Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Co-Dependent Parent

You may be co-dependent if:
*you scratch yourself when your spouse itches, while failing to notice the skin cancer growing on your own arm.
*you spend every waking hour obsessing about and micromanaging your child's life, while your own needs are ignored.
*you feel like you and your mother have merged into a single person, and you can't separate your opinions from hers.
*you flip from one emotional extreme to another, depending on how someone else is doing today.
*you feel that if you could only find the right buttons to push, someone else's life would magically be transformed.

The concept of co-dependency is a relatively recent development in psychological thinking. It began in the field of chemical dependency, where the spouse or other significant person in an alcoholic's life was referred to as a "co-alcoholic", or "enabler". It was discovered that successful treatment of the co-dependent was just as likely to result in recovery for the addict, as treating the addict. Without the shock absorption provided by the co-dependent, the consequences of the addiction become increasingly painful and compelling, hastening the process of hitting bottom and making the choice to live rather than die.

At first, it was assumed that the addict's behavior caused co-dependent symptoms in significant others. However, when the addict becomes clean and sober, the co-dependent behavior of the family tends to continue as before. Unless the other participants in the dependency game choose to confront and change their own emotions and behavior, they find the new situation intolerable and start looking for a new addict to attach themselves to.

As therapists started looking for the hidden causes behind this baffling phenomenon, they realized that, in most cases, the co-dependency predated the addict's chemical abuse. Co-dependents are programmed in childhood to behavior patterns that dovetail with the emotional profile of an addict.

According to Pia Mellody, a high-profile psychotherapist and writer, the five core symptoms of co-dependency are:
1. Difficulty experiencing appropriate levels of self-esteem. (We are either the royalty of the universe, or a useless piece of excrement.)
2. Difficulty setting functional boundaries. (We are either enmeshed with others, or separated from them by thick walls which allow no intimacy.)
3. Difficulty owning and expressing our own reality. (We have been told what to think and feel so often that we are unable to think our own thoughts or feel our own feelings.)
4. Difficulty taking care of our own adult needs and wants. (We expect someone else to read our minds and provide what we need. We can't get what we want because we don't have any idea what that might be, so we concentrate on trying to get what we think we should want.)
5. Difficulty experiencing our reality moderately. (Life is a roller coaster of extremes.)

Virtually everyone experiences these symptoms occasionally, especially in relation to certain people. However, when they are a dominant pattern in our lives, the result is a chaotic mess of misery.

The relevance to child rearing is not difficult to see. A child whose role models are co-dependent will consider that behavior normal, because they lack the resources to think about it critically. When they grow up, they will engage in co-dependent behavior in their adult lives, perpetuating the curse.

If the parents are co-dependent with their children, they will try to live through them instead of managing their own lives and taking care of their own needs. The children will feel guilty for "making" Mom or Dad unhappy, and entertain delusions of grandeur, imagining that they have vast powers over others. They also learn the cardinal rules of a dysfunctional household. Don't think your own thoughts. Don't feel your own feelings. Don't trust your own perceptions. And above all, don't tell anyone what is going on.

A parent with severe emotional wounds is not capable of raising healthy children. The children will become shock absorbers between the parents and reality, and pay the price the rest of their lives.

Personality disorders, including co-dependency, are treatable. Learned behavior patterns can be unlearned. The road to recovery begins in pain and demands a great deal of courage and hard work. However, the rewards are worth it, for this generation as well as the ones to follow.

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