Therapist in Los Angeles
Darren Haber PsyD

A word on
codependence ...

Question: How many co-dependents does it take to change a light bulb?

Answer: I don't know, what do you think?

While the word "co-dependent" is often used pejoratively (as in, "my mother is so co-dependent"), the truth is that we are all a little co-dependent at times; who doesn't want to be well regarded, praised, etc? But what does it mean in a deeper, psychological sense? First off, let's not forget that "co-dependence", like many terms so breezily used, is synonymous with suffering. People who suffer from co-dependence are not weak or defective; in most if not all cases they have, somewhere in their past, been injured by defective caretaking or by someone very close to them, and this injury has impaired their ability to form and maintain healthy, balanced relationships. To suffer co-dependence is to chase a mirage, sometimes to the point of madness.

These primal injuries occur when a basic trust gets broken in childhood; the person is made to feel unsafe, unloved or unworthy by a caretaker (a parent, older sibling, etc). Sometimes we unwittingly threaten or challenge our parents, who react inappropriately and try to squash or censor the "offending" part that they find overwhelming, painful or difficult. For instance, a child may be just a little too truthful, asking his parent why he/she drinks so much or gets angry for no reason. "That's not true, now shut up!" Perhaps the child is a little too energetic, playful or "childish" (sic) for the parent's comfort, and so the child is "punished" accordingly, shamed into silence or inappropriate "maturity". Often the parent also suffers from co-dependence (or from anxiety, depression or another disorder) and her own true self is buried behind a mental callous. The message could not be clearer: stop being yourself and be who I need you to be, or else I'll reject/abandon/emotionally destroy you.

Thus the toxic seed is planted, a warped self-concept born: I'm not okay as I am... unless someone approves. The behavior of approval-seeking or controlling others (to receive their approval or avoid any criticism) becomes habitual, ingrained; an internal command develops to squelch any part of ourselves that might "scare" others away and leave us isolated or abandoned. And what is more frightening than that? We look outside ourselves constantly for affirmation, and beat ourselves mercilessly when it never arrives or is never enough. I'm not okay until you say so, we're always thinking; our core self is not secure. Self-sabotage, self-destruction or abject loneliness are often the outcomes.

Thus our true inner self is injured and then camouflaged by a powerful shame, disgust, or aversion, forcing us to cope by searching desperately for permission to exist, in order to reclaim our basic authenticity. This search can last a lifetime.

The good news is, there is a solution. With patience, faith and diligence, a healing can take place. We can educate ourselves on the process and begin to put the responsibility where it lies: on ourselves alone, in the present moment. We cannot change the past, cannot and could not control anyone else (whose problems are theirs alone to solve), but we can seek out the internal acceptance and self-worth that we deserve, and rediscover our authenticity in the process. What's truly remarkable to me is that the true self is always there, without fail, beneath these ancient wounds. The right to authenticity, to exist as we are, without "revision" imposed on us is, in fact, our birthright. We needn't create this self, or "reinvent" anything... only remove what covers it up, scrub away the dirt and mud to reveal that diamond in the rough. It is never too late to heal, to change, to dig out the authentic core self that urgently awaits within.