Inside every codependent is a child, who has been mistreated, ignored, hurt, humiliated, frightened, shamed, or abused by parents, who were themselves mistreated, ignored, shamed and abused by their parents. When we were children we did what we knew how to do, in order to survive and to get our needs met. It is this same child that created how we cope, how we react and how we feel about ourselves. It is this child that has been running our lives as adults.
“Codependency is a dysfunctional relationship with the self”, says Robert Burney, author of Dance of the Wounded Soul. It is the belief that there is something fundamentally wrong with us, wrong with being human, wrong with being who we are.
I joined Facebook in 2008 and I became friends with a woman I went to high school with. She was a plain Jane, socially awkward, didn’t wear make-up, her hair was an ugly brown, frizzy and always dry looking, she dressed like a frumpy country girl and would likely fall over in a pair of heels, yet I looked at pictures of her husband and I was like, ‘Damn girl, how the hell did you land that?’
I remember thinking, ‘I’m smarter, more educated, more attractive, have better style, I’m sexier, have a better job, I’m outgoing, funny and the life of the party … what the hell? This girl was a wallflower and walked like a duck.’
What took me a long, long time to figure out, which is at the core of the disease of codependency, is that the difference between her and I was that she was okay with who she was – I was not. I was imperfect, flawed and I believed that only perfect people deserved things. I wasn’t worthy. That was my energy, what I was sending out to the universe. I wore make-up at 20 to hide flaws in my flawless 20 year old skin. Even in my youth there were so many things about myself that I needed to hide. My hair had some curl to it, so I had to use tons of product and straightening irons to make it perfect – damaging it in the process. I was chubby so certain styles and colors were out and yet despite all my efforts to look good I still never felt comfortable in my own skin.
One year when I was at the cottage of my long-term Narcissist, we were joined by his brother and girlfriend. She was pair shaped and had massive legs. They were abnormally large and cottage cheesy, because she was taking some kind of steroid medication for an illness. She put on a bathing suit and had a great time swimming in the lake. Man I wanted to swim so badly, but shame kept me from exposing my imperfect body in a bathing suit. Being imperfect was okay for her, she didn’t care, but I could never do it. I could not endure the shame of exposing my chubby body to the world. Fearing the shame and ridicule kept me from living my life, kept me from enjoying and participating in the things that make life worth living.
This is how codependency works. The child in me feared the humiliation that would follow any behavior that would make me stand out and expose my lack of perfectness. Even though I was in my twenties, the fears of the child were still how I was reacting to life.
Healing the Inner Child
That inner child in me needed to be heard. She needed a voice. I had to release her, cherish her and give her all of the love that I was denied, but just as importantly, I needed to teach myself healthy, adult ways of coping with the stress and obstacles that appear in life. It was time to heal this child and stop her from controlling my life.
Detachment is a big buzz word in codependency. It’s mostly used to describe the process codependents must take to step away from their alcoholic partners. In inner child healing, the person you need to detach from is yourself.
We need to start noticing how we are reacting to our environment and the people in it. We need to become the observer, “detach” ourselves from the situation and be mindful of how we are reacting. We need to ask ourselves,”Where is this behavior coming from? What is it that I’m reacting to? Can I trace this back to childhood fears, feelings and experiences? Is this a behavior pattern of mine?”
Burney tells us, when we can open up this dialogue and bring it to our awareness, then we can start to see how the hurt child is still controlling us, how we are still reacting the same way we did when we were that scared 7 year old girl or boy. Only then can we focus on recovery and we can begin to start reprogramming our defenses. When we detach we can notice and then stop listening to that inner critic that keeps telling us that we aren’t good enough and who always finds a way to sabotage us when things are going good.
A few years ago I worked in an office where no joke or put down was off limits and after being the recipient of a fantastic burn by my colleagues I had copied and pasted a picture of one of them, that was famous for his insults and cut ups, beside a picture of George Michael. The resemblance was uncanny, everyone laughed, everyone of course except the subject of the joke. When he saw it he made a b-line straight for my office and let me have it. He was vicious. I internalized his rage. I was clearly in the wrong. I thought that there must be something wrong with me for not understanding where the line was. I felt lower than low. He stormed out and I wondered if he’d ever speak to me again.
