Us brains receive a lot of mixed messages about codependence.
Don’t believe me? Just turn on the radio. Since the beginning of time, songwriters have embraced the obsessional extremes of toxic relationships. Take Little Peggy March, for instance. In 1963, the fifteen-year-old’s voice rang out across the airwaves with a promise to follow him, wherever he may go. At the same time, she also sang herself to a number one record.
Twenty years later, The Police gave us all the creeps with a vow to watch an ex-lover’s every movement. (Err … this is stalking, by the way.) Notably, the band went on to win a Grammy for Song of the Year.
Still, I bet you don’t give out awards when you encounter codependent behaviors in your own life. In fact, it’s often the kind of thing humans tend to gossip about:
- “She’s so clingy!”
- “Yikes. Their relationship is so toxic.”
- “Ugh, he’s always gotta be a white knight and try to save someone.”
Yet, us brains do a remarkable job making excuses for our own codependent behaviors. A people pleaser believes their service to others is the quality that makes them a good person. A workaholic believes their sixty-hour works weeks are the only way to avoid getting fired. (Not that you, Dear Reader, have ever struggled with boundaries … right?)
Yeesh. That’s a lot of cognitive dissonance. What’s a human to do?
A Broader Perspective
It’s time to hit the library, friend!
In her book, Facing Codependence: What It Is, Where It Comes from, How It Sabotages Our Lives, author Pia Mellody asks us to reconsider what we think we know. Though it was first published in 1989, the book is still one of the best resources on the topic out there.
According to her, there are five major symptoms of the disease. A codependent person struggles with:
- Experiencing appropriate levels of self-esteem (either too low or too high)
- Setting functional boundaries
- Owning and expressing their own reality
- Taking care of their adult needs and wants
- Experiencing and expressing their reality moderately.
So, it looks like different things to different people. And the thing is, we don’t just stumble into it later on in life. In many ways, codependents are wired to be that way from the get-go. We learn these behaviors within our families. It’s pretty simple, according to Mellody. If we grow up in a family with poor boundaries, we’re likely to carry those into adulthood.
A Culture of Codependence
However, parents and pop stars aren’t solely to blame. Society as a whole bears some responsibility. The author points out that many humans grow up in cultures that normalize codependent parenting behaviors. And normal doesn’t always mean nurturing. Instead, the author prefers to distinguish functional from dysfunctional parenting.
Left unaddressed, these behaviors may carry from one generation to the next with barely a shrug of the shoulders. There’s even a mechanism that enables its transmission: the shame core.
Harry Nilsson may feel no shame declaring that he can’t live, if living is without you. And Ariana Grande may not flinch before singing that she can be way too damn needy. Still, they’d both probably benefit from asking why they feel that way. (Yep, this is where we start to get touchy feely.)
Turns out, shame is central to the development of codependent behaviors. Mellody even refers to it as a shame-based disease. It will come as no surprise to learn that adults in dysfunctional families don’t do a great job dealing with their shame. Unfortunately, this shame often is displaced onto the children. And when children internalize the message that they have less value than others, the basis for codependence is born.
Steps to Understanding
Ultimately, readers walk away with a broadened understanding of codependence. They’ll learn how it develops in families and how to recognize when it shows up in their own lives.
Yes, it is a relatively quick read. But don’t mistake brevity for ease. Written with unflinching directness, Mellody doesn’t skip over the hard stuff. Inevitably, readers will reflect on their own upbringings. Memories that previously seemed normal may now be recast in new light. And this exercise can be a painful one.
This kind of endeavor requires courage. The great thing is, you don’t have to go it alone. If you feel you may be struggling from codependence, check out the Resources section below. You may also benefit from speaking with a therapist.
Discriminating readers may scoff at the lack of empirical data in the book. It’s true that most of the insights are gleaned from the author’s own clinical work. But it’s the perfect entry point for readers to begin understanding themselves or their loved ones.
- Facing Codependence: What It Is, Where It Comes from, How It Sabotages Our Lives by Pia Mellody
- Breaking Free: A Recovery Workbook for Facing Codependence by Pia Mellody and Andrea Wells Miller
- Co-Dependents Anonymous