Codependency through the Lens of Internal Family Systems Therapy
Codependency seen through the lens of Internal Family Systems is seen as a pattern of parts interacting, not the person. We don’t call people ‘codependent’. We acknowledge that they have a part that feels the need to caretake others’ needs (caretaking part), so they can help meet the deeper needs of the individual. The parts below listed, the shame, the part that caretakes, and the anger/resentment are all part of the codependency pattern.
That part that feels not good enough most likely picked this up from dysfunctional or abusive childhood patterns. Shame is an agonizing experience at its core and drives significant behavior changes in an individual. The part(s) that carry the shame can be any age, but often are parts of us that are young, stuck in the past, alone, and desperately looking for healing.
(scale of 1-10, how true do these statements feel to you? When you think about these statements, what do you feel in your body? Do any events or memories come up? Any images?
The part that “caretakes”
As a solution to the pain, a part of the individual takes on the “caretaking” in the system. This can look like walking on eggshells, prioritizing your needs above others, saying yes when you want to say no, energetically carrying others’ energy, problem-solving others’ needs, worrying or carrying others’ problems, and the list goes on. If you’re interested, you can peek at this post that gives a pretty good list of the signs of codependency. This caretaking part can help you do and feel all or none of these behaviors. And no one’s caretaker part is the same.
This caretaking part often starts taking this on in childhood, although the form sometimes changes dramatically as the individual biologically grow up. This part that caretakers believe, albeit not healthy is a coping skill for the individual, that if others are ok, then they can be ok. The inner dialog sounds like, “If you’re ok, I’m ok.” The part that takes on the burden of caretaking others is desperately trying to help the person not to feel the torment of shame. So while the caretaking behavior can often be the thing individual notices as dysfunctional or unhelpful in their system, it is not the root of the issue overall. The part it is protecting, in this example here, is the same. Codependency is the smoke, not the fire.
The part that feels “anger and resentment”
The third and final part of the triad of the inner pattern of codependency from an Internal Family Systems perspective is the part that feels angry and resentful. This part is often in reaction to the caretaking part inside, and given a chance at the microphone, will rage at the caretaking part, the individual or anyone that will listen about how mad they are at having to “put their needs last” and “always be the shoulder to cry on”. This part wails at the unfair nature of the relationships they find themselves in. Ultimately, as do all protective parts in Internal Family Systems therapy, this part is trying to help. Asking it what its fear is if it doesn’t get mad about the caretaking or codependency, it will most likely give some version of the “they won’t ever get the love or belonging they deserve”. The anger/resentment is desperately trying to help the individual get the love they deserve. And yet, as adults, we can see how much of a backward path that is to getting love. They are many ways to feel a sense of love and belonging in the world. Anger just doesn’t happen to be one of them.
The Self of the person
Taking into consideration that the Self is the healing energy, the true inner leader, and present in all of us, it is the foundational energetic presence to consider when looking at patterns of codependency. According to Richard Schwartz, creator of the Internal Family Systems Therapy model, our core self is < insert quote here>
Here are three important foundations to know about the Self.
- It is inherent in everyone.
- It cannot be created or destroyed.
- It is the healing the suffering individual is looking for.
The Self embodies 8 core qualities. Calm, creativity, connection, curiosity, clarity, courage, confidence, and creativity.
In the example of the codependency pattern of parts, when the Self can emerge within the inner system, the individual will naturally access the ability to start healing the pain of the shame. Naturally following this, they can release the protectors from their extreme roles, the part that does the caretaking, and the part that feels anger/resentment.
Other Patterns of Engagement for Codependency
We have described above a common pattern of engagement for someone who struggles with codependency. This is not meant to be exhaustive in any way for what codependency feels like in everyone. For example, a part that caretakers might be working to protect the individual from feeling abandoned instead of shame. Likewise, in reaction to the caretaking part, an individual might experience a part that uses gambling to reduce the negative feelings created by the caretaking of others. Or perhaps the individual dissociates or has a large and loud inner critic that shows up internally in response to the one that caretakes. The combinations and varieties of these combinations are quite literally endless.
It is also important to note that the individuals’ experience of the pattern of codependency will change over time. So in the beginning, the caretaking part might show up as a protector of shame, but as things progress, it might be a protector against feeling unsafe. This is another reason to stay connected to what is happening in your inner system, so you can really learn what it is like for them as they are experiencing these activations.
