How to Rise Above a Bad Childhood

Co-dependent relationships can be dangerous, as this startling case proves — but there's a positive way to break the cycle

I received a phone call from a potential client who wanted to work on her relationships with men. She had been married multiple times — with all of her marriages ending in divorce. She had multiple children from multiple fathers. Her life was spinning out of control.

But I had no idea when she came in for the first time that her real issue went back to her childhood. Her drama and chaos were continuing today because of her inability to let go of the past, as well as to let go of her current relationship with her mom — which had spiraled out of control for some 30 years.

Gradually I learned that when she was a young girl, this woman’s mother had chastised her for not being able to comprehend math. As the years went by, the chastising increased, and by the time this girl was in high school — she dropped out. She couldn’t handle the constant criticism from her mother that she was “dumb, stupid, and couldn’t figure out the simplest math equations.”

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This is a terrible and emotionally abusive childhood experience for anyone to undergo. When a parent criticizes a child for being stupid, lazy, ignorant or whatever other words might be used, the subconscious mind can begin to absorb those qualities.

This young girl acted out her mom’s judgments of her. By dropping out of high school, she proved her mom was right: She wasn’t smart after all. After a few years, however, something magical happened. This young woman found a profession she loved. A trade school gave her the foundation to be able to become her her own boss.

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By age 21, with no high school education and no GED, this young woman opened her first business — and earned $150,000 that first year alone. Sounds like a fairy tale ending, doesn’t it?

One problem: The young woman still had a disturbingly co-dependent relationship with her mom. Her mother, even at this point, continued to tell her that she was going to blow it. She didn’t know how to handle her money. Or her taxes. Or her bills. Or anything. The young woman kept proving her mom right.

No matter how much money she made — she was constantly broke.

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And because of the statements from her mom, this young woman invited her mom into her business to do her books — and then her taxes. She believed her mom was right that she was ignorant around money, math and more and couldn’t do this on her own, but that her mom — who was brilliant with money supposedly — would come and rescue her.

Fast forward to the first two weeks I worked with this woman: She was now in her early 40s. Guess what? Mom was still tagging along. Since this young woman was still trapped in this relationship and told on a weekly and monthly basis how stupid she was, she could never grow past the damaging comments.

Within a few weeks I was offering her the options of slowly removing her mom from her life. It was the only way to go. She didn’t have the strength to stand up to her mom for more than a couple weeks. So the best option for her would’ve been to eliminate Mom from her life for a short period of time, maybe 90 days, so that she could start to regain some self-esteem, confidence — and learn there are many other accountants out there who could help her with her business and her taxes.

We need to learn to set serious boundaries with consequences, in order to regain a sense of self, self-confidence and self-esteem.

But this is where the power of co-dependency comes in the play.

This young woman could not break those chains.

It was shortly after my client and I had talked about an escape plan that she stopped coming in for her work. I had told her this might happen, that the solution might scare the heck out of her. The mother had gotten her tentacles into her daughter’s brain and even in her 40s, she continued to believe her mom’s words: “Without me, your life would absolutely suck.”

Unfortunately, this story does not have a happy ending, but it does offer a great warning sign for everyone else in the world. If you are in any type of a relationship with a mother, father, partner, friend, co-worker, boss, and you are an adult, and you’re allowing that person to demean you, to put you down — it is your responsibility and yours alone to shatter this terrible addiction of codependency.

No one deserves this. Until we break away from this type of person, we’ll never experience inner peace or reach our full potential.

Related: Guess Which Parent Teaches Kids the Most About Trust?

It’s up to each individual. I do not agree with the philosophy, “They’re my family — you can’t abandon a family member.” That statement is ridiculous. If you use that to justify staying with a family member who emotionally puts you down or abuses you, that is insanity. On the other hand, thousands of people have broken free to create their own life, their own independence — and have found inner peace and contentment.

Not everyone must completely break away from a person who is unkind, condescending or emotionally abusive. But I do believe we need to learn to set serious boundaries with consequences, in order to regain our own sense of self, self-confidence and self-esteem.

David Essel is the author of nine books, a master life coach, and an addiction recovery coach with offices in Fort Myers, Florida. 

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