THE BLOG
07/04/2009 06:52 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Biology of Codependency



Joke:
If heaven has two doors one saying "Heaven" and one saying "Lecture on Heaven" the codependents are the ones lined up in front of the "lecture on heaven".
Codependents tend to be unsure of their own minds, they have put other people's needs before their own so habitually that they lose a sense of what they think, need and want. Why is that exactly? That's what my next series of blogs will be all about, a new look at codependency through a neurological lens.

Codependency is generally seen as a set of maladaptive patterns in relating to others. The term "co-dependency" grew out of the term "co-addict." The co-dependent person, or the co-addict, was that person who got sick through living with the distorted, unregulated, and out-of-balance thinking, feeling, and behavior that surrounds addiction. In the early 1980s, codependency became a catch-all category for people with relationship issues of all kinds. But seeing codependency as a set of behaviors means that we tend to think that changing our behaviors is the solution to becoming less codependent. While behavior changes are always a part of recovery from codependency, there may be a neurobiological piece to codependency as well that we need to pay attention to.

So here's my theory on codependency that I've based on neurological findings:
Codependency, I feel, is fear based and is the predictable set of qualities and behaviors that grow out of feeling anxious and therefore hypervigilant in our intimate relationships. Here's how it gets set up: when we get scared, our left brain, the language part of the brain, becomes overwhelmed and shuts down. Remember those awful moments when you knew the answer but just couldn't think of it cause you were on the spot? The part of our brain that remains very active however, even when we're very scared, is the emotional scanning system in our right brain. We retain our ability to scan our environment and read the emotions of those around us even when we're frozen with fear. The part of our brain that scans for danger and remains hyper-vigilant, in fact, works overtime when we are scared.
How Stress in Childhood can Create Codependency in Adulthood: Children who regularly experience hi states of stress in their homes, say from living with emotional or physical abuse, addiction or mental illness, often learn that they can fend off trouble if they can stay hyper-focused on reading the other person's emotional signals. These kids can become very adept at reading other people's moods, often to the exclusion of their own. Because of this over time they may develop the emotional habit of being more in touch with what those around them are feeling than what they are feeling. They become habitually outer-focused, in other words, and may lose touch with what is going on inside of them. A receipt for codependency, if ever there were one.

Remember another old joke, "a codependent is someone who puts a sweater on someone else when they feel cold?" The codependent, in other words, identifies their own feelings in other people rather than themselves, in a sense it's easier for them to feel another person's feelings than their own due to their years of practice scanning and focusing on other people's moods often to the exclusion of their own. The codependent person may have trouble identifying and owning their own feelings because they have had little practice or encouragement in doing so, it may not have been safe to own their own feelings, or they may have been scared and had no safe place to share their fear (especially if it was their parent who was scaring them), or they may have had parents who told them what to feel rather than helping them to identify their own feelings.
How does this manifest in the codependent's adult relationships? Needless to say, this habit of identifying our own feelings in someone else while disowning them in ourselves complicates intimacy and parenting. The codependent may project their own uncomfortable feelings onto their partner or their children then set about trying to fix in them what really needs fixing inside themselves. This inability to feel, label and own one's own feelings can cause all sorts of relationship confusion that we may identify as part of codependency.

Codependency is also reflective of an incomplete process of building an independent and autonomous sense of self. Next week we'll look into the incomplete sense of self related to codependency.
For more information look at Dr. Dayton's book Emotional Sobriety: From Relationship Trauma to Resilience and Balance tiandayton.com.