How does a person become instinct injured, and lack the ability to set and communicate clear boundaries? Here are some excerpts from Clinton S. Clark © 1993 (in italics) that I find extremely helpful in setting the groundwork for implementing this new skill set. Setting boundaries is a skill that we did not learn as children. And there is a good reason this is so. While reading the following, keep in mind that we use the term “addiction” and “codependent” very loosely, covering a wide range of behaviors, and not from a position of judgment, but rather as a scientist would examine a new species of tropical plant. With a little bit of distance (objectivity) you stand to gain a new understanding of the family disease of addiction, and begin to understand how its poison has been passed undetected from one generation to another. The good news is that we can learn to recognize it, understand how it works, and make subtle changes in our own behavior and attitudes to stop the transmission and the pain. But like anything else, this is a process. One cannot expect to change a lifetime of beliefs and habits overnight. So please be gentle. Find more Clinton S. Clark at The Art Department.
In order for Sam’s addict parent to be happy, Sam must assume the same role as the booze. That is to say, that as long as Sam remains easy to use, like the booze, Sam’s parent will be happy. And as long as Sam’s parent is happy, Sam will feel safe and acceptable.
In this way, the child learns from the parent’s example that caring for one’s self is the job of another. In this case, caring for the addict parent is the responsibility of the child.
A codependent is a control addict who is obsessed with controlling and compulsively tries to control. They’re unable to cope with the terror of their own feelings, so they try to control the feelings and actions of other people.
Codependents are connected in an unhealthy way to the people and even the objects in their environment. They constantly react as if there was some invisible and painful cord connecting them to other people. This makes it almost impossible for them to listen without becoming reactionary. Talking with a codependent may leave you feeling hurt and empty or like you haven’t been heard at all. Chances are, you haven’t been heard.
My daughter might say to me, “I don’t like going to school.” My reactionary response to her might be something like, “Don’t be silly, your friends are at school so just get going to school now.” By calling her “silly” I’ve discounted her feelings. Now, not only does she feel bad about going to school, but she feels bad about feeling bad. I do this because I’m uncomfortable with her feelings. I am codependent with her; attached to her in some unhealthy and invisible way.
Children who have addict parents are forced to forfeit their relationship with their addict parent in favor of the addiction. The addiction is stronger than the child. Even though the child is an object of addiction, the addiction takes precedence. By that I mean, from an outside view (a view from outside the family) it will appear that the child is receiving attention, when in fact, it is the addiction itself (the child as an object of addiction) which is receiving the attention and not the child as a sentient being.
Playing the Victim
Playing the Victim is an extremely effective technique used to control someone (especially children). The addict parent controls the child’s behavior by becoming the so-called wounded victim. The child might say or do something that the addict parent becomes uncomfortable with. In reaction to the child’s behavior, the addict parent responds by saying something like this:
(said from an angry victimstance)
- “How could you do that to your mother?”
- “Mommy thinks you don’t love her anymore.”
- “You don’t care about me at all, do you?”
- “You’re hurting mommy. You’re driving her crazy and no one will be able to take care of you then!”
This destructive control behavior uses false guilt to control the child. When the addict parent plays the victim, the child looks inward and thinks: “How could I do that to my parent…She (or He) looks so hurt and sounds so angry or depressed…She’s (or He’s) talking and looking at me; therefore I must have caused her (or his) pain…I’d better be good so I don’t hurt her (or him) any more…she’s (or he’s) the only one I have to take care of me and the alternative of taking care of myself scares me to death, because that’s impossible for myself as a child to do. I could die. I’m sure I’d die.
The goal of an addict who is addicted to their child is to “feel better” by controlling the child. As stated before, control is equated to compliance and compliance is equated to no frustration. No frustration or conflict is equated to security and security equates to happy addict. Unfortunately, children of addict parents grow up full of false guilt or shame as a result of being trained by the addict parent’s use of playing the victim. They (the children) automatically feel guilty, terrified, and anxious when they come in contact with anyone playing the victim.
Children who are trained to be objects of an addiction receive the following message from their addict parents (from addict to child):
I’m not OK, when …. You’re not
Translation: I have no coping skills for feeling bad or tolerating strong emotions (mine or yours). If I’m around you when you are having needs, setting boundaries or otherwise being yourself, I believe you to be the source of my pain. I can’t allow you to be yourself if I feel bad in the process.
