, enough to give the needed amount of love to a child. There are certain needs that need to be met for them to be capable of loving unconditionally – which is what babies need: unconditional love. By emotionally young I mean people who had parents who were incapable of parenting – therefore they didn’t get their needs met and they are STILL asking for them – but this time, from you, their child. So if their parent was cold or they lost them when they were young, they might still be craving validation and worthiness, similar to a child – using manipulation tactics to force you to love them, even though you are a child. It’s unconscious though – for example, a parent might say, “FINE! Go ahead and make a mess – you have destroyed your mother’s heart!” These are childlike tactics built by a lack of coping skills.
As an adult with a healthy upbringing and healthy attachment to a caregiver, you reach a point of maturity when you know you’re loved and good enough: you feel whole unto yourself. You feel confident to give of yourself because you know your own worth. Therefore, as a parent, you can self-sacrifice – you’ve got love to give. If you don’t have that, emotionally you’re a child who still feels unsure and is crying out repeatedly for more love – needing to feel whole. “It’s not fair! I need love!” So this inner child, will still cry – even as a parent. They might continue to do things they’re not supposed to – like manipulating their kids to feel bad for them. It’s a generational loop that repeats because unmet needs beget unmet needs– parents didn’t get enough love, then they ask their kids for it. Unconsciously they are competing with you for love from whoever will give it to them.
Emotionally stunted parents do not possess the right tools for coping with adult challenges. Because many of them were not given things like compassion and non-judgment, they create another layer of damage in their children. For example, if you go to an emotionally stunted parent for help, they will tell you in their own words that you cannot express yourself to them. They literally cannot except or tolerate subjects that they did not gain the skills to manage, so they tell you, the child, “What’s wrong with you?! Stop that!” AKA I can’t go there – you will find no support if you say something like that to me again, and you will be punished for feeling this way. Parents like this might also tell kids in need of support that they are sick, wrong, dirty, irrational, asking too much, or not worth loving because they feel something their parent cannot understand. This is one of the most damaging effects of an incapable parent, because as the child who is suffering, you don’t get help for real and painful issues. Instead you internalize them and they get fester and build shame. When we deny parts of ourselves that we believe to be unacceptable – we create a deep, painful self-loathing.
This language can be subtle – for example, when you’re upset, you might have a parent who says, “What?! What’s wrong, now!? I just can’t do it – I can’t deal anymore!” All of this is code for, “You’re not allowed to have feelings that I can’t handle! Don’t tell me because I’ll break down!” Which translates to mean, “Keep your problems to yourself. You’re on your own.”
- This is one of the most painful, damaging things a child can experience. Feeling alone in their pain and aware they cannot ask for help because their parent is incapable. Feeling helpless and deliberately unseen by those who are supposed to care for them. This is why codependents adopt denial as a coping mechanism – because this is the kind of pain that is too much to manage, sober. This is GRIEF and it’s too dark, too scary. So instead – we create stories that allow us to function. To survive, we look away – at something else. Anything else or anyone else, to help us feel a bit of relief.
Young couples have an additional set of issues that are created by the actual codependency of their relationship. Like teenagers, they will be obsessed by each other and what the other one is or is not doing – sound familiar? Codependency is an addiction of focus that alleviates unbearable pain, inside. So this addiction is lumped on top of an empty love tank: they’re begging one another to make them feel whole. Codependent couples wage battles of unmet childhood needs, “Love me! I need love!” which leaves, you, the child, suffering and invisible. All that exists is the codependent relationship playing out on an angry, desperate, immature loop. It’s their number one focus because it’s their live-giving drug. If they weren’t so trapped in need, they’d be able to focus on someone else. Just like a child, life is all about them.
