Codependency For Dummies
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When searching for the cause of codependency, look to your childhood. Children are born vulnerable, full of needs, and dependent on their caretakers for everything. To grow, they need touch as much as food — plus attention, empathy, nurturing, and security. Babies are so dependent on their mothers that they don’t know their bodies are separate.

The mother’s every response or lack of response impacts her child. Because most of her actions are spontaneous and unconscious, who she is psychologically has greater influence than even what she does. For example, the way a mother holds, nurses, and touches her baby communicates her sense of anxiety or security, love or disinterest, impatience or attentiveness. The tone of her voice, facial expression, and tension in her body give her baby information about whether the environment is safe.

Research shows that if the mother is expressionless while talking to her baby, the baby begins to fret. On the other hand, meeting a child’s psychological needs allows the maturation of a secure, vital, and independent Self. When established, it can weather crises and losses, failure and success, and rejection and admiration.

Starting at four to six months and continuing onward, babies must confidently achieve separation from their mothers and establish their own boundaries. They must individuate, which is a long psychological process whereby a child and later young adult becomes an individual and develops a whole Self — an individual who is separate psychologically, cognitively, and emotionally, and owns and trusts his or her perceptions, thoughts, feelings, and memories.

Verbal and nonverbal parental responses either help or hinder this developmental task. Self-confident parents accept their children’s endeavors and striving without fear, pushing, repressing, or competing. To separate and learn self-trust, children must first trust their mothers to reliably meet their needs, including the need to separate. How parents respond determines how effectively their children are able to set boundaries as adults.

Essential empathy

Key to the separation-individuation process and the formation of a healthy Self is the mother’s ability to mirror the child’s feelings. She does this by empathically and intuitively matching her responses to her child’s needs and ever-fluctuating feelings.

She joins in her child’s glee and remains calm and present with her baby’s sadness, containing and diffusing intense feelings. She empathizes, names, and reflects her child’s feelings back accurately, teaching her child to recognize, trust, and respond to his or her internal feelings, perceptions, and thoughts because “all-knowing Mommy” has validated them.

Healthy boundaries prevent a mother from personalizing her child’s feelings. She’s able to acknowledge that her child has perceptions, feelings, and needs different from, and even in conflict with, hers.

Thus, it’s through this matching process that a baby and child feel loved and understood and build a separate, psychological self. To feel safe and secure to express its real self, a child must feel loved as a separate individual by both parents.

The effect of inadequate mirroring

Generally, deficient or inadequate mirroring reflects a mother’s incomplete Self, which is how codependency becomes generational. It results from the mother’s emotional unavailability and lack of empathy. If her toddler cries over a broken toy and she’s preoccupied or dismissive, her child will feel abandoned.

Faulty mirroring can occur even when a mother gives her child an extraordinary amount of attention if it isn’t in response to the child’s particular need but is instead a manifestation of the mother’s need for mirroring that she never received as a child. For instance, a mother may talk excitedly to her baby in a way that’s intrusive or over-stimulating. The mother’s defective mirroring may be caused by her

  • Illness

  • Grief

  • Stress due to external events

  • Mental or emotional deficits, including depression and narcissism

  • Rigid boundaries — she’ll be cold and unable to empathize

  • Weak boundaries — she won’t see her child as separate

Weak boundaries are typical of codependents. The mother’s empathy will be inaccurate because psychologically she sees her child as an extension of herself — as an opportunity for her to feel needed, valuable, important, lovable, and complete. She unconsciously only reinforces her baby’s responses that boost her self-esteem.

When her child is upset, she’s unable to contain and mirror him or her. She may be overwhelmed, frightened, or impatient with her baby’s continuous crying, or feel wounded by her child’s rebellious anger and react by withdrawing or scolding.

With inadequate mirroring, children feel alone and insecure. They learn that their needs, feelings, and thoughts are unimportant, wrong, and shameful. Repeated instances can teach children to repress their needs and feelings and tune in to the mother’s expectations and emotions. They adapt to the environment and develop ideals of who they need to be for survival.

A child’s Self can become organized around withdrawing, caretaking, becoming self-sufficient, aggressive, pleasing, and/or performing for others’ approval in order to feel loved. Instead of developing a strong sense of Self and awareness of needs, feelings, and thoughts, the individual’s worth becomes determined by others.

If a mother is chronically unable to meet a child’s needs, he or she feels lost and abandoned, since there is no object to validate the Self’s existence. The child may become apathetic, depressed, or anxious, later leading to self-stimulating or over-stimulating behavior, such as compulsive masturbation, addiction, or dangerous risk-taking.

Codependent mothers may unconsciously fail to support their children’s emerging drive for independence. Instead, the mothers’ needs and automatic responses cripple their children by keeping them dependent and, consequently, codependent as adults.

On the other hand, mothers who feel burdened by their children’s needs may encourage independence prematurely, overwhelming their child’s limited capacity to manage on his or her own. Their child may feel abandoned, fear separation, and become codependent. With enough faulty maternal interactions, instead of developing a harmonious and vital Self, these children’s emotional functioning becomes distorted.

As adults, they engage in futile and desperate attempts to control and/or please others in order to satisfy their own unidentified needs. Without conscious awareness and empathy with their interior Selves, they treat themselves and others as objects, and being alone or too much intimacy threaten them with nonexistence or dissolution.

About This Article

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About the book author:

Darlene Lancer, JD, LMFT, is a licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in relationships and codependency. Ms. Lancer has counseled individuals and couples for 28 years and coaches internationally. She's a sought-after speaker to professionals at national conferences and in the media.

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