What Is Codependency?
The term codependency, also known as “relationship addiction,” started as a way to define the relationship of people who lived with alcoholics or substance abusers. This definition has expanded to include any person who is not in a healthy, mutually satisfactory relationship.
There are many definitions of codependency, but the most common definition describes an individual who has learned a set of maladaptive, compulsive behaviors in order to survive in a family which is experiencing great emotional pain and stress.
Maladaptive refers to a person’s inability to develop behaviors that get his/her needs met. Compulsive describes the individual’s psychological state when acting against his/her own will or conscious desires in order to behave.
Sources of great emotional pain and stress for a family can include, but are not limited to:
- hypercritical or non-loving environment
- lack of emotional validation
- military deployment
- chemical dependency
- chronic mental illness
- chronic physical illness
- physical abuse
- sexual abuse
- emotional abuse
People with codependency tend to seek or maintain relationships which are one-sided, and emotionally destructive or abusive. Codependent individuals usually exhibit low self-esteem and look for ways to “feel better,” outside of themselves, in ways that are not always healthy, such as substance abuse.
What Causes Codependency?
A widely accepted belief is that codependency is caused by familial relationships that hamper the development of healthy relationships. Some rules, spoken or unspoken, within these families, may include:
- It’s not okay to talk about problems or feelings. Feelings should be kept to yourself.
- Open communication is not encouraged; messengers between two people are best (also known as triangulation)
- Be strong/good/right/perfect and make us proud beyond a realistic expectation.
- Don’t be selfish.
- Do as I say, not as I do.
- It’s not okay to be playful.
- Don’t rock the boat.
- Act for the “greater good” of the family.
Characteristics of Codependent Individuals:
To understand codependency further, it might help to examine some additional terms that are used to describe codependent behavior. For example, a psychologist might use the word “maladaptive” to describe someone who has developed patterns of thinking and doing that are causing or perpetuating emotional problems, or preventing them from adapting appropriately in different situations. For example, a maladaptive person might avoid certain situations because they bring on feelings of inadequacy or anxiety. People who are codependent can sometimes become maladaptive. Are there any types of social situations that you avoid because they cause you discomfort or anxiety? If so, you may be maladaptive.
Another trait or characteristic that codependent people may develop is compulsive behavior. Compulsive behavior is loosely defined as any persistent or unwanted action that one is unable to stop, such as compulsive or repetitive tidying or other cleaning. Some people become compulsive shoppers or compulsive gamblers. Usually, the compulsive behavior stems from a compulsive thought pattern.
There are certain characteristics that a codependent person may exhibit. These fall into groupings of characteristics that include, low self-esteem, denial, compliance, control, and avoidance.
Patterns of Low Self-Esteem in Codependents:
- Do not see oneself as “loveable” or “worthwhile.”
- Seek recognition they feel they deserve
- Have trouble admitting mistakes.
- Uses others as a gauge of safety.
- Need to appear right in the eyes of other people – even going as far as lying to look good.
- Inability to ask others to meet needs or desires.
- Difficulty starting, meeting deadlines, or finishing projects
- Difficulties setting healthy priorities.
- Trouble with decision-making
- Judging own thoughts and actions harshly, or “not good enough.”
- Embarrassed by gifts, praise or recognition
- Places higher value upon the way others approve of thoughts, feelings, behavior.
Patterns of Denial in Codependents:
- Great difficulty identifying true feelings
- Refusal to recognize unavailability of the people one is attracted to.
- Going so far as to alter – or deny – the way the individual truly feels.
- Lack of empathy for feelings and needs of other people.
- Label others with own negative traits and qualities
- Perception of self as unselfish and dedicated toward the well-being of other people.
- Belief that he/she can care for self WITHOUT help from others.
- Mask pain with indirect ways, such as anger, humor or isolation.
- Negativity or aggression is expressed indirectly or passively.
Patterns of Controlling Behaviors in Codependents:
- Strong-held belief that most people are unable to care for themselves.
