BY DAVID RICKEY and PAUL KAIHLA — In the Disney movie, The Parent Trap, a pre-tabloid child star named Lindsay Lohan manipulates a reconciliation between her on-screen, estranged parents (played by Dennis Quaid and Natasha Richardson). Yes, it’s a romantic comedy. But this charming film is also a case study of how codependence can take root.
When we ask each other in the Starbucks line-up why Lindsay in real-life has so many addictions, affairs and abuses, it’s the same as asking: where does codependence come from?
Screen The Parent Trap, and you’ll think that life has imitated art. If you read the celeb sites, you’ll know that Lindsay in real life is the currency that feeds her parents’ and siblings’ fame and/or fortune. Her father just got out of jail, and a self-absorbed, stage-mother just launched a reality showthat shamelessly milks her daughter’s brand recognition.
It starts with a sensitive child in an environment with a lot of pain body energy — Eckhart Tolle‘s phrase for “toxic” or abusive. He or she learns to intuit their family’s peculiar dynamics, and then tries to manage those relationships to hold the family together.
Many, by the way, who play this role in their families eventually become therapists; Who else would spend their adult lives listening to other people’s problems?
The upside of these parent trap cases, the psychologist Alice Miller notes in The Drama of a Gifted Child, is that children-cum-therapists have a unique depth of compassion, and a capability of injecting that quality into interpersonal relationships.
The downside is that family strife trains a “gifted child” into “needing” to manage relationships because the anxiety experienced in those around them is unmanageable. The “gifted child,” Miller argues, can acutely sense each party’s anxiety. To make themself feel safer, the gifted child wants to bring that level down.
That’s the dependent part. When the individual is young, they are dependent. And a sense of safety lay in lowering the anxiety level of parents, siblings or other caregivers on whom they were dependent.
The paradox is that in the same stroke the child takes on responsibilities that lie beyond a child’s psychological development. James Hollis, one of the most gifted Jungians on the planet, calls it “the parentified child.” It’s not hard to see the stress that creates. In The Eden Project, Hollis says that those kids, in effect, over-compensate for the disorders of parents – and try take on the responsibilities of an adult in the family.
Another modern movie example of this childhood situation can be seen in Kramer Vs. Kramer, a Dustin Hoffman-Meryl Streep divorce drama in which their son sponges up the tensions between his separated parents — and battles through the inner conflict of his attachment to both.
But not everyone who has an abusive childhood evolves into a codependent.
Ultimately, we’re all codependent (or better, “interdependent”) because we are all operating out of the same collective and consciousness. So it’s not so much a “disease” to feel someone’s pain because it perhaps means that you’re so intuitive and full of compassion that you energetically register the Other’s pain as your own.
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