For those who didn’t get enough love, relationships breed narcissism. It’s all creating the same outcome: a soothing for the inner longing. Because they’re focused on the spigot full of love, they cannot stop engaging in the loop – even if you’re suffering or even dying before their eyes. That’s how powerful the focus is: all they can see is the source of their pain relief, like a baby with tunnel vision toward a bottle. For example, let’s say one parent is the caregiver and one is the ‘never satisfied royal.’ This loop will keep both soothing in an unhealthy loop – it feels right, they’re used to chasing the other object with the sticker called “happiness” but they never catch it so they always feel desperate and unhappy, yet they chase harder. But for you, the child – you’re invisible, your needs are unmet, you feel unwanted and desperate. You will feel - by default – not lovable, as you are, so you change your behavior so that you might be seen. This is an act of empowerment in the face of possible death.
What this creates in you, the child:
- All of this lack of attention and support is experienced as, “Why don’t you love me? I need love, and you don’t care about me.” It’s terrifying and overwhelmingly painful to feel this way – because this is your life-giver and you are still reliant on them for survival. This is also one of the most painful and damaging things a child can experience.
THIS IS HOW YOUR COPING MECHANISM WAS BUILT. This is what CREATES the need in a child, to EARN their visibility – by any means possible. This is how we develop the archetypal traits of codependency:
- Reading people’s moods, anticipating their thoughts, rationalizing and making sense of their behavior: searching for any information possible to help yourself.
- Sculpting your behavior to others’ – making sure you take care of them, so that you can receive any kind of love from them in return. For example, becoming a parent’s bestie and acting “adult.” Or becoming their care-giver. Or acting as a bad kid so someone will give you attention.
These two traits are KEY to everything that you honed for survival – that are now blocking you from forming healthy and mutually beneficial relationships, now. Why? When a kid’s survival is threatened – they will RATIONALIZE why their parent is not loving them and taking care of them by one of several means. This is a survival tactic.
- You choose to revolt against the system: you seek parenting from an outside source and you refuse to participate in the family structure. You know your family is crazy and you’re not buying any of it. But the pain still hurts and you feel empty inside.
- You take it on as a character trait you possess: I am just a great caregiver! That’s why I am taking care of my parent. The other half of this perspective, however, is an intense intolerance for any weakness in yourself: I am perfect and cannot let go of control. AKA I can fix it all! If I can’t, everyone will fall apart! This also is what leads to eating disorders.
- You take it as a sign you are bad and unlovable: I’m the black sheep - just a screw up – I lie and cheat and I can’t do anything right. You internalize the lack of love as self. This leads to self-destructive habits like using your body, cruelty toward others and drug use.
- I’m a baby! I can’t do anything. In other words, you infantilize yourself as a way to procure love. This includes not leaving home and instead transitioning into a relationship where someone will replace your parents.
These are just a few examples, but think about your own experience - you might have lived out years of a story that wasn’t really yours. For example, I was a bad kid and a perfect kid – both of those stories were things I adopted to empower myself in the face of painful circumstances and they were both acted out in many damaging ways. To be seen, we will often play act – the role you choose depends on how you identify yourself as a person. So if you are emotionally vulnerable or the second born, you might become the baby. Whereas, the first born will likely become the savior. *More about the roles and what they mean is in this post, Toxic Love about how we choose roles based on childhood.
How this plays out in adult relationships:
You meet someone available, you focus on how much they like you and how much they are willing to give you affection: your core need is someone who will give you love, which drives everything. You see in them a good project, you decide you can change them or at the very least, tolerate them no matter how bad they get, because – you can do anything after all. Truly, this is just rationalization because just having a person like you is enough – it feels soooo good and it soothes the overwhelming pain of loneliness. You might woo them by giving them your best, or they might attach to you because they see that they can take advantage. The soothing loop begins.
As things progress, you read them and anticipate their needs then you wait for them to read you back, but they do not. You give even more of yourself, enabling them more, which degrades them more – which gives you more control and clingy adoration – which soothes your fear of being alone. The attachment grows stronger with the unhealthy loop. As more time passes, you grow resentful because your needs are not being met and you’re working so hard to care for the broken bird. You feel trapped by the bond because you’re reliant, yet it’s degrading and unrewarding. You’re in an unbalanced relationship with someone undeserving, yet you feel at the mercy of this other person. They don’t change their problems, you beg and plead, and continue to fix them. Your life is no longer yours – it’s someone else’s and it’s a mess. You feel desperate and reduced to powerlessness. You ask yourself – how can I change this? You see no tools. It’s all on them.