- Lavishes gifts and favors upon those who he or she wants to influence
- Attempts to convince others what to do, think, or feel.
- Offer advice and direction without being asked, and become resentful when others don’t follow the given advice or direction.
- Uses sexual attention for approval and/or acceptance
- Need to be needed to have a relationship with another person.
- Demanding that needs be met by others.
- Uses blame and shame to emotionally exploit others.
- Displays charm and charisma to assure others of his or her capacity to be compassionate and caring.
- Refuses to cooperate, negotiate, or compromise with others.
- Adopts attitudes of helplessness, authority, indifference, or rage to manipulate the outcomes of a situation.
- Uses terms of recovery in an attempt to control the behaviors of others.
- Pretends to agree with others to get what he or she desires.
Patterns of Compliance in Codependents:
- Is extremely loyal, remains in harmful, unhealthy situations for far too long.
- Compromises values and integrity in hopes of avoiding rejection and/or anger.
- Puts aside own interests to do what others want.
- Hyper-vigilant about the feelings of others – may take on those feelings.
- Fearful to express beliefs, opinions, and feelings IF they differ from others.
- When looking for love, will accept sexual attention instead.
- Makes decisions without regard for consequences.
- Give up own truth to gain approval of others as well as to avoid change.
Patterns of Avoidance in Codependents:
- Act in a manner that invites others to shame, reject or express feelings of anger toward the individual.
- Harsh judge of what others think, say, or do.
- Avoids emotional, physical, or sexual intimacy to maintain distance.
- Suppresses feelings or needs to avoid feeling vulnerable.
- Pulls people toward him or her then pushes them away when they get “too close.”
- Withholds expressions of appreciation
- Believes displays of emotions are signs of weakness.
- Allows addictions to people, places, and things to distract him or her from actual intimacy in relationships.
- Uses indirect or evasive patterns of communication to avoid conflicts or confrontations.
Signs and Symptoms of Codependency:
Codependent behaviors are often self-destructive. Codependent individuals react to people who are destroying themselves, with the erroneous belief that they are helping them. However, these codependent individuals are putting themselves in relationships that are toxic and dysfunctional. It is impossible for a codependent person to find inner peace or happiness within themselves because all of their energy is put towards fueling a relationship that is destructive.
Codependents often have very low self-esteem, self-image, and may be depressed or anxious. They will blame themselves for everything that goes wrong in a relationship and feel a lot of guilt. Their appearance may seem rigid and controlled because they are afraid of letting someone see who they really are inside.
Symptoms of codependency can include (but not all must be present for a diagnosis of codependency):
Care-taking – An effect of poor boundaries is that if someone else has a problem, you want to help them to the point that you give up yourself. It’s natural to feel empathy and sympathy for someone, but codependents start putting other people ahead of themselves. In fact, they need to help and might feel rejected if another person doesn’t want help. Moreover, they keep trying to help and fix the other person, even when that person clearly isn’t taking their advice.
Controlling behaviors – Control helps codependents feel safe and secure. Everyone needs some control over events in their life. No one wants to live in constant uncertainty and chaos, but for codependents, control limits their ability to take risks and share their feelings. Sometimes they have an addiction that either helps them loosen up, like alcoholism, or helps them hold their feelings down, like workaholism so that they don’t feel out of control. Codependents also need to control those close to them, because they need other people to behave in a certain way to feel okay. In fact, people-pleasing and care-taking can be used to control and manipulate people. Alternatively, codependents are bossy and tell you what you should or shouldn’t do. This is a violation of someone else’s boundary.
