The aim of this article is to help those who have been abused, traumatized, or neglected in childhood and consequently experience a variety of psychological (and sometimes physiological) problems in adulthood. These individuals are variously referred to as suffering from co-dependency, complex PTSD, developmental trauma or borderline personality disorder.
As emphasized by workers in the field of co-dependency, such as Pia Mellody and John Bradshaw, one of the main ways we can recover from the distressing effects of childhood abuse is by learning how to love the self. This seemingly easy task for most people is one of the most difficult tasks of recovery for those suffering from developmental trauma. For this reason codas need some structured steps in order to learn how to love their Self. I hope to provide here a brief outline of how to do so using the three A’s of awareness, acceptance, and action.
Why is it so difficult for co-dependents to love the self and how does loving the self help us to recover from co-dependency?
Before answering these questions it is important to ask ourselves another question “What is the self?”.
According to the Oxford Dictionary of English, the self is “a person’s essential being that distinguishes them from others, especially considered as the object of introspection or reflexive action” or “one’s particular nature or personality; the qualities that make one individual unique”.
However this definition neglect features of the self that have been revealed by researchers in many fields including evolution, developmental psychology, and clinical psychology. Extremely relevant to co-dependency is the fact that the self develops as we mature from infancy to adulthood; when first born, the self is mainly biological in function but as we mature a more sophisticated and higher order psychological self develops.
The biological self has evolved to ensure both survival as an individual and also survival as a member of a highly social species Homo Sapiens. The psychological self probably really starts functioning by age four and goes on developing throughout our lifetime; it is strongly influenced by learning including both informal and formal education.
My conceptualization of the “self” also includes the recent research that the brain is plastic to varying degrees throughout development i.e. it can change its very structure to adapt to environmental stressors. This explains why trauma during sensitive developmental stages can lead to relatively permanent changes in the parts of the brain which form the neural basis for the functioning “Self”. These changes which may have been adaptive in childhood may result in both biological and psychological problems in adulthood resulting in the suffering experience by co-dependents.
Many co-dependent clients tell me that they have low self esteem, low self confidence and generally don’t feel good about themselves; they most definitely don’t love their Self and in fact in extreme cases can hate the self! Having such an unloving relationship with our own self is a tremendous handicap. It is extremely difficult for such wounded self-despising individuals to take care of their selves. And more relevant here is the fact that it is difficult for such a wounded self to heal itself; it is like pulling yourself up by your own boot straps! However it can be done by applying the three A’s to self-recovery work as described next.
Self-work, using the three A’s, involves:
1. Increasing Awareness (knowledge) of the self
2. Increasing Acceptance of the self
3. Increasing Active care of the self
Ways to increase Awareness of the self
• Investigate your personal history to find out what happened to you as a child that distorted your self-concept. This can be done by daily journaling focusing on your life story. You could also try writing a short autobiography noting any questions that arise and seek answers from family members. Another useful strategy is to obtain psychotherapy that is co-dependency oriented and hence includes at some point an exploration of your childhood history. Of course this is only the first A of the three part approach being recommended here.
• Join a support group of people with whom you have some common concern e.g. a common problem e.g. cyber addiction. This provides you with the opportunity to observe others like yourself which is a wonderful and powerful method of observing the “self” as in a mirror.
• Practice Mindfulness Meditation. These ancient practices involve daily practice of observing the content of one’s own mind e.g. thoughts, feelings, and actual behaviors.
Ways to increase Acceptance of the self
• Practice mindfulness meditation specifically aimed at self acceptance (Germer, C.K. (2009). The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion. New York: Guilford Press. This is an excellent introduction not only to mindfulness but its use to increase compassion for oneself.)
• Join a positive social support group e.g. a 12 step group where you receive acceptance and unconditional positive regard. This provides you with models you can internalize and which will then allow you to accept the self.
• Practice unconditional positive regard of others e.g. mate, best friends, and especially those who make life difficult for us. This strengthens our neural circuit underlying the acceptance process and makes it much easier to accept ourselves. If we make the mental effort to accept our best friends with their faults, we prepare the ground to do the same for ourselves.
Ways to increase your Active self care
According to the Oxford dictionary of English there are two meanings to the word care:
1. “the provision of what is necessary for the health, welfare, maintenance, and protection of someone or something”
2. “serious attention or consideration applied to doing something correctly or to avoid damage or risk”.
To properly care for the self involves carrying out both of these meanings.
To take care of ourselves in a practical way I suggest you ask yourself on a daily basis “Am I taking care of myself physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually?” and then taking appropriate action.
For example do you have routine dental and medical check-ups? Are you taking care of your emotional needs such as getting enough hugs on a daily basis? Are you doing something that you enjoy intellectually each day or week e.g. going to the theatre? Are you on a spiritual path?
Taking time to take care of yourself in these ways will of course increase your sense of self worth which will re-enforce your taking care of yourself. It is a positive feedback circuit!
If you are co-dependent, I suggest you carry out SELF work using the three A’s. Practice of Awareness, Acceptance, and Active caring for the self on a daily basis will lead you to a more meaningful, satisfying and happy life. The more we carry out these three steps the more we will love the self and the happier we will be. Loving ourselves provides an oxygen mask so that we can love others and make this world a better place for ourselves, our intimate others, and humankind as a whole.