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Codependency Pt 2: An Incomplete Sense of Self

When the attachment with a parent is fraught with fear, the child can become overly preoccupied with getting it right for the parent rather than for themselves.
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To Review: In my previous blog The Biology of Codependency we discussed that.... In high states of fear the prefrontal cortex (read: our thinking brain) temporarily shuts down while our limbic (read: feeling/sensing brain) goes on high alert. This means that we retain our ability to scan our environment and read the emotions of those around us even when we're scared and can't think straight. Our heads slow down but our hearts and senses keep going. Here's why this is codependency making. Children who live with parents who scare them may adopt a defensive strategy of staying hyper-focused on reading their parent's mood changes so that they can adjust their own behavior to "stay out of trouble." These kids can become very adept at reading other people's moods, often to the exclusion of their own.


Personal boundaries grow quite naturally out of a successful, attuned attachment between a growing child and a parent. But when the attachment with a parent is fraught with fear, the child can become overly preoccupied with getting it right for the parent rather than for themselves. When kids are anxious about what their parents might do next, they may not feel safe and relaxed enough to actually experience their own emotions. Their energy gets devoted to strategies for pleasing or placating those who are in charge of them rather than exploring their own reactions so that they can better understand themselves. Nor do they learn good relationship skills, like balancing their needs with those of another person, compromising and negotiating. Negotiating plays second fiddle to anticipating and pleasing. This over preoccupation with the moods of parents can also create a sort of sibling competition because the first concern becomes reading the parents' emotional state, rather than interacting as a family. The focus is hierarchical rather than lateral.

Kids in these situations can become hypervigilant, constantly scanning their environment, their home, their patent's faces and body movements for signs of mood shifts. Even a raised eyebrow or a sudden movement can cause them to tense up.This constant outer preoccupation and hypervigilance is codependency making in that we are overly preoccupied with the moods of another person and under aware of our own moods. Personal boundaries blur and pretty soon we can't tell the difference between what we're feeling and what those around us are feeling. It's a recipe for codependency.

The Prefrontal Cortex: What Makes Us Different from Animals

It is our prefrontal cortex, the thinking brain in other words, that gives us the ability to conceive of a sense of self in the first place. We develop a sense of self moment by moment by making sense out of our experience then synthesizing and incorporating new learning into our ever evolving construction of self. In order to develop a conscious sense of self, we need to be able to use our thinking minds to decode complex information that is constantly being fed to us through our senses. When that part of ourselves that has the ability to process this constant barrage of information is regularly shut down because we're in a fear state, our ability to synthesize and consolidate our sense of self is affected. This whole set up is de-selfing.

Self development is slow; one successful stage builds on the next. You do the math. Childhood is when we are primed to develop a healthy emotional and psychological foundation. If our emotional and psychological development is adversely affected due to family problems or less that adequate parenting our emotional foundations will be affected as will subsequent stages of development. Those deficits in self development can remain with us well into adulthood. That's why therapy or even twelve step programs become a sort of re-parenting process in which we consciously learn to experience our emotional states in a calm and measured way. And where we learn to make sense of our emotions share them with another person and listen as another person makes sense of theirs.

For more information on codependency check out Emotional Sobriety: From Relationship Trauma to Resilience and Balance by Tian Dayton.