Santa Monica Counseling, Therapist in Santa Monica, Los Angeles, and Culver City, CA, California - Darlene Lancer, JD, MFT

Transforming the Codependent Mind

brainCodependency is learned – 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, people aren’t conscious of these beliefs about themselves. The 19th Century neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, the father of hypnosis, wrote that if there were a conflict between the will and the unconscious, the unconscious would always prevail. This explains what drives codependents’ behavior and why we often fail to carry out our best intentions or act upon what we know is right. Charcot had a great influence on Freud, who studied with him.

Codependents have many fears and anxieties based upon false ideas about themselves and others. For example, many think that making a mistake is unacceptable and shameful. They become anxious about taking risks, trying something new, or expressing their opinion, because they’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 rejected. Still other codependents withdraw from people, rather than risk abandonment. People 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  unworthiness 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 who are convinced that they’re bad can end up in relationships with people who are emotionally or physically abusive, which reinforces and worsens their low self-esteem. 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 for it to count. Some people just like the pursuit to validate their worth. Once the object of affection succumbs, they lose interest, and start the cycle all over again with someone new. They’re really afraid of intimacy and being known too well, which in their mind risks rejection.

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 behave 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, triggering 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, they don’t take steps to meet them. If they do know, they can’t ask for what they want. It would feel humiliating. Instead of disclosing what they want, they expect other people to figure it out! These hidden expectations contribute to conflict in relationships.

Changing beliefs starts with awareness. You can become aware of your beliefs by paying attention to the way you talk to yourself.

The most important belief is that you can change.  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 the man,” 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

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16 thoughts on “Transforming the Codependent Mind

    • There’s lots of help available. Join CoDA or Al-Anon or other 12-step meeting. Get a sponsor. Read all you can. You can find my book in your local library – if not, ask them to order it. Most libraries carry Wiley books.

    • Hello, I’ve started a blog sharing my codependent relationship with a Poker Player (supposedly not an addict, but he does have debt issues). I’d love to get some opinions of women who might have gone through the same or similar experiences… Thanks a million.

  1. Been dating a man who is 49 and still lives at home with his mother. She divorced her husband when her son was in her 20’s and he continued to live there because he felt guilty to leave her after her divorce. She is a hoarder. He and I have been dating for 2 years and are in love, however I do not know if he will ever leave her house for me. She seems to be using guilt to keep him there even though she is a very independent woman.

    • Unfortunately, he is codependently bonded with his mother. At 49, if he hasn’t left her, it’s unlikely that he will, without some intensive therapy, which he doesn’t sound motivated to do. This is a painful situation for everyone. The real question is whether you can leave him. He is unavailable – just as if he were married – emotionally, he is. You may be repeating a pattern from your past if you find you can’t move on.

  2. Hi Ms.Lancer. I am 16 and I’m from india. I read your article about low self esteem in psych central. I feel as if I’m an example to everything you said in the article. I lack self esteem and I am unable to be happy. I was diagnosed with ocd and depression, but I stopped seeing the psychiatrist and don’t use medication. Now, I don’t know what to do, where to start. I wanna change the way I think and feel about myself, because I have missed so much in the past year. I think that developing self esteem can change everything in me, including the depression and maybe ocd too.
    I am emotionally disconnected from people now. But 2 years ago, I was a completely different person. Everyone at school were my friends, and I was theirs. I had confidence, got very good grades and participated in just about everything. Now, I am unable to talk to someone without wondering what they think about me. Something happened, that made me lose everything I was, and I lost the love I had for myself. But I forgave myself and don’t think about it anymore. But the damage it caused me is still here and I really wanna get out of it. I am scared of everything and nothing. Everytime I feel something, I flush it out on a boy I used to be with. I don’t think he understands my condition, but I don’t know whom to talk to. I know many people love me, my family and friends, but still, I feel unloved and undesirable. I feel always as if I am waiting for something and I don’t know what. And like you mentioned, I do think that Mr.Right is gonna come and save me some day. But I don’t wanna wait for him anymore. Please tell me how to start accepting myself for who I am. I wanna live a life without regrets in the end.

  3. Hi darlene. I love how you answer so many people’s questions and how you make time for them. You’re doing a great job. Thank you.

    • You don’t say why you stopped medication or what happened to you, so it’s difficult to answer. However, it sounds like therapy would be helpful, particularly trauma therapy if you’ve had one. Start doing the exercises in my ebook 10 Steps to Self-Esteem and read my new ebook, Codependency Recovery Daily Reflections, with 365 daily tips. Try if you can’t get my books with the links provided or at Amazon. My new book on Conquering Shame will also be of help, when it comes out in June. You can pre-order. Doing things you are proud of, even small things, will help build your self-esteem. It will never be enough to come from a man. You’ll turn over all your power to him, and he won’t like it – nor will you, in the end.

  4. Hi, I am again leaving my husband of 32 years, a codependent relationship; He shoplifts still, is now to old to assault people something he’s done since about the age of 12, he was adopted at birth I now realise I’ve been acting as rescuer; He has assualted me several times, taken most drugs been addicted to heroin and meth; We have 4 adult children who are doing OK surprisingly. I’m determined to ask for better for myself I want happiness in my life i am at present receiving strong emotional blackmail from him and all I feel is disgust I just want him to go away; He is very convincing and manages to garner sympathy from friends and people he befriends he has always been the life of the party and many think he is a great guy; Can you recommend further advise to assist me in moving on?

  5. Ms.Lancer I read an post about the girl from India.I can identify with her so much. I am a 39 year old man. I have suffered from alcoholism,codependency,and mental health issues for the past twenty two years. It was not always like this, there was a time when I did have friends and had good relations with people in my family. My life seemed to spin in a downward spiral around fifteen years ago. I have been in several different relationship with women which always seems to end on bad terms. It was not until recently that I began to realize that I suffered from codependency. Trying to find happiness through someone else is what is normal to me. I have mostly been rejected after being in the relationship a short time. I recently lost a job because I was so codependent in a relationship. I truly thank God that there is someone like yourself who can help people struggling with these type issues. Thank you so much.

  6. I recently found out through counselling I’m a codependent of my parents, mainly my Dad. I’m in my 40s & have known since I was 18 that something was not right with our family. I’ve been involved in bad relationships & allowed drugs/alcohol to be a part of my life in my early 20s. I’ve seeked counselling many times as I couldn’t make sense of things. I now have a healthy relationship with my husband who, along with our children, love me unconditionally. I had to cut ties with my parents as my Dad was trying to do the same things to my children and frightened them. My Mom & brother quit speaking to me too. It hurts a LOT, but I had to do it.

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