I’m guilty of using the word “co-dependency” in a few places on my blog. I actually have a bit of an issue with the word and its connotations, because it often tends to come across as “blaming the victim”. But, lacking a better term, “co-dependency” sometimes creeps in.
I think the problem I have with the use of “co-dependency” is the same problem I have with conventional medicine; like any number of modern diseases, it is a fancy label, its selection based on a cluster of symptoms, that is applied to the person exhibiting said symptoms. What I take issue with, in both medicine and psychology, is that all too often, the label is applied without doing the proper due diligence (root cause analysis) of the problem.
If you do a root cause analysis of “co-dependency”, it is not something that simply manifests from thin air. People who get the unfortunate label of “co-dependent” do so, not because they are defective, but because they have been conditioned – often from early childhood – to see themselves and their world a certain way, and by extension, to function in the world a certain way. Yes, in-born temperament may contribute to a person’s susceptibility or resistance to dysfunctional conditioning, but how we are treated, what we are taught, and the behaviors we observe powerfully influence how we navigate life.
The take-away I propose is this: the “co-dependent” label serves not much more than to put people in neat little boxes. It denies their humanity and does not acknowledge the environmental factors that led them to adopt what were, essentially, coping mechanisms that worked “at the time” but no longer serve them.
I just happened upon an alternative term in a book I started reading last night (serendipitously after starting to write this post); “de-selfing”. The book is by John Bradshaw, “Bradshaw On: The Family”. The author isn’t so fond of the term “co-dependency”, either, for similar reasons. These so-called “co-dependent” behaviors arose because we sacrificed parts of ourselves to survive, and they became ingrained habits, hence the use of the term “de-selfing”. De-selfing talks more about the underlying processes that leads to these unhealthy coping strategies.
Speaking for myself… A couple of examples.
I dieted obsessively because my own mother, not to mention my classmates, criticized my weight. I tried to be different than who I was to avoid the pain of derision and bullying. By the time I started dieting, I’d lived through a good six years of regular name-calling and in some cases, shunning.
I bottled up my emotions because my parents, particularly my father, verbally attacked me for crying or expressing anger from a young age. I internalized what I was feeling to avoid abuse.
It’s like the story about training elephants. Tie them to a stake when they’re young and small, a stake they cannot move, and when they’re grown, they will still believe that the now little stake (that they would now be easily able to move) will hold them fast. The elephant has been de-selfed in order for the trainer to maintain control.
I don’t know if elephants can be retrained to recognize their own strength, but I believe that we humans have that capacity.
TED.com recently featured a Canadian poet named Shane Koyczan. This presentation of his spoken word poem, “To This Day,” was nothing short of electrifying. This poem is about bullying, but it absolutely applies here; bullying, like other forms of abuse or neglect, can profoundly affect its victims… and as we saw recently in the case of Amanda Todd, even to the death.
In order to find ourselves, maybe even for the first time, we need to get to the point of believing…
THEY WERE WRONG.
Ditching negative labels, or “bad names” if you will, like “co-dependent”, and focusing instead on recognizing unhelpful patterns (including where they originated) and changing them, is far more empowering. Keep on keeping on, my friends.