Then something amazing happened – the observer came out and said, “Now hold on. Wait just a minute here. This guy cuts everybody up and pulls no punches, but when he’s the recipient suddenly the rules change? Suddenly there’s a line?” What I discovered is that the problem isn’t that I went too far, the problem is this guy is a massive homophobe and being compared to a gay man really struck a nerve. My intent was to make fun of the physical resemblance and it didn’t have anything to do with George Michael’s sexual preferences. So the problem wasn’t even mine, it was all about his fears, prejudices and insecurities.
By detaching from the situation and my feelings about it, I was able to see it a little more clearly. I didn’t take all the responsibility and blame for how someone was behaving, or for their feelings, or moods. I was able to stop the child in me from reacting how I always did and realized it was his problem, not mine. I didn’t internalize his anger, instead I passed it back and went about my business.
The good news about codependency is that there is a very real recovery process. It’s a slow progression and it begins by realizing that the hurt child in you has been running the show all this time. He or she has been in control of your coping mechanisms, how you think, and how you act and react. Healing is about detaching from your reactional behavior and recognizing that your defense mechanisms, that you are using right now, were created by a child and are no longer viable in adulthood. It’s about taking a step back and analyzing each situation as a healthy adult would and dealing with it accordingly.
But mostly, recovery is about learning to accept who you are, warts and all and knowing that you are not flawed, or broken, that you are you and that’s exactly who you’re supposed to be. Nobody else knows how to be you, as perfectly as you do.
What I learned from my high school friend was that the most beautiful people in the world accept themselves unconditionally, that beauty doesn’t come from make-up, clothes or high heels, it comes from being comfortable in your own skin. It’s about accepting yourself just the way you are and not being anxious about being what you’re not. That’s what sexy is.
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Savannah, this is really awesome stuff. I can’t thank you enough. I’ve gone a whole year no contact – and was doing great. He just came back into my life and it’s like an emotional tornado came through my life. I thought I was over a lot of this stuff but clearly still some residual pain I have to deal with. Your blog has helped me tremendously! You have shined the light in a dark place for me so thank you x 1000!!
Also, I know there are a lot of negative feelings and comments towards narc’s – but as of this moment, I really feel like these people (my mother and ex-boyfriend) have made me such a stronger person, that I feel grateful to them – just as I feel grateful for people like you who help us move on.
Sending you love!
Savannah, My counselor has been pushing this on me for months. I had actually come to resent it and my inner child for my distress. But seeing it again from this new perspective is making me realize I need to more than ever to redouble my effort to love that child and stop letting is control me and lead me back into narcissistic relationships. I can see that I have been able to step back at times and be aware. Yet oddly in my last relationship I had been having a hard time realizing she had her issues that had nothing to do with me. The child that feared being left alone took over. The over doer needed the salve of a new relationship. I am in a hard place. I like dating, I like meeting new people and new women . I feel its important in order to know what to avoid as well as what to look for. I did wait but I’m wonder if it was long enough? Still I have a good life with plenty I do for my own well being and enjoyment. I enjoy my singleness. My problem was with letting the end of my last relationship reflect my own sense of personal worth. Bad mistake I have finally recognized. Loving myself has always been a hit and miss. Like you i was uncomfortable in my skin.But I learned to become who I saw myself as. I lost weight began to excercise and eat better for myself. I know how to live as a single . But it doesn’t mean i don’t enjoy the company of a woman, a partner and a friend. These articles are helping me to realign myself again to where i was before my last relationship. I hope I’ve learned enough to not get tripped up . Time will tell. Philip.
Am confused and also am analytical: If this is true:”But mostly, recovery is about learning to accept who you are, warts and all and knowing that you are not flawed, or broken, that you are you and that’s exactly who you’re supposed to be. Nobody else knows how to be you, as perfectly as you do.”
shouldn’t I accept my co-dependency issues as part of me?