Unfortunately, a child does not have the benefit of insight into this translation. He or she only knows that their addict parent is not ok when they (the child) are not ok. The child then rationalizes that:
If the addict parent is not ok, who is going to take care of me?
In response to this rationale, they believe that by being ok enough, their addict parent (their provider) will be ok enough to take care of them. The alternative as seen by the child is death (Whitfield, 1988). They think, “If I don’t take care of my addict parent by being ok, they are not going to be able to take care of me (because they won’t be ok enough to do so). And, if they aren’t ok enough to take care of me, I could die. I am not old enough or knowledgeable enough to take care of myself.”
This is the terror.
This is the helplessness.
This is the anger, rage, and pain.
Codependents [learn to] blame other people for how they feel. Obviously, if a codependent is attached to you, they are going to blame you for how they feel. They’ve been trained to believe that their feelings are the results of other people’s actions and feelings.
Children of addict parents learn that in order to stay accepted in their family they must remain easy to use, and be without boundary (do nothing to frustrate the addict). Children of addict parents learn how to become easy to use by becoming invisible; which means to become compliant and without needs, or suffer the consequences of being apparent, real, noticeable, with boundaries, and having needs.
This phenomena is also described by Whitfield (1989) and Cermak (1986) as “psychic numbing.” Children raised as objects of addiction are under attack or the threat of attack throughout the duration of their childhood and sometimes beyond. They are like combat soldiers waiting for an attack to occur. Cermak (1986) writes that during periods of extreme stress, such as an attack or the waiting for an attack to occur (the threat of death, injury, and the feeling of being unable to flee), “combat soldiers are often called upon to act regardless of how they are feeling. Their survival depends upon their ability to suspend feelings in favor or taking steps to ensure their safety.” This is a characteristic of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. In the case of children trained to be objects of addiction, you might say that they were forced into fighting a war without weapons to protect themselves and they were unable to see the enemy. This is one of the reasons why so many children of dysfunctional families withdraw into isolation. It’s the last resort in fighting an unseen enemy and fighting an enemy without a weapon of defense. You might say that this [material] is an exposure of the enemy by exposing the attack methods, i.e., the destructive control behaviors that hurt.
As objects of addiction, these children have psychologically trained their feelings to become unavailable to them as a way to cope with repeated attacks or the threat of attack. As a result of this, their feelings have become so unavailable to them that they subsequently become emotionally and cognitively unaware of an attack at the time it occurs.
Common effects of growing up in this kind of environment:
- Fear of other people’s judgment resulting in chronic procrastination.
- Having no limits in response to not feeling good enough.
- Trying to “people please” or seek approval of others.
- Negatively judging other people as a way to distract one’s self from one’s intolerable emotions.
- Blaming others for how they feel.
- Feeling uneasy or suspicious when receiving compliments or gifts.
In the case of me, in my addictive patterns, here is how it works for my daughter. Over time, it will become painfully apparent to her that her actions and feelings will somehow trigger me. She will become a “people pleaser” to avoid having to deal with my reactions to her. She knows she can’t be herself without me reacting to her, so she becomes what she thinks I want her to be. This is how children of [addicts and] codependents learn to survive. They can’t be themselves so they become what they think will keep them from getting hurt.
She’ll learn how to control other people by being a “people pleaser.” She’ll become very good at guessing how I feel and very poor at knowing how she feels. Her focus will become directed towards other people outside of herself. She’ll obsessively try to figure out what everyone else needs and not be able to figure out what she needs. And if someone resents her for trying to take care of their needs without being asked, she will become angry and resentful because it scares her not to take care of someone else.
Cermak, Timmen L. “Diagnosing & Treating Co-Dependence: A Guide for Professionals who Work with Chemical Dependents, Their Spouses, and Children” Johnson Institute, Minneapolis, MN. 1986.
Whitfield, Charles L. “Healing The Child Within” Audio Cassette. Health Communications, Inc. Taped live U.S. Journal Training Conference. Chicago. June 1988.
Whitfield, Charles L. “Healing The Child Within” Health Communications, Inc. 1989.