Codependency as a Skill

So often we hear of how bad codependent behavior is and how to stop being codependent.   And, I’m one of those people who has worked hard healing my own codependent patterns, and I teach others the art of healing from their own codependency. At its core codependency is where we care more for someone else than we do ourselves. To some, this may sound altruistic and at times it is, but the systematic denial of self-care and self-love is what makes codependent behaviors so intrinsically damaging to the individual. Many like to pathologize codependency and put it in an illness or disordered category and certainly the long term effects on the individual and their relationships creates disorder. This article looks at codependency for what it is, rather than as a pathology. When I work with people I like to honor the Why and How they developed their codependent skills because there is always an emotional reason.   In time and when we are ready, what we all need to do to become healthy is to recognize our codependent behaviors, thoughts, feelings and actions, then work towards healing them so that we don’t keep re-enacting them in our adult lives.

I refer to codependent behaviors and feelings as coping skills. These coping skills were developed usually beginning at a young age and over time in our family of origins as a survival tool to help us navigate what for many was a very difficult environment. For our example, I have in mind an image of a young boy of four or five years old. This child is old enough to begin to really see sense and feel his world and to consciously integrate his family of origin dynamic. This child is looking at his world with innocence, but also with his own personality and emotional framework.

If this child’s family of origin dynamic is dysfunctional, which most are to some degree, the child is adapting his personality to the family environment.  The adapted child is reshaping himself to fit into the dysfunctional family dynamic because that is what the child feels he needs to do to emotionally survive in this chaotic environment. The child looks to himself and the family and says I have to make this work, I want to survive in this family, I want to be loved, and I want all of us to be happy. Pia Mellody references a child’s adaptability and states that when children struggle to adapt into what the parents want, their healthy development is retarded.

The child adapts himself and aligns with the energy of this family system. He is figuring this out on his own using his intuitive adaptive skills. It’s not like this child’s first grade teacher is saying, ok class, today we will learn how to get along with your rageful father and your mother who is emotionally withdrawn and shut down. The child is using his abilities of adaptation, intuition, resiliency, intelligence, and the emotions of love and fear. The child is using all of his accumulated knowledge up to this point of four or five years old to make his role in the family work, and his objective is to make the dysfunctional, functional.

This child is also watching his parents and seeing their adaptive skills. He’s seeing the father’s acting out and learning how to express emotion in an unhealthy way, the child is learning how to rage and not understand his anger. Similarly, he’s watching how the mother in our example is choosing to be passive and not set boundaries and to not claim her personal power. He’s learning how to doubt his feelings and to believe his words do not have value. Everyone in this example family dynamic is doing their best, but they are each acting out their unresolved emotions in an unconscious codependent way.

I feel that at some level when we say “Oh, you learned codependent behavior as a child and that’s bad – why did you do that, you shouldn’t have done that – you’re bad for doing that, etc.” When this is said directly or indirectly just look at all of the shame that was just heaped on that individual for doing something they felt was the best thing for themselves when they were very young. It felt right for this young child to become the people pleaser, to help his Mom out extra hard because he could feel his Mom hurting. Or it felt right for this child to become withdrawn and extra quiet when his Dad was yelling. This child was surviving and figuring out a complex matrix of skills to call upon when needed. This is why I reference codependent behaviors as adaptive skills, not a disorder or an illness.

When we look at codependent behaviors developed in childhood as skills we are reframing and de-shaming the survival behaviors learned innocently at a young age. We are taking this core set of learned behaviors and we are looking at them differently so we can create a new positive narrative. I believe that when we take this more positive approach we are giving to our adult self and our child self, a sense of agency so that we can make a choice about these adaptive behaviors and feelings.

Instead of being smothered by the shame, we are taking a different approach and giving ourselves self-love and self-care which is the antidote to codependency. Care and love for the self is what heals codependency and this is how we can get there. We cannot get to healing through a veil of shame, berating ourselves into doing better. We get to a place of healing within ourselves through kindness, love, compassion, caring and understanding.

The core issues of codependency need to be addressed so the individual does not keep repeating those patterns over and over in an unconscious way. The unconscious part of any emotional pattern is not functional, this is the acting out of unresolved emotional issues. When we act them out with others we are involving them in the dance of our unresolved issues – the back and forth tug-of-war. We engage them and invite them to reenact our childhood dysfunctions and I believe we do this because we are trying hard to heal ourselves.

Be kind to the little person inside of you who worked so hard at a young age to learn those adaptive skills. Your younger self needs to hear and feel your compassion. Your younger self needs to know you respect how he or she developed a sense of agency to create a survival tool set that allowed you to make it through a dysfunctional family and out the other side.

We all should be celebrating the adaptive skills that we developed at an early age to survive dysfunctional environments.   We don’t need to pathologize codependency and shame coat it, but instead, we should be celebrating that we figured out on our own how to navigate emotional upset and discord. That we took what for many was an intolerable situation and we said to ourselves, I can make this work, let me figure this out, what do I need to do. This is not a celebration of codependency, this is a celebration of you developing the skills to survive a dysfunctional environment. Celebrate your success of surviving, or your DOing, and work towards healing your codependent patterns that exists in your adult so you can BEcome thriving.

Robert Jackman, LCPC

Helpful Resources

Facing Codependency – Pia Mellody

Homecoming: Reclaiming and Championing your Inner Child – John Bradshaw

Affirmations for the Inner Child – Rokelle Lerner


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