Marie your codependency issues are exactly what stops you from accepting yourself. Codependency at it’s core is a dysfunctional relationship with the self. You can’t accept yourself when your impairment stops you from accepting yourself.
I have often thought about Marie Med’s post. At 49 years of age, is it really worth digging up my childhood memories to finally “fix” myself?! Is inner child work something I can do on my own or do I need to have a coach/psychologist to guide the process?
I’ve been trying to get rid of negative obsessive thoughts and (as you know) you can’t go forward without taking care of that child. Detachment — a very useful, take away idea that I do use, but now I know why. I usually use detachment in order to see the funny side of unpleasant situations. As a teacher, I have a huge mount of funny situations to draw on. I also realize that even though I feel really low, I have a lot of “high” energy. I need to keep reminding myself about that.
Great read, Sav! Can I call you Sav? It’s been a while since I’ve been around, but really appreciate all that you are sharing. Spot on as usual. Again, I can’t help but to see almost a clone of a narcissist in codependents.
Thank you so much for your always very helpful posts. I am one of those women that have had a nice and tidy childhood on the surface.. but the work of figuring out what really happened between underneath has started.
I sometimes find myself feeling guilty to my parents cause they really are kind and loving. I just think they sometimes didn’t know what Messages they unconsciously send to my sister and me. She is battleing depression .
Btw, do you have a post about having children with an ex N?
After my Divorce from a huge N, I moved back to my home town and started to relive my rotten childhood with so many bad memories from seeing my old house, school, city, etc…it became a crippling kind of PTSD episode that made me unable to go out and find a job and function normally.
My self worth was so bad, I didn’t even want to look anyone in the eye or go to the grocery store.
I had a lot of self help books, I bought several spiral notebooks, and would write down anything that gave me an ahha moment. Then I would reread them at low times(daily!).
The one book, Dr Phil’s Life Strategies, was amazing. How he dissected my crummy childhood and all my bad experiences and turned it around to change my thinking about it all. It took me weeks to go through it, writing answers to his questions, learning about myself, helping me to step over it.
II wasn’t cured, but it picked me up by mybootstraps enough to take action and go get a job.
I was blessed with a fun easy job until I could move on to a harder better paying job. And now, I’m no longer trying to get a guy to love me. I’m loving myself. I still struggle with depression, but I try to recognize it and do something before it takes over.
I’m still a mess, but not as much of a mess.
God Bless you all, and keep going.
My husband literally does not see one physical imperfection in me, and tells me I’m beautiful. I always think to myself that he is the only man on the planet who would think that of me; that my physical imperfections would repel other men. I am getting slightly better with my self-image, but not much. This is a really tough thing to overcome. I’m married 33 years, and I was never able to wear a bathing suit in front of my husband’s family, even when I was young and had the shape of a Playboy bunny. I thought I was too hideous. I’m working on believing that I’m beautiful just the way I am, flaws and all. Thank you for talking about this.
I grew up under a microscope with both of my parents. My hair was too big, my clothes were too tight, my makeup was too dark, I was laughed at when I didn’t understand something and called an airhead….the list goes on! I was captain of the cheerleading squad, star in the school play, I was in the homecoming court, I was in the honor society, obtained a bachelors degree and landed a great job in education. But still…..here I was….always being judged and ridiculed! There were times my parents told me they were proud and thought I was great but the criticism and judging always out weighed that!
I’m now 43, I’m a single mom raising 3 boys. I maintain a good job and although I’m proud of how far I’ve come after leaving my narcissist husband my father still criticizes my looks! After reading this I realize that avoiding him doesn’t help (plus he is 84 and I don’t want to live however long he has left, avoiding him and creating an unpleasant environment) but that I should work on not allowing the things he says to bother me! A hard task but doable! Wish me luck and thank you!!
