We hear the term ‘co-dependency’ frequently, but there is a lot of misunderstanding about its meaning. Co-dependency interferes with one’s ability to have healthy, boundaried relationships. It involves an excessive reliance on another person for one’s emotional stability and well-being. It is also related to a fear of abandonment.
While connection is a basic human need, when there is an excessive emotional or psychological dependency on another person, it can mimic an addiction. In fact, many people who become sober find themselves transferring their addiction to a relationship, where co-dependency results.
A co-dependent person has difficulties staying focused on their own needs. They tend to focus their emotional investment and attention on particular people in their lives, feeling overly responsible for them. The person who is co-dependent usually suffers from low self-esteem, difficulties with assertiveness, is prone to depression and anxiety, has difficulties being alone (or not having someone else to focus on), and becomes extremely anxious when they fear someone dislikes them. They usually come from dysfunctional families and have often been victims of abuse, neglect and abandonment. They have difficulty making decisions, have trouble taking from others, feel inadequate, minimize or deny the existence of problems, engage in compulsive behaviors, and look for happiness externally. They also tend to have difficulties with communication, trust and intimacy. They often view themselves as the victim of others’ “endless needs”, but do not recognize their need to play a central role in rescuing.
The origins of co-dependency are in childhood, where the needs of the parent dominated and it was hard for the child to get affirmed, loved and nurtured. These childhoods generally included chaos, uncertainty, manipulation, guilt and shame, including ridigity, excessive punishment, and denial of the existence of any problems. The need for focus on the stability of the parent(s) required that the child put their own needs aside for the purposes of safety. Because love for one’s parents is often closely connected with pain, in adulthood, one believes that pain and anxiety are a necessary feature of love, which makes it hard to recognize abuse and mistreatment when it occurs.
Recovering from co-dependency requires recognition of the problem, motivation for change, and the ability to tolerate the anxiety that comes with psychological and emotional separation from one’s role as the rescuer and caretaker. It requires the ability to set boundaries in one’s relationships and to say no; to fight the impulse to become immersed in others’ crises and problems, and to refocus one’s attention on one’s own interests, needs, friends and family. Ultimately, processing and resolving one’s childhood history will facilitate the understanding of these patterns and development of the necessary skills for self-care, boundaries and overall well-being.
For many people, feelings are scary. This is not something that is necessarily conscious, but it is why people “forget their childhoods”, avoid thinking about difficult subjects, and why relationships can be so difficult. Whilst there are many painful feelings, e.g., fear, helplessness, loneliness, unsafety and panic, one of the most uncomfortable and painful of all is Shame. Shame is a feeling that strikes us at the core. It is visceral. It affects our basic sense of who we are. It makes us feel unworthy, unlovable, deeply flawed and inferior, and wishing we could disappear. Shame is something we don’t talk about very often. It is different from humiliation and embarrassment, and very different from guilt. Shame is the notion that one is bad. Guilt creates anxiety and is related to behavior we exhibit that violates our moral and ethical code. When one feels one is bad, one makes desperate efforts to escape that feeling. This can include addictive behaviors, impulsivity, eating disorders, and projecting it onto others in the form of aggression. (Anger is often a defense against shame). This acting out behavior then reinforces our sense of not being deserving, and of being defective/bad. Shame has also been linked to depression and even suicide.
WHERE DOES SHAME COME FROM
The origins of shame are childhood experiences of rejection, criticism, abandonment, various forms of violation, neglect and abuse. What we all want most of all is to be loved and to belong. To feel connected. We learn how to reach for others before we learn to speak. The templates for how to be in a relationship get created in infancy and early childhood. For the first 10 months of life, in a “good enough” (Winnicott, D., 1953) family, most of what gets communicated to the infant is positive. In toddlerhood, there is a dramatic and rapid increase in negative comments and expressions of frustration on the part of parents. The child has come to expect a joyful response from the parent(s) and instead, receives frequent comments of judgment and criticism. The child shifts from a state of ecstasy to collapse. He/she goes from feeling connected and “in union with” the caregiver to feeling alone. This is very stressful and frightening to a young child. Their biological drive to be loved and feel connected becomes a source of fear and shame. Their basic sense of safety and security is violated. Their fantasy of being securely attached becomes a source of doubt.