Denial – One of the problems people face in getting help for codependency is that they’re in denial about it – they don’t (or won’t) face their problem. In fact, they think the problem is someone else or the situation. They either keep complaining or trying to fix the other person, or go from one relationship or job to another and never own up the fact that they have a problem. Codependents also deny their feelings and needs. Often, they don’t know what they’re feeling and are instead focused on what others are feeling. The same thing goes for their needs. They pay attention to other people’s needs and not their own. They might be in denial of their need for space and autonomy. Although some codependents seem needy, others act like they’re self-sufficient when it comes to needing help. They won’t reach out and have trouble receiving. They are in denial of their vulnerability and need for love and intimacy.
Dependency – Codependents need other people to like them to feel okay about themselves. They’re afraid of being rejected or abandoned, even if they can function on their own. Others need always to be in a relationship because they feel depressed or lonely when they’re by themselves for too long. This trait makes it hard for them to end a relationship, even when the relationship is painful or abusive. They end up feeling trapped.
Dysfunctional communication – Codependents have trouble when it comes to communicating their thoughts, feelings, and needs. If you don’t know what you think, feel or need, this becomes a problem. Other times, you know, but you won’t own up to your truth. You’re afraid to be truthful because you don’t want to upset someone else. Instead of saying, “I don’t like that,” you might pretend that it’s okay or tell someone what to do. Communication becomes dishonest and confusing when you try to manipulate the other person out of fear.
Low self-esteem and self-worth: Feeling that you’re not good enough or comparing yourself to others are signs of low self-esteem. The tricky thing about self-esteem is that some people act as though they think highly of themselves, but it’s only a disguise — they actually feel unlovable, or inadequate. Underneath, usually hidden from consciousness, are feelings of shame. Guilt and perfectionism often go along with low self-esteem.
Poor boundaries – Boundaries are an imaginary line between you and others and divide up what’s yours and somebody else’s. Boundaries apply to your body, money, and belongings, but also to your feelings, thoughts, and needs. That’s especially where codependents get into trouble – they have blurry or weak boundaries. Codependents feel responsible for other people’s feelings and problems or blame their own on someone else. Other codependents have rigid boundaries and are closed off and withdrawn, making it hard for others to get close to them. Sometimes, people flip back and forth between having weak boundaries and rigid ones.
People-pleasing: It’s fine to want to please someone you care about, but codependents usually don’t think they have a choice. Saying “No” causes anxiety. In fact, some codependents have a hard time saying “No” to anyone. They go out of their way and sacrifice their own needs to accommodate others.
Obsessions – Codependents have a tendency to spend their time obsessing about other people or relationship, which is caused by dependency and anxieties and fears. Codependents may also become obsessed when they think they’ve made a “mistake.” Sometimes they lapse into a fantasy about how you’d like things to be or about someone you love, all as a way to avoid the pain of the present.
Problems with intimacy – and no, not sex, although sexual dysfunction may result from an intimacy problem. No, this intimacy codependents struggle with being open, honest, and close to another person. Due to shame and weak boundaries, some people fear that they’ll be judged, rejected, or left behind. On the other hand, a codependent may lose autonomy and feel smothered by the relationships. Maybe you deny your own need for closeness and feel your partner wants too much, or your partner says that you’re unavailable.
Painful emotions – Codependency, being the giver that it is, causes stress and painful emotions. Feelings of shame and poor self-esteem cause anxiety and fear about making mistakes; being a failure, judged, rejected, abandoned; feeling alone. The other symptoms may involve anger and resentment, depression, despair, and hopelessness. Sometimes the feelings are so strong that you end up feeling numb.
Reactivity – One of the consequences of having poor boundaries is that you react to the thoughts of feelings of everyone else. For example, if someone disagrees with you, you tend to believe it or become defensive. You absorb their thoughts, opinions, and words because there is no boundary. If you’d had a boundary, you’d know that it was an opinion and not a reflection of you. You wouldn’t feel threatened by arguments or disagreements.
Am I Codependent?
This condition appears to run in different degrees, whereby the intensity of symptoms is on a spectrum of severity, as opposed to an all or nothing scale. Please note that only a qualified professional can make a diagnosis of co-dependency; not everyone experiencing these symptoms suffers from co-dependency.
