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Codependency is an unequivocally complex topic within the field of mental health. Opinions vary drastically among clinicians regarding the construct’s origin, definition, and prevalence.

Those adhering to this perspective suggest that 96% of Americans exhibit codependent features and do not believe it is aberrant or worthy of treatment.

Conversely, those who support the use of therapeutic models to address codependency argue that associated behavior patterns are dysfunctional and cause great suffering, regardless of how common it may be.

Codependency versus Individualism

In other words, ubiquitous conditions are not necessarily HEALTHY. For example, 83% of Americans eat fast food weekly. Although common, most healthcare providers would certainly advise against it! For this reason, proponents label codependency a societal problem; a condition encouraged throughout Western culture.

In our society, great emphasis is placed on helicopter parenting, intimate partner enmeshment, unrealistic body image, materialism, workaholism, and perfectionism at large.

When met with conflicting Western values related to individualism, it’s no small wonder that many demonstrate codependent traits. And despite the inordinate controversy related to this subject, many individuals who identify as codependent enter recovery and discover peace and serenity through treatment. 

Let's unpack the root of codependency

Pia Mellody’s Post-Induction Therapy is one such framework which aims to address the causes and conditions of codependency.

According to Mellody’s model, codependency is a condition which causes individuals to look to external references for self-worth and validation.

In other words, codependency is a relationship problem, however, the problem is not the relationship that one experiences with another person. Rather, the problem lies in the relationship that one has with the self.

A recent study by Bacon et al. (2018) expounds this point. The researchers suggest that the lack of personal identity is caused by issues related to early childhood experiences of abandonment and control, which foster an enduring pattern of emotional, relational, and occupational imbalance.

Pia Mellody’s model speaks to Bacon et al.’s (2018) research. She believes that codependency results from “less-than-nurturing” or abusive relationships in childhood, particularly those involving caregivers. She notes that all children are valuable, vulnerable, imperfect, dependent, and immature.

When incidents occur that disrupt congruence related to these attributes, five core symptoms begin to develop.

Five Core Symptoms of Codependency

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Difficulty Experiencing Appropriate Levels of Self- Esteem

Codependents either believe they are more or less valuable than other people. In fact, they often vacillate between moments of superiority and shame just as they were praised and criticized in childhood. Mellody calls this dynamic the development of “other” esteem rather than self-esteem. Children who could “do no wrong” in certain areas of functioning tend to believe they are “better-than” others, while children who were consistently disparaged tend to feel “less-than”. Even more complicated symptomatology occurs when a child is praised in one area of functioning but disparaged in another. For example, perhaps a child consistently received messages indicating they are physically attractive but stupid. As a result, the adult child will likely experience high levels of self-esteem by way of appearance, but low levels of self-esteem regarding intelligence and competence.

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Difficulty Setting Functional Boundaries

Given then natural state of vulnerability that exists among children, they are highly influenced by the dynamics that take place within their family and social systems. Some children are raised in environments which lack boundaries altogether leading to adult behaviors such as controlling, managing, and enmeshment. Others are raised in environments with ironclad walls of detachment. Sometimes, these phenomena occur simultaneously in different areas of functioning. For example, caregivers may be overprotective and overly involved in personal affairs yet lack the ability to express emotion. This tends to leave the adult child either too vulnerable with no understanding of boundaries in relationships, invulnerable with rigid boundaries, or some combination of the two extremes.

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Difficulty Owning and Expressing Their Adult Wants and Needs

Children are born imperfect, however, the messaging they often receive is quite different. They are raised in environments where caregivers maintain certain behavioral and attitudinal expectations that are unrealistic. Given their reliance upon others to determine their value, they develop an unclear sense of self and lack authentic purpose. They begin to see things as either good and bad often strive to be perfect, and rebel after deciding they will never live up to the unrealistic expectations placed upon them. Often, codependents oscillate between these two extreme forms of thinking.

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Difficulty Taking Care of Their Adult Wants and Needs

Naturally, children are born dependent upon caregivers for survival. When children are constantly catered to, they are receiving covert messages that are incapable of handling life challenges alone or with any efficiency. Thus, they become overly dependent upon others. Likewise, when children are forced to grow up quickly and fend for themselves, they become anti-dependent. Finally, children who are forced to care for their own caregivers often find themselves needless and wantless.

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Difficulty Qwning and Expressing Their Own Reality Moderately

To cope with the preceding symptoms, codependents often attempt to control or micromanage those around them. When these attempts do not work out as planned, immature, chaotic, and controlling reactions follow.

References:

Bacon, I., McKay, E., Frances, R., & McIntyre, A. (2018). The lived experience of codependency: An interpretative phenomenological analysis. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 18, 754-771. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11469-018-9983-8

Mellody, P., Miller, A. W., & Miller, K. (1989). Facing Codependence: What it is, where it comes from, and how it sabotages our lives. Harper Collins.

Meet The Author

LAUREN BAKER

MS, LAC, NCC

Meet The Author

Lauren is a Clinical Therapist at Sea Glass Mental Health. She works with teens, adults and couples. Lauren specializes in codependency, trauma, domestic violence, anxiety, and perfectionism.

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