Because shame is related to need, the developmental needs of the child become a source of confusion, fear and anxiety. Shame violates the natural bond between mother and child. Because the search for soothing from the parent becomes unsafe, it becomes something to be avoided. The inability to comfortably reach for and receive soothing results in difficulties in the child’s capacity to self-soothe. The shamed child/adolescent begins to shut down and look for soothing elsewhere. In adulthood (and even adolescence), this soothing takes the form of alcohol and other addictions and compulsions. Having toxic shame, one never feels “good enough”. As a result of frequent rejection, dismissiveness or minimization of their basic needs, these children ultimately develop into adolescents and adults who have conflictual feelings about the concept of need, which then translates into conflictual intimate relationships, where needs and their healthy expression are essential. These shame-inducing behaviors towards children have another [mostly unconscious] intent -- to enforce compliance. The repetitive messages of criticism and rejection that one receives in childhood get internalized in the form of self-talk, an inner voice that says over and over that you are not good enough, are unworthy/undeserving, inadequate and defective. The harsh voice of the abusive or neglectful parent becomes one’s own internal dialogue that gets triggered and reinforced constantly via self-talk (again, largely unconscious). Without awareness of this process and its origins, this shame and shaming behavior becomes inter-generational. Many parents, sadly, believe it is an effective way of shaping children’s behavior. This chronic exposure to experiences of shame impacts one’s development, self-esteem/image, relationships, drive, identity, moods, and overall functioning. The stress it creates also increases biological aging.
There are many different theories about shame, some of them are conflicting. However, at the core of many disorders, is shame. If we don’t address it, we miss the boat. The remedy for shame is compassion and empathy within the context of a kind, sensitive, attuned relationship. A safe therapeutic relationship provides the foundation for releasing the wounds of shame. It is hard to have a healthy intimate relationship when one has unresolved shame. Self-love and self-esteem are a prerequisite for a healthy relationship with others. Self-love, which includes kindness, compassion and respect for the self (as opposed to the narcissistic form of self-love), develops through forgiveness of the self for the violations and abuse we suffered at the hands of others (i.e., recognizing it was not our fault), and living in a way that makes us feel proud, e.g., engaging in acts of kindness, compassion and generosity. After all, what warrants rejection, shaming and criticism of a toddler or young child? Mindfulness is also important in healing. Meditation reduces stress, facilitates emotional and mental health, helps fight addictions, fosters self-love, forgiveness and self-acceptance, and modifies the pathways of age-related illness. In therapy, those triggering memories get activated and, in the context of a safe, supportive and compassionate environment/relationship, have the opportunity to get examined, understood and healed. In the course of therapy, we come to recognize that we have internalized someone else’s difficulties coping, unresolved histories, and lack of understanding/capacity, and we can begin to separate from those messages from who we truly are, and grieve for the child who was the helpless recipient of those projections.
Have you ever wondered why you can meet someone and "know" instantly that you're attracted to them? You feel your heart pound, butterflies in your stomach, and an intense desire to 'make something happen'. This is the power of our unconscious. Our unconscious drives us. We are unable to say, in that moment, exactly what it is that draws us to that person. It is overwhelming, an overpowering combination of sensations that have no words.
What is our unconscious? It is a compilation of dynamics, processes, beliefs, attitudes, suppressed memories and feelings. We don't have access to our unconscious (which is what makes it unconscious). We are unable to think about our unconscious mind. This is what makes it so difficult to understand our reactions, feelings and motivations, and attachments to those who hurt us.
