Breaking Down the Codependent Coping Mechanism
What is wrong with my thinking?
How did I get this way?
How should I be reacting?
These are among the most common questions I get asked by my clients concerning their Codependency. The thing to remember is that a Codependent suffers from a form of arrested development. The six year old, abused or neglected child learned coping mechanisms to help them survive their environment. The problem is that rather than grow and learn newer, more mature and healthier ways to cope as they got older, they became emotionally stuck and continued to use the same coping mechanisms in adulthood as that traumatized six year old.
What works for a six year old isn’t always going to work for an adult in an adult relationship. You can’t expect to have a healthy relationship when a child is in charge of your emotional reactions.
Here’s one example of what I mean: a neglected 6 year old that is desperate for love, affection and attention learns that she can get attention and praise if she’s perfect, neat, helpful, quiet and doesn’t cause a fuss like her sister does. She grows up and still uses this same mold for her adult relationships. The neglect and emotional abuse has given her the basis for her belief that she is not good enough and not worthy of love and so now she behaves in a manner that suggests that just being who she is will not garner her love, attention and affection – so she reverts to what has worked for her in the past – now she will have to be little miss perfect. She won’t act out even when she’s being treated poorly or unfairly, she’ll help too much, she’ll give too much because this is what she was taught she had to do to get what she needed.
So we have a faulty childhood belief which creates the need for a dysfunctional strategy. This strategy we never grow out of and it causes a plethora of problems for us as we develop and grow.
Breaking Down the Codependent Coping Mechanism
Childhood belief: Nobody’s going to want me because I’m lacking or flawed in some way.
Coping mechanism learned in childhood: If I’m better than everyone else – if I’m perfect – if I’m special then people will love me, if I’m not, no one will love me, so I have to try extra hard and put in extra effort.
How this manifests in adulthood: As an adult you believe that just being yourself isn’t good enough you have to give more and be more than everyone else just to get attention, love or affection. When you enter into a relationship prepared and even looking to give and do the lion’s share of the work it sets the stage for an uneven power dynamic. Manipulators look for these qualities to take advantage and exploit in others.
Healthy coping mechanism: Systematically growing out of each coping mechanism as we learn and adapt to our surroundings. The belief is that I am good enough just the way I am. I need not do or be anything other than what I am. I look for reciprocity in relationships, as well as fair and respectful treatment.
Childhood belief: I am responsible for the moods and behavior of my loved ones.
Coping Mechanism learned in childhood: I need to learn how to read your behavior – do I become invisible, do I try to comfort you, do I nurture you, do I hide, should I be afraid?. I am always walking on egg shells, nothing is stable so I must always be on my toes.
How this manifests in adult relationships: I always say that codependents make the best hosts because they are so good at anticipating people’s needs. They are over nurturers, looking for that broken bird to fix and comfort. They accept blame when it does not belong to them and believe that everything is their fault.
Healthy coping mechanism: I am an autonomous being responsible for my own moods and behaviors and you are an autonomous being responsible for your moods and behaviors. Your behavior has nothing to do with me and everything to do with you. I don’t absorb your blame or your energy. I pass it back to you and carry none of it with me.
Childhood belief: I feel guilty or shameful for having needs and wants, other people are more important than me.
Coping mechanism learned in childhood: I need to suppress my desires in favor of yours. I should feel bad for having human needs and desires.
How this manifest in adult relationships: Giving to the point of exploitation, surrendering your own identity, making the relationship all about the other person, being other person focused.
Healthy coping mechanism: I am responsible for satisfying my own needs and wants. You are responsible for yours. I am an equal partner in my adult relationships and they are based on respect, fairness and equality.
The common theme in most Codependent, childhood coping mechanisms is a lack of autonomy between the caregiver and the child. There are few to no boundaries, no separation and part of recovery is learning how to have a healthy detachment from those closest to us, especially those that we are in an intimate relationships with.
Healthy detachment means knowing that each of us are responsible for our own thoughts, feelings and behaviors and that we don’t go looking to others to validate us and tell us who we are. It’s about having separate lives and interest outside of our relationships and allowing our partners the same freedoms. It’s about encouraging each other’s growth and not requiring stagnation or sameness in order to feel secure.
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