The Core of Co-Dependency
by Gudrun Zomerland, MFT
At the center of co-dependency lies low self-esteem and low self-worth or, in
different words, negative beliefs about my lovability and my contributions in this world. Because
the term co-dependency is used so frequently these days, some critics say it is a catch word that
really doesn't describe anything at all or that, because most of us fall into this category, is
null and void.
Few Escape Co-Dependency:
The way I see it and my experience has shown it, the sad truth is that most of us do fall into
this category. Indeed, in the addiction field we now say that co-dependency is at the core of all
addictions. In addition to the addicts and alcoholics, there are all the ones who live with them
and try to control their behavior; and then there are all the offspring who grow up in that kind
of environment and then form families of their own. I have met few people who did not suffer from
some degree of low self-esteem and low self-worth.
The Causes of Low Self-Esteem:
Low self-esteem or the belief that I'm not lovable grows out of emotional or physical neglect. The
parents are too preoccupied with their own drama and emotions to have any energy left over for the
child, or they simply don't know how to properly love and care for a child because they never
experienced it themselves.
Low self-worth or the belief that I do not have valuable contributions to make grows out of actual
abuse. If, as a child, I am given the message -- even non-verbally -- that I am stupid, I will
believe it because an adult is telling me so. If I am beaten, there must be something bad about
me. If I am sexually molested, the boundaries to my innermost self must not matter much. If I am
forced to believe in a certain form of God with rigid rules for all adherents, I must be incapable
of finding my own sense of mystery and I don't get taught moral standards that connect me to the
rest of humanity.
The Resulting Coping Mechanisms for Low Self-Esteem:
Out of these beliefs of not being lovable and not having anything of importance to contribute we
develop all kinds of behaviors in an effort to secure what we unconsciously know we need for
If I deem myself not lovable, I'll do anything to make myself so. I will be a really good girl or
good boy and try to please the parents; I will rise above my actual age and emotionally carry the
parents when I sense that they are incapable of doing so themselves. I will forego my own needs in
order to not be burdensome. I will become a little joker in order to bring some lightness into the
family. I will disappear into my own world so my parent, who already has so much to worry about,
doesn't have to worry about me.
If I doubt my ability to make valuable contributions, I will do one of two things: I will either
work extra hard in order to achieve in this world or I will rebel and sow destruction. If I work
extra hard I might do so at the expense of connecting with others in a meaningful way or of my
physical health. And usually, no matter how hard I work or how much I accomplish, I am left with a
sense that I have not done enough. If I rebel and choose destructive behaviors, they might be
harmful to others (i.e. stealing), but in addition to that, they are always harmful to me. By
destroying myself, I prove the parent right.
Co-Dependency is Not a Diagnosis:
Co-Dependency describes an interpersonal and inner-personal dynamic. It is not a diagnosis. The
mental or emotional conditions that we carry away when growing up co-dependent may be diagnosable.
We may suffer from anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. We may be
obsessive-compulsive or be labeled ADD. Or we might choose from a huge variety of addictions in
order not to feel what is going on in our core.
Healing from Co-Dependency is Possible:
Luckily, at this time in history and in this part of the world we have many avenues available to
help us heal and grow. We have abundant literature
12-Step fellowships. We have spiritual communities that encompass all of humanity, and we have
rich learning opportunities at workshops that foster our human potential and in schools that can
meet our intellectual needs. And we have group and individual therapies.
If you are interested in exploring therapy to deal with your co-dependency or with the resulting
consequences, such as anxiety, depression or PTSD, feel free to give me a call.