Codependents behaviour is learned
Codependency is learned inaccurate information that you’re in some way not enough, that you don’t matter, that your feelings are wrong, or that you don’t deserve respect. These are the false beliefs that most codependents grow up with. They may not have been told these things directly, but have inferred it from behavior and attitudes of family and friends and events. Often these beliefs get handed down for generations. Changing them isn’t easy and is difficult to do on your own, because it’s hard to see others, let alone yourself, through a lens that’s different than the one you grew up with.
Usually, you aren’t conscious of beliefs about yourself. The 19th Century neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, the father of hypnosis, wrote if there were a conflict between the will and unconscious, the unconscious would always prevail. This explains what drives your behavior and why you might fail to carry out your best intentions or act upon what you know is right. Charcot had a great influence on Freud, who studied with him.
People, especially codependents, have many fears and anxieties based upon false ideas about themselves and others. For example, you might think that making a mistake is unacceptable and shameful. You then become anxious about taking risks, trying something new, or expressing your opinion, because you’re afraid of failure or looking foolish. Most don’t realize that they unconsciously believe that they’re unlovable, unlikeable, flawed or somehow inadequate.
Even if they’re aware of these false beliefs, they’re convinced of their truth. As a result, they’re anxious about revealing who they are, and please, control, or impress others so that they’ll be loved and not left alone. Still other codependents withdraw from people, rather than risk rejection. They judge themselves based upon their erroneous beliefs and imagine others are judging them, too. Sometimes, I witness one spouse claim the other is criticizing him or her, when that isn’t the case. In fact, amazingly, this can even happen when the so-called “critical” words are in fact complementary!
The false belief about being unworthy undermines codependents’ self-esteem and security and has serious consequences in their lives. They lack confidence and self-trust, live in doubt, and continually second-guess themselves. Many don’t feel worthy of being in a position of authority or having success, or even happiness. Those that are convinced they’re bad can end up in relationships with people who are emotionally or physically abusive, which reinforces their low self-esteem and make them feel even worse about themselves. At a conscious level, they may be indignant and think that they deserve better, but still they stay and try to get the abuser to approve of them. Some stay because they believe the abuser “loves” them, which helps them overcome their belief that they’re unlovable or that no one else will.
Similarly, many codependents have repeated relationships with men or women who are emotionally, or even physically, unavailable. They don’t feel that they deserve to be loved on a consistent basis. The unconscious belief is that “I have to win someone’s love for it to mean anything.” There may be opportunities for a relationship with someone loving and available, but they’re not interested. Instead they’re excited about someone whose love they have to earn. They have to work for it to count.
When you grow up with the message that you shouldn’t feel a certain way or it’s unsafe to express certain feelings, you start to believe it. An example is being told not to get too excited, being punished for anger, having your distress or sadness ignored. Some shaming parents will tell their child not to cry, “or I’ll give you something to cry about.” As adults, codependents judge and dishonor their feelings. They hide them – sometimes even from themselves after years of suppression. If they don’t believe that it’s all right, Christian, or “spiritual” to feel angry, they may act passive-aggressively, become depressed, or have physical symptoms, unaware of how angry they are. This is destructive to relationships. Some people withhold sex or have affairs because they’re angry, instead of talking about the relationship problems.
Codependents also don’t believe they have rights or that their needs matter, especially emotional needs, such as for appreciation, support, kindness, being understood, and loved. Most will put others’ needs ahead of their own, don’t say “no” because they’re afraid others will criticize or leave them, tugging their underlying belief in being inadequate and unlovable. They often give or do more in relationships or at work for this reason. Self-sacrifice causes codependents to feel unappreciated and resentful. They wonder why they’re unhappy, never thinking it’s because they’re not getting their needs met. Moreover, because often they’re not aware of their needs. If they do know, they can’t ask for what they want. It would feel humiliating. Instead, they don’t take steps to meet their needs and expect others to do so – without disclosing them! These hidden expectations contribute to conflict in relationships.
Change begins with awareness. You can start to become unconscious of your beliefs by paying attention to the way you talk to yourself.
• Start writing down all the negative things you say to yourself.
Often I see clients who are at first unaware of their inner voice, which I call the inner Critic, but after awhile, they discover it’s controlling their moods and actions. This is why I wrote a little ebook, 10 Steps to Self-Esteem: The Ultimate Guide to Stop Self-Criticism.
• Note the gap between your intentions and actions.
• Journal about this discrepancy and your interactions with others.
• Analyze your beliefs motivating your behavior. Ask yourself where your beliefs came from.
Change begins with the belief that you can. When I first began my recovery, my self-esteem and hope were so low that I didn’t believe change was possible. This was reinforced by another myth. Growing up, I heard my mother repeat, “Show me a child of 7, and I’ll show you a man of 70,” which I took this to mean that after 7 years old, I couldn’t change. Actually, new research confirms that personality can change, and many studies show a strong link between personality, well-being, and health. People in 12-Step programs and therapy experience this all the time. Your mind is a powerful, creative gift from God. Learn to use it to work for you, not against you.
©Darlene Lancer 2013
Author of Codependency for Dummies