Childhood experiences provide the foundation for adult functioning, including selection of partners and the way in which these relationships play out. For those lucky enough to have had emotionally and psychologically healthy parents who understood their own trauma histories and the effects those experiences had on their development, those parents are in a good position to be able to meet the needs of their developing child. Sadly, many are unaware of the effects of their childhood; they either minimize, deny or rationalize their impacts. Despite their best efforts, the behavioral manifestations of that lack of awareness and resolution of those wounds get projected onto their children. Children, being entirely dependent on their parents to provide an accurate reflection of who they are, readily absorb these projections, which ultimately get internalized in the form of self-esteem and self-image. As children continue to develop, these projections and internalizations continue, and become increasingly cemented over time. The result is a set of beliefs, rules, expectations, perceptions, judgments, attitudes and feelings about the self and others. This is all unconscious.
At the outset of a romantic relationship, we are ecstatic, full of hope, desire and fantasy. Fears and dread slowly emerge when we begin to see the 'other' as a real person. All of those internalized expectations, rules (about how one should behave in any given situation) and judgments unfold, as does our anxiety and fear that we will be hurt. This then is the current version of a very old experience of need, hope and longing, and dread of retraumatization (in the form of rejection, abandonment and betrayal). The past is now alive and well in the present. However, given our lack of awareness of our unconscious processes, we become overwhelmed with feelings and thoughts that we recognize (hopefully), on some level, don't necessarily make sense.
This is where relationships can either be healing or retraumatizing. Healing if both parties are interested in introspection, developing self-awareness, and are motivated to "own their 50%" and understand the reality of what is occurring in the present moment. All too often, retraumatization occurs. It comes in the form of projection and reactions to perceived criticism, judgment, and rejection. Without awareness of how our early history has influenced our interpretation of behaviors, there is a great likelihood of a distorted perception and an over-determined response (a reaction based on an early traumatic experience that has been triggered in our unconscious). One can see how this can easily result in a spiral of mutual accusations and/or retreat.
The only way out of this mass of confusion and mutual wounding is to develop self-awareness, examine our childhood histories and the wounds they created, understand those defenses we have developed to cope and protect ourselves, build the "muscles" to tolerate our feelings, learn the language of effective communication and the skills for resolving relational conflict. This process is empowering, liberating, and ultimately can result in the type of intimacy we long for.
Living in Los Angeles, I’ve had the opportunity to witness the anguish and despair of countless celebrities who have acquired fame and fortune, but at the expense of a personal identity and sense of self. These beautiful, powerful and alluring individuals often live in the shadows, having to hide from the world and live a life in secret where others can often not be trusted, where their value is dependent on their [often unpredictable opportunities for] success, where loyalties are questioned, and where the opportunity for simply “being” is out of reach.
Whilst most people envy the lives of the rich and famous, what is lost is an understanding of the profound loneliness, anxiety, despair, and pressure that is too often the consequence of this lifestyle. For these individuals, help and support is a complicated and often prohibitive process. Because of the fear of exposure and the devastating personal and professional consequences that can result, relief often comes in the form of drugs and alcohol, or other maladaptive forms of coping. The fear of judgment, blacklisting, public humiliation and image destruction that accompanies exposure leaves one few choices but to attempt to simply live with the pain. The ultimate consequence of trying to “manage” is an exacerbation of symptoms, including alienation from the “self who once was”.
Identity is a vital aspect of development from infancy through later adulthood. Satisfaction often accompanies a sense that one’s life has constituted meaning, fulfillment, connection, and purpose. The demands of a public life can rob one of the capacity for wholeness and balance, and create a shift in values (the process of which is frequently unconscious). One of the most gratifying emotional experiences is to be ‘seen’, truly known, understood and accepted. The life of celebrity, focusing largely on performance, public image, secrecy and “management” of the facts, deprives one of this opportunity. Freedom is lost. Spontaneity is lost. A sense of ‘owning oneself’ is lost. Privacy is lost. Hypervigilance, anxiety, fear and self-doubt takes over. The combination of all of these factors leave many celebrities with regret about the path they chose, or the path that was chosen for them, which is often the case.
What we, as a society, can do is to recognize our own projections, our own need to idealize, glorify and romanticize celebrities, and the functions these projections serve. After all, when we learn that a celebrity has fallen, our disappointment and anger is only a function of the needs and longings we have projected onto them. If that were not so, why would we feel so devastated to learn that they are human?