How do codependency and codependent tendencies come about in certain individuals, and what are the deep-seated reasons behind this? The answer to this question is not really that simple, or straightforward, as you might think.
The Seeds of Codependency
The “true self,” coined by psychoanalyst David Winnicott, is the foundation for healthy maturation and expression of the individual. Sadly, for many people, including codependents, things go awry during the critical developmental period when the true self emerges. Instead, a false self predominates, while the true self recedes; sometimes, into oblivion.
The true self is not a separate part of us but is merely our natural being. However, in the earliest months of life, an infant has no sense of its Self but is at one with the primary caretaker (referred to here as its mother). Together they create the baby’s need-fulfillment system. Ideally, the infant’s basic needs are satisfied without too much frustration.
The mother empathizes with and timely feeds her child, keeps it warm and dry, mirrors facial expressions, and talks to and holds it tenderly. Her baby experiences a happy, welcoming mother when gazing into her eyes and a comforting mother when it cries. It feels wonderful, lovable, and good inside. It’s a blissful time for both mother and child, where the mother is attuned to her baby.
The True Self
This heavenly symbiosis lays the groundwork for a true self to emerge as a bodily sensory-motor map of perception, movement, and reactions. The baby develops awareness of its aliveness – that “I am” connected to “my body.” When needs get met, the “I-body” feels good. Mind and body integrate, rather than dissociate. The body is not objectified as another but as me. The true self is spontaneous, creative, and connected to bodily instincts, feelings, wants, and needs.
Happy associations of an attuned mother become internalized. This builds optimism, a sense of well-being, empowerment, and trust in a benevolent environment. The baby trusts that its needs will be fulfilled and gradually learns to respond to itself, satisfy its needs, and make things happen. Thus, an attuned, responsive mother builds her child’s first sense of mastery and self-esteem. Trusting its mother also allows a baby to tolerate minor frustration and postpone gratification.
According to psychoanalyst Margaret Mahler, the self undergoes a process of “hatching” around the fifth month when the baby begins to experience itself as separate from its mother. (Subsequent theorists maintain that a core self is present at birth.) Babies begin to investigate the world through touch, climbing, crawling, and then walking, but they need to feel safe to explore their surroundings and satisfy their curiosity.
Although toddlers venture off, they look for their mother and return to reconnect. Hopefully, a mother allows her baby to relish self-assertion, confidence, and newfound independence without anxiety or reprimand.
From about 10 to 18 months, toddlers develop self-esteem through their accomplishments when encouraged and praised by their parents. They’re having a “love affair with the world” and feel pride and empowerment as their healthy narcissism grows. But they still very much need to reconnect with their mother – even more, which actually allows them to separate and stray further.
The “terrible two’s” are marked by an internal and outer struggle to individuate. Toddlers feel expansive, make demands, and assert their autonomy, exclaiming, “No,” but cling to their mother for reassurance. They are expressing their true self. A toddler proudly feels “I am,” full of wants, feelings, needs, and curiosity.
Confusing and distressing incompatibilities and misunderstandings between mother and child arise, which she must tolerate so her child can integrate a cohesive sense of self and others.