You can make significant strides in overcoming codependency by developing new attitudes, skills, and behavior. But deeper recovery may involve healing trauma, usually that began in childhood. Trauma can be emotional, physical, or environmental, and can range from experiencing a fire to emotional neglect. Childhood events had a greater impact on you then than they would today, because you didn’t have coping skills that an adult would have. As a consequence of growing up in a dysfunctional family environment, codependents often suffer further trauma due to relationships with other people who may be abandoning, abusive, addicted or have mental illness.
Childhood itself may be traumatic when it’s not safe to be spontaneous, vulnerable, and authentic. It’s emotionally damaging if you were ignored, shamed, or punished for expressing your thoughts or feelings or for being immature, imperfect, or having needs and wants. Some people are neglected or emotionally or physically abandoned and conclude they can’t trust or rely on anyone. They hide their real, child self, and play an adult role before they’re ready. Divorce, illness, or loss of a parent or sibling can also be traumatic, depending upon the way in which it was handled by parents. Occurrences become harmful when they’re either chronic or severe to the extent that they overwhelm a child’s limited ability to cope with what was happening. For more on shame and dysfunctional parenting, see Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You.
How you’ve encountered these experiences are your wounds. Most everyone manages to grow up, but the scars remain and account for problems in relationships and coping with reality. Deeper healing requires reopening those wounds, cleaning them, and applying the medicine of compassion.
Trauma is a subjective experience and differs from person to person. Each child in a family will react differently to the same experience and to trauma. Symptoms may come and go, and may not show up until years after the event. You needn’t have all of the following symptoms to have experienced trauma:
Post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) is not uncommon among codependents who experienced trauma either as a child or adult. Diagnosis requires a specific number of symptoms that last for at least 30 days and may start long after the triggering event. Core symptoms include:
Trauma is debilitating and robs you of your life. Often a person has experienced several traumas, resulting in more severe symptoms, such as mood swings, depression, high blood pressure, and chronic pain.
The ACE (“Adverse Childhood Experiences”) study found a direct correlation between adult symptoms of negative health and childhood trauma. ACE incidents that they measured were:
Other examples of traumatic occurrences are:
Almost two-thirds of the participants reported at least one ACE and over 20 percent reported three or more ACEs. (You can take the ACE quiz here.) The higher the ACE score, the higher were the participants’ vulnerability to the following conditions:
Trauma can be emotional, physical, or environmental, and can range from experiencing a fire to emotional neglect. Healing trauma is like going back in time and feeling what was unexpressed, re-evaluating unhealthy beliefs and decisions, and getting acquainted with missing parts of yourself. Facing what happened is the first step in healing. Many people are in denial of trauma they experienced in childhood, particularly if they grew up in a stable environment. If parents weren’t abusive, but were emotionally unresponsive, you would still experience loneliness, rejection, and shame about yourself and feelings that you may have denied or completely repressed. This is emotional abandonment.
Re-experiencing, feeling, and talking about what happened are significant parts of the healing process. Another step in recovery is grieving what you’ve lost. Stages of grief include anger, depression, bargaining, sometimes guilt, and finally acceptance. Acceptance doesn’t mean you approve of what happened, but you’re more objective about it without resentment or strong emotions. As you release pent-up emotion from your past, you have more energy and motivation to invest in your future.
In this process, it’s essential – and too often omitted – that you discern false beliefs you may have adopted as a result of the trauma and substitute healthier ones. Usually, these are shame-based beliefs stemming from childhood shaming messages and experiences. Recovery also entails identifying and changing how you relate and talk to yourself that leads to undesirable outcomes and behavior and outcomes.
PTSD and trauma do not resolve on their own. It’s important to get treatment as soon as possible. There are several treatment modalities recommended for healing trauma, including CBT, EMDR, Somatic Experiencing, and Exposure Therapy.
*From Codependency for Dummies, John Wiley & Sons, Inc.