Co-dependence is best defined as the human condition of lost selfhood, where our lived experience is one of focusing outside of ourselves for our identity because our true self has gone into hiding. In our co-dependent patterns of being, we are dependent on something or someone outside of ourselves to validate our sense of self. It could be a significant other (a spouse, our children, a parent) or a particular activity, habit, compulsion or addiction. Our daily experience is one of being overly attached to something or someone for our well-being.
The origins of co-dependence
We learn co-dependent ways of being very early in our lives, as a way of coping with the inadequate validation of our true selves and the concomitant pain. This process of psychological wounding is an unconscious one. Generally, parents do not intentionally wound their children. With the vulnerable true self submerged in the unconscious out of fear of further wounding, the child inadvertently begins to seek esteem outside of the self. His inner dialogue might be: “I am starting to get a sense of how they want me to be. Okay, so if I am really good (as defined by the parents worldview), then they will approve of me. Let me rather look to them for the cues on how to be, than consult the inner cues of my feelings, observations and perceptions.” And so begins the co-dependent patterns. The child’s experience of esteem is now dependent on whether the parent approves or disapproves of the child being in a particular way. These patterns continue throughout our growing up years into our adulthood. We continue to experience significant others in our lives as having more influence over our esteem, than we do ourselves. How they feel toward us, gains an overriding importance. We begin to attend to them more than we attend to ourselves.
The manifestations of co-dependence
As a child, we have no option but to pursue co-dependent ways of being. We are too vulnerable and too dependent on others for our survival. Now as adults, we ought to outgrow co-dependency, but we don’t. The ego has been indoctrinated and totally convinced of this worldview. It is driven to keep the pain and vulnerability of the true self out of our consciousness, the result being that the true self remains hidden within us.
As adults then, even though we are realistically less vulnerable than children, events in our daily lives can still trigger emotions associated with vulnerability. These are the emotions of the wounded true self, those emotions first felt in childhood, which are now re-experienced. It is as though the ego knows this possibility, and continues with its co-dependent agenda in order to keep a safe distance from the true self, with its woundedness. If these co-dependent patterns are not too exhausting or too destructive, with some secondary gain experienced, we continue to pursue them unquestioningly. However, when these patterns are rendering our lives and our relationships chaotic, when they cause us an excessive amount of unnecessary discomfort, we come face to face with the futility of co-dependence.
Identifying co-dependence in our relationships
Co-dependence is most readily identifiable in our relationships with others, particularly the more intimate ones. Below is a check list that can help us recognise co-dependent patterns of relating.
- My good feelings about who I am stem predominantly from being liked by you and receiving approval from you.
- When you are struggling, my serenity is affected. I then focus my mental attention on solving your problems. My focus becomes being in a way that might relieve your pain.
- I notice my mental attention being dominated by thoughts of pleasing you and gaining your affirmation.
- I’m not really sure what I want or desire, but I have clarity on what you want and desire from me.
- I am not always aware of how I feel. But I am very conscious how you are feeling at any given moment.
- If I am not aware of something about you (your needs, desires, feelings, thoughts, beliefs), I assume, and act from that assumption. I don’t ask or verify it in some other way.
- My fear of your anger and rejection determines what I say or do.
- In our relationship, I use giving as a way of feeling secure with you.
- As I involve myself with you, my social circle diminishes.
- To connect with you, I put my values aside.
- I notice that in your presence I feel anxious, uncertain as to whether I am acceptable to you.
Co-dependence and selfishness
In addressing our co-dependent ways of relating, we can encounter some unexpected and undue resistance at times. Remember that co-dependence is marked by us focusing outside of ourselves for our identity. We attend more to the other person, the project, the work place, the possessions, the family, than to ourselves. There can at times be expectation from others that we indeed do that. Changing our ways can evoke disappointment and anger in others who are co-dependently linked to us, and their co-dependence is characterized by enabling us to sustain our own patterns. This fit between the co-dependent needs of both parties establishes a status quo in the relationship, with little chance of the relationship deepening. We enable each other to continue in our co-dependent ways by the predictable way in which we respond to each other.
It is not uncommon that we can be labeled as “selfish” by others when they are no longer the recipients of our previous co-dependent ways. It does become a time of discernment for us, as we grow in awareness of the motivations that have been prompting our particular ways of being up to this moment in our lives. It is apparent to us that our previous ways of relating were fraught with mixed motivations and were far from a picture of pure altruism.
The distinction between moving away from co-dependent patterns and selfishness lies in our inner motivation and is something which only the individual can ascertain. Why are we doing what we doing? What is motivating us to do what we doing? This is the crucial question.