How did this start? You were focused on their feelings: do they like you. Will they love you. When you should have been focused on your feelings: do I like them. Are they worthy of my love. Can they reciprocate it. And that is because as codependents, you believe what you want is wrong. You have grown up mistrusting your feelings and also believing your needs are unimportant and must be negated for those of others. Additionally, you had to suppress your own feelings because they were too painful and overwhelming to manage – so there’s a good chance you have no idea what you think or feel, nowadays. Your body is currently too full of pain, anxiety, feelings of low self-worth, and longing, so you abandoned your thoughts and opinions and focused on changing those of others. This was your way of empowering yourself during childhood: I’ll look at what’s in my control. I’ll turn on the spigot. But today, it’s making you ignore the most important and relevant information in every situation: is this good for me, does this feel right, does this align with my own best interests.
When you're used to not feeling your needs, you have a tendency to choose people who are not good for you – like drug addicts and people with behaviors that don't align with your values. And when you’re looking for anyone who will love you, you’re not choosing others for the good parts – you’ll take pretty much anyone and that makes you an easy target. People who need caregivers are motivated by a fear of falling apart, so they’ll attach to you as hard as possible – which to you, feels intoxicating and like a relief. Just like you, they’re so locked on to getting what they want, they’ll take ANYONE who will give what they never got from their parents. You aren't able to sense how much this relationship really betrays your values and wants: you're not sensing your own boundaries, although they are there, buried deep within. So you’re acting against yourself, unconsciously. Hence, you might eventually be baffled by your own behavior as though it’s a separate self.
If you are going into a relationship because you feel like you need someone else to be fulfilled, you will always be settling – no matter who you choose. Regardless of which codependent roles you play, to rely on someone else for happiness, feels terrible. It makes you do desperate things that betray who you are – it makes you controlling and manipulative. It makes you use dirty tactics to keep others attached. It makes you accept behavior that hurts you. Codependency is a sickness that makes you unhappy and weak and it makes others unhappy and weak, on the receiving end. Why? Because dependent people feel like assholes – when you think you are going to get gratitude from the person you’re helping, you’re actually going to get resent and secret loathing. By enabling them, you’re keeping them weak and creating more of what they hate in themselves. Making people increasingly dependent on you makes them hate who they are and hate you for loving them. It drives people away and keeps them sick in dysfunction.
Dependency on someone else is not love– it’s need. It feels dire and desperate. Love is strengthening – it makes you feel confident and self-assured. It makes you feel better about yourself, not weaker. Happiness comes from being whole, unto yourself, without needing anyone else. If you’re looking to a relationship to make you feel whole, this is a fatal flaw in your thinking – this will never make you feel whole. Only chasing and soothing on a loop. You’re looking in the wrong place. But the pain is what drives this loop – I know! So let’s focus on that element. How to feel okay and solid in yourself. That’s a mighty and wonderful goal.
I know this is heavy! But the good news in all of this is, you are seeking out help and understanding, right now by reading this. Because of how deep this dynamic goes, I recommend you take this a step further and go to therapy. It’s the best way to nip this in the bud. If you’re not able to go to therapy because of the quality of care in your area, start by reading a shit ton of books and ask the universe for a wise friend who has gotten over similar issues. These patterns run deep and they’re hard to lose unless you know what to target – so it’s extremely helpful to work with help from a guide.
This healing/self-work process is all about becoming whole from the outside in. By that I mean, we’re going to start with the actions of a healthy, self-loving person and with simple enacting of these processes – the internal changes will follow. (Fake it ‘til you make it!) And with that – I want to give you some specific steps to take toward this goal.
Check back for Part 3: The Tools!