I am in a similar situation with my mother who is also 84, but I decided not to visit her this year. I talk on the phone sometimes (and she still throws subtle zingers), but why should I try to meet her expectations anymore? First I stopped trying to please my narcissistic husband; now I have stopped trying to please my narcissistic mother. I am done playing the role of pleasing her. Done. It occurred to me last week when I realized that not only did I not want to visit her for an afternoon, but I didn’t even want to spend an hour with her. Not even 5 minutes. So I’m doing the ultimate un-pleasing: not visiting. Why not? Why not draw the line where I want it?
This rings SO true for me. After my n left me the pain it unearthed was very deep. This man marrying me and taking care of me was supposed to heal me of all my wounds and ‘make up’ for all the wrongs done to me by–well…every man ever! When he bailed, I was shattered. I mean, really, really not ok, unable to talk or think about anything else, running from therapist to therapist and wearing out all my friends with my volcanic pain that would not stop erupting from me. A lifetime of repressed pain came out and there was nothing I could do but deal with it. The work was slow and day by day I learned to re-parent and heal that neglected little girl who was starving for male acceptance, compliments, affection etc because it had been so badly denied me in childhood. I thought I was was ‘over it’ because I was a strong beautiful successful woman, but I wasn’t. The fact that I was strong, and beautiful and successful but he STILL DIDNT WANT ME made me feel like there was not only ‘something wrong with me’ but something REALLY REALLY REALLY wrong with me. Like as in wrong with the fabric of me, my soul, my essence. I too looked at women with saddlebags and fried hair walking down the street arm in arm with their beloved and wondered how they ever attracted wonderful men. I also knew women who were ‘bitches’ to their men and somehow managed to get married being that way. I totally get it now. The answer is very simple. They think they are worth it. They believe they are worthy of love and so they do not stay with men who mistreat them, and probably don’t even start up with men like that. The good news is, it can be learned!! I have gained 6 lbs, wear workout clothes to run errands rather than get all dressed up, have ditched negative friends, and have a caring boyfriend who takes great care of me and my two kids. I love him, but I know I can live without him and will survive if things don’t turn out. I will never again be dependent on a man to tell me I am lovable, because I can honestly tell myself that now, and believe it.
Thanks for another success story of working through the abuse and neglect. I am working on it now.
I am fairly new to all this . I am realizing a lot of things from you. I still don’t get a lot of it either. The articles that I have read so far are so scary. I actually thought that maybe you were writing about me. This article talks about our inner child. I just started taking notes so I can look back and try to understand why I am like I am with this person.I am still involved with him in a sense. I can’t let go. I never thought of myself as a co dependant. I thought I had a good childhood. But I sit back and try to think what happened and I cannot think of anything that hits me. But I think I need to just try not to think of anything traumatic but maybe the little things. I have a lot to work on. And I am so glad to find you. F I r once I might be able to see things from a different point of view. I don’t know if I made any sense I just am glad I found this site. Maybe there is help for me.
Thank you for this amazing article and I appreciate the previous comment from the Cowboy!. It’s nice to get another perspective on thus struggle I have gone through. I am 30 now and still discovering my inner child and the neglect I lived with. Time to heal and move forward. Thanks again
Wow – another article that is so well done and so spot on. At 62 I still struggle with this but continue to work at it and pray things will improve. Thanks so much for sharing this and for all you do!
You always say something useful in your posts, but today you have really gotten to the heart of why so many of us were ripe for victimization by narcissists (and other unhealthy people).
Many of us came to feel inadequate, shameful, “less than”, as children. It usually happens as the result of abuse; the most common form of abuse is neglect. (Yes, to neglect a child is just as much a form of abuse as to strike or belittle a child.)
So as you say, we learned — very early, and at a very deep level in our psyches — that something was bad or wrong about us. That other people were more than us. More beautiful, more intelligent, more “with it,” more worthy.
Keeping others happy was our refuge and our escape. We put their needs ahead of ours, to keep ourselves safe and to get the external approval we should have been giving ourselves. We looked “outside” for the affirmation we should have been giving “inside.”