4 Practical Steps for Healing Codependency
There are several practical tips that individuals can use to manage codependent behavior:
1. Build Self-awareness Through the Lens of IFS: Track Your Codependent Pattern of Parts
The first step in managing codependency is to recognize the parts that are associated with it inside. It might be that your anger is the first part to show up, or it is your exhaustion that shows up, or panic. Whatever it is, it is important to start to notice a pattern. Sentur has a great tool to help you checkin with your trailheads (aka the things your working with/struggling with) to develop this skill of self-awareness through the lens of Internal Family Systems. Our nervous systems are wired for predictability, so knowing the pattern, even if it is hard or challenging, is a great step in starting to get some space from the activation inside.
2. Get Into Relationship with Your Parts in the Codependent Pattern
This is so much easier said than done and can take months or even years sometimes, so please be patient with yourself on this level. Here’s the process for getting into relationship with parts in a nutshell:
- Notice the entire experience you when you think about codependency. The anger, the avoidance, the caretaking, the fear, the abandonment, all of it. This can be done through two-handed journaling, Sentur’s self-awareness building activity, the journaling feature within Sentur, meditation practice, or whatever other way you practice self-awareness.
- Notice which area of the experience you are drawn to most. It could be a body sensation, an image, a belief, an emotion, or anything at all that seems like it is drawing your attention. Let’s use the anger as an example.
- Ask inside if you have permission. Just because this part is drawing my attention doesn’t necssarily mean that it is ok for me to be with from everyone elses perspective inside. The inner dialog sounds like this “does it feel ok to be with the anger in this moment?” if the answer is yes, great. If it is no, see what the concern is. The most common concern is there will be an overwhelm inside if you are with this part.
- If there is a concern of overwhelm, see if you can ask the part (anger in this example) to give a bit of space so the fear of overwhelm can be negotiated.
- Or see if you can be with this for a bit a of time, maybe 5 minutes
- Or see if the part (ex.anger) is willing to share just a drop of its experience with you.
- And/or connect with a professional. Pushing the inner system beyond what it feels safe to do, while it might feel like forward progress to some parts, can actually set you back years in progress because parts will not trust that being with your inner experience is something that is safe.
- See how you are feeling toward the chosen part. Once you’ve gotten permission, see how you are feeling toward the chosen part.
- Some common feelings toward parts include:
- try to “figure it out”
- If you notice the last two ding, ding you’re on the right track! If not it can get a little tricky to navigate this on your own, so reach out to your professional if you have one, but here are some hacks to try when you are struggling to feel kind or curious toward a part:
- remember that the criticism, anger or numbness are all parts as well and not Self. We just work with them to see if they are willing to give some space so that Self can get into relationship with the part.
- easiest path: listen to one of the meditations in Sentur that give you a complete walk through on if you are feeling critical or avoidant toward a part
- or if you’re feeling critical (which is the most common one) you can do a “hostage negotiation” technique. This is something I heard was a term used by the wonder Chris Burris in the IFS community, but I’m not sure if this is his reference of it or not. I will tell you how I use it in my practice in this blog post here.
- Some common feelings toward parts include:
3. Restore Parts to Their Ideal/Chosen New Role
After you have built a loving, trusting relationship with one or many parts in your codependency pattern you will want to start working with them to release their pain or their protective roles they have been burdened with. This is best done with a professional. If you are looking to get access to an IFS professional in your area you can visit with IFS Institute or the IFS Telehealth Collective.
Additionally, if you would like more support in the unburdening process Sentur sponsors a free monthly live event called the Collective Unburdening Circle that will give some gentle tools and guidance in the area of unburdening.
4. Establish Your Inner Dream Team for Relationships
This is where the magic really begins. Often in the process of healing we can be on a mission to find the pain, release it and move on. That sounds good enough right? Not really, finding the pain and releasing it is powerful, but not nearly even the beginning. Unburdening the pain is just the threshold to thriving. True thriving happens when we are able to establish a NEW pattern of interaction inside for how we function in relationships using probably some of the SAME parts that were causing a ruckus, but now in their ideal or unburdened state offer a gift that is extraordinary for us to be able to achieve our goals in relationships. This comes from continued relationship with the part AFTER the unburdening has happened.
If you are looking for support in developing your own inner dream team around relationships Sentur has an awesome bunch of tools for you to use. From the part bio in Sentur you:
- switch the part personality profile to unburdened
- choose to enroll that part in our unburdening journey
- simply follow the steps that come next.
Its easy peasy, lemon squeezy.
5. Seek Professional Help
Managing codependency is a challenging experience, and it may require professional help. A therapist trained in IFS can help you understand your internal parts and develop strategies for managing codependency. They can also help you process any underlying trauma or beliefs that may be contributing to your codependent behavior. if you would like more support in the healing process you can visit with IFS Institute or the IFS Telehealth Collective to connect with a professional.
