Codependency: survival skills from the past

By Dr. Ted Wiard, EdD, LPCC, CGC, founder of Golden Willow Retreat
GWR@newmex.com
Posted 8/15/19

This weekly column seeks to help educate our community about emotional healing through grief. People may write questions to Golden Willow Retreat and they will be answered privately to you and …

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Codependency: survival skills from the past

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This weekly column seeks to help educate our community about emotional healing through grief. People may write questions to Golden Willow Retreat and they will be answered privately to you and possibly as a future article for others. Please list a first name that grants permission for printing.

Dear Dr. Ted:

Last week Golden Willow Counseling and Rio Grande ATP hosted a wonderful lecture about codependency. The speaker was excellent and we all learned a lot of information. I was wondering, how does someone develop codependent behaviors and why?

Thanks, John

Dear John:

Thank you for listening to the lecture and thank you for the question. Codependency is a natural part of development within your life. When you are born, you are dependent on the caregivers around you. As you mature, you slowly become less dependent for all of your needs. This process of starting to take care of your own needs and break away from dependency is called the individuation process.

If you watch a two-year-old, they will walk off from their caregiver and then walk to a distance that is not comfortable and turn around and come back. The individuation process is very prominent during the teen years where you may feel like an adult and your caregiver may see you as a young child. Usually there is some level of friction during this development stage due to different perceptions and expectations by the caregiver and the teen.

During your early years, your survival is dependent on the well-being of your caregiver so there is a lot of energy spent checking on them. This is the natural survival skill learned in order to survive. Due to certain circumstances, these skills can be engrained - the individuation process may have levels of codependency where you continue to give to others to an extreme level, even if it is mentally, emotionally, spiritually, or physically depleting to your own well-being.

Codependency is often due to events in your life where you were abandoned and felt endangered in your life. During these difficult times, various survival skills become engrained and your brain believes they are needed in order to survive. As your self-esteem is wounded, you will attempt to control the outer world through different behaviors such as: people-pleasing, seeking approval, being submissive, pretending to be someone you are not and other behaviors in which you are trying to have someone else be content so you can feel safe.

Another way someone can show codependent behaviors is by trying to manipulate through dominance such as withholding love, being aloof and ambiguous, blaming, judging and any other attempt to make the other person appease to your demands. This may be seen as bullying behaviors and are often not thought of as codependent, and yet they are due to the need to manipulate the outer world in order to feel safe.

Most of these behaviors are unconscious and engrained in order to feel safe and protected from being abandoned. In the animal world this would be known as the self-preservation reflex of devour or cower.

The human brain has the capacity to do so much more than this. Finding ways to communicate, negotiate, compromise, empathize and demonstrate love to yourself as well as others builds a healthy self-esteem. Becoming conscious of whether you are trying to control the outer world or find serenity within is a gift you can give to yourself and find a level of serenity in the midst of a lot of chaos.

Thank you for the question. I wish you well. Until next week, take care.

Golden Willow Retreat is a nonprofit organization focused on emotional healing and recovery from any type of loss. Direct any questions to Dr. Ted Wiard, EdD, LPCC, CGC, founder of Golden Willow Retreat at GWR@newmex.com.

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