Individuation and Codependency
Although the individuation process continues throughout life, the foundation is generally completed by three years old. The child who successfully separates from his or her mother has achieved “self-constancy,” meaning it has a stable, separate sense of self that integrates both negative and positive aspects of the self.
Similarly, “object-constancy” is attained to some degree, meaning an internal, loving maternal image becomes part of the self that provides the child a sense of security, self-esteem, optimism, and comfort in the same way that the real mother ideally did. This enables the child to engage other people with flexibility, autonomy, and emotional relatedness.
However, individuation is delayed once the false self takes hold. Such children become codependent. Their boundaries are confused. They continue to look outside for comfort, often developing sensitivity to other people’s body language, moods, and emotional cues. They react to them and ignore their own. This is the definition of codependency. (See Codependency for Dummies.)
Codependents can’t identify, or may feel ashamed of or indifferent to, their feelings and needs, especially emotional needs, such as for intimacy, pleasure, support, autonomy, or social contact, and even physical needs, such as privacy, space, or touch. Trauma in the mother- or father-child relationship derails normal development and can lead to the formation of a personality disorder.
A codependent self may adopt various personalities, such as controlling, bullying, seducing, helping, entertaining, or pleasing other people. You may have learned that saying “no” risked disapproval and emotional abandonment and become compliant, or you learned that you got your needs met by throwing tantrums and became aggressive. Sometimes the false self uses the mind to figure out other people and its own dilemma.
However, this defense of intellectualization creates a further barrier walling off the bodily-felt sensations of the spontaneous true self, which remains buried under layers of anxiety and shame.
Although individuation may not have been successfully achieved in early childhood, the process continues to evolve. We have opportunities, particularly in our teens, to make up for earlier deficits. But because the false self is insecure and weak, the same obstacles are likely to exist. We lack the clear boundaries, resilience, and courage that our true self provides.
I and many others imagined that marriage, financial independence, or parenthood would complete the process. Autonomous action helps the physical separation from our parents, but usually, we bring our unresolved emotional issues into new relationships and the workplace. Although our false self may be competent in the world, our true self remains hidden and doesn’t individuate until we do the work of recovery. Then life truly begins.
The true self lies hidden beneath the codependent self until it can be safely coaxed to awaken to its full aliveness. Doing the steps in Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You can guide you on the journey, along with CoDA or Al-Anon meetings and a therapist who helps you connect to your forgotten true self.
© 2021 Darlene Lancer
Check out Darlene Lancer’s website for more information and resources.
Darlene Lancer is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and an expert author on relationships and codependency. She’s counseled individuals and couples for 30 years and coaches internationally. Her books and other online booksellers and her website.
Written By Darlene Lancer