Principles of Internal Family Systems Therapy
Developed by Dr. Richard Schwartz, IFS is based on the idea that the mind is made up of various parts, each with its own unique set of beliefs, emotions, and behaviors. The goal of IFS therapy is to help people identify and work with these parts in a way that promotes healing and growth. The principles of IFS therapy include the belief that every individual has a core Self that is inherently valuable and capable of healing. This core self is often overshadowed by the protective parts of the individual, which are created to help the person cope with difficult emotions and experiences. These protective parts may be manifested as anxiety, depression, addiction, or codependency.
Instead of trying to eliminate or suppress these parts, IFS helps the individual become more aware of them and understand their underlying motivations. A therapist works with the individual to help them access their core self and heal any wounded parts that may be causing distress.
One of the key components of IFS therapy is the concept of the 8 Cs. These are eight qualities that are seen as essential to developing a healthy and balanced internal system. Let’s take a closer look at each of these qualities:
Confidence is the belief in one’s ability to handle whatever life throws their way. In the context of IFS therapy, confidence means having confidence in oneself and in the process of therapy.
Calm refers to a sense of inner peace and tranquility. In IFS therapy, the goal is to help clients cultivate a sense of calm so they can better manage difficult emotions and situations.
Compassion is the ability to show kindness and understanding towards oneself and others. In IFS therapy, clients are encouraged to cultivate self-compassion as a way of healing and overcoming negative self-talk and self-judgment.
Courage is the ability to face challenges and take risks. In IFS therapy, courage means being willing to explore and work through difficult emotions and experiences in order to promote healing and growth.
Creativity refers to the ability to think outside the box and come up with new and innovative solutions to problems. In IFS therapy, clients are encouraged to tap into their creativity as a way of finding new ways to approach challenges and promote healing.
Clarity refers to a clear and focused mindset. In IFS therapy, clients work towards developing a sense of clarity around their emotions and beliefs, so they can better understand their internal dynamics and work towards healing.
Curiosity is the desire to learn and explore new things. In IFS therapy, clients are encouraged to cultivate a sense of curiosity about themselves and their internal system, as a way of promoting self-discovery and healing.
Connectedness refers to a sense of connection with oneself and others. In IFS therapy, clients work towards developing a sense of connectedness with themselves and their internal parts, as well as with their therapist and others in their lives.
Overall, the 8 Cs provide a framework for developing a healthy and balanced internal system. By cultivating confidence, calm, compassion, courage, creativity, clarity, curiosity, and connectedness, clients can learn to work with their internal parts in a way that promotes healing, growth, and self-discovery.
According to the American Psychological Association, it is a behavioral pattern of mutual reliance that often emerges in relationships where two individuals are emotionally dependent on one another. Codependency is a challenging condition that can have a significant impact on an individual’s well-being. This can lead to a wide range of negative consequences.
Internal Family System Therapy:
Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS) is a therapeutic approach that views the mind as a system of multiple parts and a core Self that ultimately serves as the healing energy and true inner leader. IFS helps people heal by accessing and healing their protective and wounded inner parts and restoring trust in the person’s core Self.
This word can be used to describe the emotional and behavioral experience of someone who is suffering from codependency. Throughout this article, the words codependency and caretaking can be used interchangeably. However, Internal Family Systems Therapy is non-pathologizing and sees the protective parts of the person, caretaking, as a party who is ultimately trying to help, and not as who the person is.
In Internal Family Systems therapy we refer to parts as subpersonalities or parts of the individual.
The healing energy is at the core of the individual.
A place to start a journey. In Internal Family Systems therapy we often refer to a trailhead as something that causes you activation, agitation, or angst. Another common name for this is a trigger. A trailhead can be a relationship (being a parent, being a partner, etc), a situation (work, school, driving), or behavior (being treated with disrespect, being ignored, being criticized, etc). In the post below we will explore codependency as a whole as the trailhead.
We See You
We get it. Codependency can be so challenging to overcome, but with the help of Internal Family Systems Therapy, it is possible to manage and heal the underlying wounds that cause it. You can learn to manage your codependent behavior and establish healthier relationships, and you don’t have to go at it alone. We see you. Sentur is your 24/7 tool to help support your journey of self-transformation. If you’re struggling, it is important to seek professional help, as a trained therapist can provide you with the support and guidance you need to heal and thrive.
Sending you love and light on your journey of Self-led Self-transformation.
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