Talking about one’s family-of-origin, which is the family you were born into, is often a topic of discussion during counseling. Our family-of-origin has a tremendous impact on how we feel about ourselves, and how we interact with others. Our childhood experiences stay with us for a life-time, for better or for worse. Ideally, we have a warm and nurturing upbringing, experience unconditional love, form fond memories, and develop a positive self-image, high self-esteem and a sense of self-worth. In healthy families mistakes are made, as to err is human, but repairs, i.e. apologies and discussions, are made to heal and move forward. There simply is no such thing as a perfect parent. This is due to the fact that all humans are fallible, and that life circumstances, perhaps a death in the family, or an illness will temporarily curtail a person’s parenting ability. Children can pull though such adversity without lingering effects if the parents continue to show unconditional love for their children.
Realistically speaking, many people come from what counselor’s call “dysfunctional” families. The most obvious dysfunctions are: verbal, physical or sexual abuse. Then there are other issues, such as being overprotective, or neglectful; loving conditionally rather than unconditionally; not letting a child grow up, or parentifying the child; and humiliating and shaming the child. At times unhealthy parenting is due chronic and debilitating illness, chemical or behavioral addictions, or due to the experiences the parents had during their own childhood. Children look to their parents to learn about their adult roles as men and women, as husbands and wives, and fathers and mothers. So when there is significant family dysfunction, children grow up with a distorted view of their adult roles and associated behaviors. The cycle of dysfunction is perpetuated when children from dysfunctional families recreate the dynamics of their childhood in their relationships with others.
- Dysfunctional families can have the following characteristics:
- Family members deny problems exist
- Do not communicate about problems
- Family members repress feelings and disregard their own needs
- Use behaviors to deny, avoid, and ignore difficult emotions
- Don’t talk, trust, touch, confront, and feel
Counselors often meet with clients who have grown up in dysfunctional families. Many report low self-esteem, find it hard to be themselves, look for things outside themselves to make them feel better, or begin to abuse chemicals (i.e. alcohol) and use behaviors (i.e. overeating) to feel better. These are good people, with good intentions. Often, these are individuals who are devoted to taking care of others who are experiencing difficulties. On the surface this might seem like a good and noble quality. However, when people obsessively need to be needed, and in an effort to feel good about themselves do too much for others, they lose sight of themselves. At that point they might feel so empty inside that they feel increasingly depressed and might even contemplate ending their lives. Additionally, they become emotionally fragile, because their successes in rescuing others will determine how they feel about themselves. In the mental health field we call such persons co-dependent.
Codependency is a well-known concept among counselors and psychotherapists. Its historical roots go back to the treatments centers for chemical dependencies in Minnesota, USA, in the late seventies. Research indicates that that this term was used to describe individuals whose lives were affected by being in a relationship with a chemically dependent person. Specifically, the codependent spouse, parent, or sibling etc. was seen as having developed a certain way of mal-adaptive coping with life in reaction to their loved one’s drug or alcohol abuse. Previously codependents were called co-alcoholic, nonalcoholic, or para-alcoholic.
Today we know that other family and life circumstances lead to codependency issues. As Melodie Beatty, the author of Codependent No More, states about the causes of codependency, “Alcoholism in the family helped create codependency, but many other circumstances seemed to produce it, also. One fairly common denominator was having a relationship, personally or professionally, with troubled, needy, or dependent people. But a second, more common denominator seemed to be the unwritten, silent rules that usually develop in the immediate family and set the pace for relationships. These rules prohibit discussion about problems; open expression of feelings; direct, honest communication; realistic expectations, such as being human, vulnerable or imperfect; selfishness, trust in other people and one’s self; playing and having fun; and rocking the delicately balanced family canoe through growth or change-however beneficial that movement might be. These rules are common to alcoholic family systems but can emerge in other families, too (p. 33).” Generally speaking these are rules are often held by dysfunctional families where chemical or behavioral addictions are present; where physical, sexual or emotional abuse takes place; or, if a family member suffers from a chronic mental or physical illness.
Melodie Beatty defined a codependent person in the following way: “A codependent person is one who has let another person’s behavior affect him or her, and who is obsessed with controlling that person’s behavior (p.34).
Here is how a codependent person might think and feel:
- My good feelings about who I am stem from being liked by you.
- My good feelings about who I am stem from receiving approval from you.
- Your struggles affect my serenity. My mental attention focuses on solving your problems or relieving your pain.
- My mental attention is focused on pleasing you.
- My self-esteem is bolstered by solving your problems.
- My own hobbies and interests are put aside. My time is spent sharing your interests and hobbies.
- Your behavior is dictated by my desires as I feel you are a reflection of me.
- I am not aware of how I feel, I am aware of how you feel. I am not aware of what I want; I ask what you want. If I am not aware, I assume.
- The dreams I have for my future are linked to you.
- My fear of your anger determines what I say or do.
- I use giving as a way of feeling safe in our relationship.
- My social circle diminishes as I involve myself with you.
- I value your opinion and way of doing things more than my own.
- The quality of my life is in relationship the quality of yours.
Codependent behaviors become inextricably entangled with being a good wife, mother, husband, brother or father. They look strong but feel helpless. They appear controlling, but in reality are controlled themselves.
Melody Beattie developed the following check list to help identify codependent behaviors, so we can stop them before they derail us.
- Do you feel compelled to help people solve their problems or try to take care of their feelings?
- Do you feel responsible for other people–their feelings, thoughts, actions, choices, wants, needs and well-being?
- Do you find it easier to feel and express anger about injustices done to others than about injustices done to you?
- Do you feel safest and most comfortable when you are giving to others?
- Do you feel insecure and guilty when someone gives to you?
- Do you feel empty, bored and worthless if you don’t have someone else to take care of, a problem to solve, or a crisis to deal with?
- Are you often unable to stop talking, thinking and worrying about other people and their problems?
- Do you lose interest in your own life when you are in love?
- Do you stay in relationships that don’t work and tolerate abuse in order to keep people loving you?
- Do you leave bad relationships only to form new ones that don’t work, either?
Codependent people can heal from their co-dependency through counseling and psychotherapy. It is during counseling that the family-of-origin dynamics are explored and awareness is created on how learned messages and behaviors from childhood have far reaching consequences into how people feel about themselves and the relationships they get into. It is through the uncovering of emotional pain and step by step healing that individuals grow. Confidence, self-esteem and a sense of self-worth is built while mal-adaptive behaviors are changed into positive ones. Counseling also teaches the importance of healthy and appropriate boundary setting and facilitates examining “people pleasing” behaviors.
There are free in person and online support groups for individuals who identify as co-dependent and for individuals who are in a relationship with a chemically or behaviorally dependent person. Codependent individuals can join Co-Dependents Anonymous. Please see their website for general information: http://coda.org/. You can find where meetings take place by going to http://locator.coda.org/. Scroll down to “CoDA meeting search” and enter “United Arab Emirates” as your country and then click on “start search.” Family members, loved ones, or any person in a relationship with a chemically dependent person can join Al-Anon. Please see their website for general information: http://www.al-anon.org/. You can call 050 697 4393, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to receive information about the location and timings of the meetings here in Dubai. Both of these support groups are based on the 12 step program of Alcoholics Anonymous. The purpose of joining a support group is to share and hear other people’s stories as a means of mutual support.