1. Do you keep quiet to avoid arguments?
2. Are you always worried about others’ opinions of you?
3. Have you ever lived with someone with an alcohol or drug problem?
4. Have you ever lived with someone who hits or belittles you?
5. Are the opinions of others more important than your own?
6. Do you have difficulty adjusting to changes at work or home?
7. Do you feel rejected when significant others spend time with friends?
8. Do you doubt your ability to be who you want to be?
9. Are you uncomfortable expressing your true feelings to others?
10. Have you ever felt inadequate?
11. Do you feel like a “bad person” when you make a mistake?
12. Do you have difficulty taking compliments or gifts?
13. Do you feel humiliation when your child or spouse makes a mistake?
14. Do you think people in your life would go downhill without your constant efforts?
15. Do you frequently wish someone could help you get things done?
16. Do you have difficulties talking to people in authority, such as the police or your boss?
17. Are you confused about who you are or where you are going with your life?
18. Do you have trouble saying “no” when asked for help?
19. Do you have trouble asking for help?
20. Do you have so many things going at once that you can’t do justice to any of them?
If you identify with several of these symptoms; are dissatisfied with yourself or your relationships, consider seeking professional help. Arrange for a diagnostic evaluation with a licensed physician or psychologist experienced in co-dependency.
Isn’t Everyone Codependent?
Sometimes, you’ll see some healthy behaviors in other people that may appear to be codependent behaviors, but they’re not. Mothers, for example, may show some controlling and care-taking behaviors that are not necessarily codependent or maladaptive. Many people believe that codependency lives on a spectrum and most fall somewhere on that spectrum
Many people are not taught to be assertive, talk about their feelings, or ask directly for what they need which may be things we associate with codependency. It’s overstating to claim that unassertive people are codependent, in fact, many people are unfulfilled in their relationships because of factors other than codependency.
There are some psychology experts who believe that American society itself can cause patterns and behaviors of addiction and codependency and that codependency doesn’t necessarily develop solely through a dysfunctional family dynamic.
Regardless of where, when and how it happened, if you are concerned that you are codependent, the next step for you is to recognize which of your behaviors might be codependent. In order to recognize and change those behaviors, you may choose to enter counseling. Counseling can help you identify when you respond to situations in a codependent way and get guidance on how to begin taking steps to change those patterns.
How Is Codependency Treated?
Counseling is an effective way to learn to break the codependent cycle. With counseling, a person can learn the tools needed to change the behaviors of being codependent. A caveat to counseling is the patient may develop a codependent relationship with the counselor.
If you have codependent tendencies, individual or group counseling can help teach you to be assertive and to become a better listener and communicator. Counseling can help you recognize your codependent behaviors and help you work on developing new, healthier behaviors and coping skills.
Codependency counselors need to present good boundary setting and healthy habits during sessions with clients. If a counselor develops a working relationship with a client that has characteristics of codependency, then a codependent pattern is repeated and therapy may not be as helpful. Some statistics show that 50-80 percent of counselors have not addressed their own codependency issues. So, be careful in choosing a counselor for your codependency issues.
How Do I Practice Interdependence?
Interdependence is building healthy relationships, forming partnerships and giving someone else power over our feelings and well-being. In order to have a happy and healthy life, interdependence is necessary. We must share our feelings and our thoughts with others in order to be made happy.
It’s a give-take type of relationship. You must give some of yourself and turn over some of your feelings in order to be able to take love and support in. Only giving or only taking is a big sign of codependency.
Interdependence takes practice to learn if you’ve been in a codependent relationship for years but it can be learned.
Additional Codependency Resources:
CoDA (Codependents Anonymous): Links to find a meeting closest to you, as well as to buy literature; sign up for email lists and learn of news and events.
CoDA Online: Provides a nice chat feature and forums for those struggling with codependency issues
Overcoming Codependency: Reclaiming Yourself In Relationships – Huffington Post article
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