I so identified with what you said about your younger self. I look back at pictures, there is this tall, handsome, athletic fellow; many women showed interest but I just could not see how much I had to offer, I felt less than and so was unable to understand my own worth. I ended up with women who just sort of forced themselves into my life, whether they were the best fit for me to not. Many had issues (needy, etc. – thus the “forcing” into my life), and if I had been on the lookout for myself I would have been on guard. But anyone who showed a lot of interest got my interest in return, because I felt fortunate that anyone would notice me.
Same with my career. Feeling less than fueled an intense desire for achievement. Fancy degrees and accolades followed, but I never really felt comfortable. How I felt on the inside did not match my success on the outside.
Enter the great teacher, the narcissist. She taught me a lot: about how cruel people can be, about how I should trust my gut instincts. But mostly, how I absolutely and desperately needed to re-parent my wounded inner child if I wanted to avoid this kind of pain in the future. She pierced through my denial and showed me how damaged I was so I could get to work on myself.
And re-parenting is what I did, what I am doing. I learned to talk to that hurt person, that damaged and very scared little child. Learned how to comfort him. I “regressed” in order to directly speak with him: watched kids movies, listened to kids music (Rafi is my favorite!), generally went back and healed the original wounds. I found I needed time in contact with that small child in order to heal him. I said to myself many many times, the grownup me speaking directly to him: “You are safe. I am here.” Spirituality entered into it to as I discovered a higher power who always loved that little child.
And it is working! I feel much more confident and much more in touch with my real self. No future N will be able to manipulate me because I know I deserve better — and I know how to soothe the fears of that little guy who is afraid of losing people or of other people’s reactions.
This is the core stuff for many of us Savannah. Thanks for calling attention to it.
Absolutely. I am finally in touch with that wounded child. Letting my anger out, moving back in time to the little me. Crying and crying. The lonely, empty child, her life shattered, having nothing. I believe for certain that is the true source of my troubles and I am feeling, and me as an adult going back and comforting. It is good work.
free at last –
You are so right, it is good work. It is in fact essential. For a year or more I grieved all sorts of things I did not realize had been stored up inside for so long. I also dealt with panic feelings, fear, anxiety, heaviness, loneliness — all carried feelings from long ago. I really have come to believe that if we do not take time out to process these feelings — to really FEEL them fully, for as long as they take to express themselves — they will continue to rule us covertly. By getting them out we finally heal them and resolve them and take away their power to silently run our lives. With the hurt child finally listened to and attended to, our adult selves can finally take over completely. So we are no longer victims of the past abuse, and we no longer hurt others out of our pain and neediness.
This is why I never miss you early Mondays. I believe you have unraveled these things for yourself and can really show us a way. I am choosing more accomplished people who do not have true neurotic home or work life situations now. I thought I was being eclectic but that is not the whole truth. I want to surround myself with what I want for myself. Doers, not victims and complainers. I am very successful in my vocation which is my dream fulfilled. I have a lovely spouse.Comparing them to someone who only seems better but was a fraud was a very startling experience. I just read about what a writer called a demon like psychic connection one can have with these. That connection was emitting from their side. I want nothing to do with demented or demonic agents . I know it is FAIL and death, empty and FINITE. Living close t this person it has bee striking at how we would end up coming to this building from any former environment even when there was a 6 hour travel back here. On the exact minute of the day. I was able to duck them often. I guess my ANGELS (we get 2 you know)…..They protected me and I was able to avoid or abbreviate the event. I just learned this about having 2 not one guardian Angel. I do not wish to sound too spooky here. It is after all just SUPER natural just everyday stuff. I choose the light. I wish to be in the light of truth and not the dark side. YOU are such a good ,,no Great example of this Savannah and really quite generous. My Mother was a very pretty MESS and she did not mind that I would also be one. SAD God will ask her about this.
This article is right on point!!! Bravo.
Explains me to a T. Still at 34, I am traumatized by my childhood and an abusive marriage. I also get anxiety during the holidays because I know I am going to see family from my childhood. But, articles like these certainly give me piece of mind to not internalize the bullshit and to react as my hurt child did.
Thank you so much!
Fabulous article – and one I can relate to so well.
I appreciate you, and the time you spend writing these articles