The Opposite of Codependence
Medicine for healing
We have to talk about codependency as mothers because one, there is inherent codependence that happens in mothering. It starts before birth. A human is dependent on us for its survival and two because it is a word that has been weaponized in an unproductive way with mothers of children with substance use disorder/addiction.
Codependence is not a “diagnosis” in the DSM-5. It is a theory.
It often abused by the system of care as a blanket statement about parental behavior and that can often shame parents into silence, inaction, withdrawing from relationship or withholding love and compassion. Those behaviors lead to disconnection and isolation. Disconnection and isolation cause emotional harm and are linked to substance use and addiction. Maia Szalavitz writes in her NYT article, “When someone is ill with any other disorder, relatives are not shamed for obsessively caring or rearranging their lives to help. Instead, those who abandon suffering loved ones are stigmatized. But when it comes to addiction, parents are told that their loving kindness is pathological.”
I’m sure you’ve been called “codependent” by someone by now and we are to some extent codependent. I have a friend who always says, “I am as happy as my unhappiest child.” That’s the nature of parenting. We are affected by our children’s health and wellbeing. In early childhood they need us to meet their needs. I admit meeting their needs often came at the expense of my needs until I became a rather needless person. The suppression and ignoring of my own needs prioritizing others was familiar to me likely due to the emotional and spiritual neglect of my childhood in an environment of addiction. Motherhood and marriage legitimized ignoring my own needs.
As a mother, my life was (is still in some respect) about everyone else’s life, in service to everyone else’s needs, health, happiness and peace. These humans were mine to care for and protect from harm. Everyone was depending on me for their survival. My health and wellbeing was impacted by their health and wellbeing. That is a normal cause and effect of an ecosystem.
When that dependence veers in an unhealthy direction, “codependence,” a person loses sense of self. Identity is intertwined with our children’s identity. Our personal needs are deprioritized or ignored completely. The boundaries between us often blur or are non-existent. If we look at codependence as an unhealthy relationship dynamic that is exacerbated when a loved one has a brain disease or any other chronic health condition, we need an opposite, a healthy relationship dynamic to practice instead. A dynamic that doesn’t abandon our values, destroy relationship or make us withdraw our natural loving kindness.
The opposite of codependency is co-regulation and its healthy expression is interdependence.
Co-regulation requires us be in mutual relationship, to understand our interdependence. Interdependence in an ecosystem means that I recognize and behave in a way that honors that my way of being and actions have impact on your health and wellbeing and vice versa. I care for my physical and emotional health in service to our interdependence, so that I am a healthy contributor to the family ecosystem. I allow others to experience the natural outcomes of their behaviors so that they can feel their own impact. I model healthy connection, regulation, communication and consent. I am able to meet my physical and emotional needs in healthy ways. Regulation is the practice.
When our bodies nervous system is regulated, (relaxed, calm) our nervous system sends a message to the bodies around us that we are safe to connect with and that we are open to connecting. The bonding chemical oxytocin is released in the brain which moves your brain into social engagement mode.
When your body feels safe, safety is reflected outward through body language, the tone of your voice and in your eyes which signals ease to others. Sharing the sense of safety which creates a felt sense of ease in another is co-regulation. You can help others feels at ease in your presence by practicing regulating your own nervous system, creating the ideal conditions for connection. Connection is the medicine.
Johann Hari is famous for his work in the field of addiction. His most famous quote is “Connection is the opposite of addiction.” You can watch his groundbreaking 2015 Ted Talk which opened up a bigger conversation, a bigger story around what the ideal conditions for wellness are and asserted that by creating the ideal conditions for wellness, substance use would decrease organically. I feel connection is the medicine for addiction rather than the opposite of addiction and also for a healthy interdependent family ecosystem.
Families are naturally interdependent. If you’ve been called, “codependent,” I challenge you to get curious, explore the nature of relationship and connection in your family ecosystem, the ways in which you suppress or meet your needs in healthy or unhealthy ways. Practice regulation in your mind and body. Try being with without trying to fix or change. Observe neutrally. Foster healthy connection.
Connect with yourself, with nature, allow for your needs to be met.
Let me know what you think, how you feel.
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