Codependency has gotten some press in recent years. Which is a very good thing because it drags into the light of day a dangerous and fairly common relationship pattern that can hold people hostage for years. If ignored, codependency can do grave damage. I worry that people sometimes hear “codependent” and brush it off— yeah, yeah—as if it’s a trend or a buzz word and not a vitally important concept for everyone to have a handle on. Whether you are codependent or someone you love is, be sure you understand what it means, and be familiar with the signs.
At its core, codependency is a dysfunctional relationship with yourself. Not knowing how to love yourself in healthy ways is an essential and underlying cause of codependency.
The experts define codependency as a pattern of behavior in which you find yourself excessively dependent on someone else for approval. Fragile self-worth results in a shaky sense of self. “Who am I really?” becomes a burning uncertainty, though not on a conscious level.
→ Seeking to feel worthy, a codependent person makes extreme sacrifices to satisfy a partner’s needs.
→ Seeking a sense of identity, a codependent begins to define his or her self via the other.
Example: If Evelyn can keep Jim happy, non-angry, sober, functional—whatever it is—then her life has meaning. She has meaning. She exists. Where is Evelyn in this equation? What does she get out of the relationship? Not much, other than exhaustion and the hopeless feeling that no matter how hard she tries, it will never be enough.
So who is at risk for becoming codependent? You name it. It can be anyone. Codependency is a continuum, like many things. It is possible to be a “little bit” codependent, or shackled by full-blown codependency.
Behavior patterns learned in childhood can lead to codependency as the paradigm for adult relationships. Often, the children of alcoholics, the mentally ill, or people with narcissistic tendencies or borderline personality disorders grow up as codependents. They, by default, are required to take care of the struggling parent, and a pattern emerges. Controlling and/or constantly appeasing the other person in the relationship (i.e. the parent, or later, the partner) allows the codependent to feel useful and less vulnerable to the very real chaos of his or her life.
By feeling out of control, the enabler in a codependent relationship promotes the other person’s dysfunctions in order to “take care of things.” In other words, if you have codependent tendencies, you may find that you require the continuation of the dysfunctional behavior of your partner in order to feel worthy and useful. This feedback loop becomes an ever-more-troubling vicious cycle, whereby the partner is prevented from recognizing and getting help for disturbing, addictive, abusive, or other unhealthy behaviors.
There is reprogramming required on both sides of the codependent relationship equation. The codependent needs to stop fixing, doing for, controlling, and also being taken advantage of, worn to a nub, and giving up all chance of self-actualized living. The dysfunctional partner needs to step up, recognize and own his or her behavior, seek (and accept) help. Two codependent people can learn to become loving and interdependent, with a healthy, fulfilling relationship. (See my blog, The Value of Interdependent Relationships, which clarifies the distinctions between codependent and interdependent.)
First: what are the characteristics of codependency?
- Low self-esteem. If you feel unlovable or not good enough, you are in danger of becoming entwined in a codependent situation. (When you know you are good enough, you do not need external proof. You do not need to “earn points” by saving someone else.)
- Denial. Of your core self. Your own needs. Your own desires. If you have been programmed to shut yourself out of the equation, you can learn to see yourself clearly, recognize what you want and need, and then communicate that plainly.
- Fear. If you are very vulnerable to fear—of being alone, rejected, or abandoned, for instance—you are not operating from a place of strength. If your desire to be in a relationship trumps your desire to be happy and healthy in that relationship, you are probably being guided by fear. (When you realize you are okay, in fact that you are wonderful and worthy, you will understand that you do not have to lose yourself to hold onto someone else.)
- Craving for affection and acceptance. We all want to be loved. We all desire to be accepted, but:
* If you become obsessed with your relationship or with what you can “do” to gain or retain one, you are losing sight of you.
* If you sacrifice your Self to feel loved and accepted, the hole inside you will never really fill up.
* If you have to jump through hoops to please, or appease, your partner in order to be accepted… it is not you who has found love, it is the false version of you that you have created to gain the appearance of love and acceptance.
- Lack of assertiveness. A codependent often (not always) has a very hard time making a decision. This relates to having boundaries, too, as this indecisiveness means you can’t say no. Sometimes “yes” means love, but sometimes it is “no” that reveals true love. Not only for your partner, but for yourself.
- Lack of trust. A codependent person often comes across as very controlling. This is largely a factor of not being able to trust—yourself, others, or the universe. A very lonely place to be, where “If I want it done right, I’ll do it myself,” becomes “If I want the world to still be here when I wake up tomorrow morning, I’ll have to do everything myself.” Do you ever feel like that?
Second: what are the dangers of codependency? People who tend towards codependency often:
→ repeatedly attract unstable and toxic relationships
→ remain in unhealthy relationships, feeling anxious and trying to conform to the partner’s wishes and fluctuating demands
→ sacrifice health and well-being for others
→ live an unfulfilled life, suffering from feelings of emptiness, hopelessness, or numbness
→ are unable to find satisfaction in life outside of a specific person or relationship (and usually not even there)
→ loss of identify
Third: how can you change a codependent relationship? First, get help! Hire a life coach or counselor who is familiar with codependency, find a twelve step group like Codependents Anonymous (CoDA), or seek out an accountability partner—a friend who will help you hold the line. Please do not try to go it alone.
There are some things you can do on your own, though. Here are some steps to get you started:
- Focus on yourself. Not easy if you have been focusing on someone else’s needs and problems for as long as you can remember. But if you dedicate even half the time you typically spend thinking about someone else thinking about you and what you need, you’ll be taking a great stride!
- Observe your feelings without judgment. Don’t talk down to yourself, and just allow for feelings to bubble up. What do you notice? If you feel resentment or anger, hopelessness or fear—look the feeling right in the face and say, “Isn’t that interesting.” Just acknowledging what feelings lurk beneath all the busy-ness and sacrifice involved in your relationship will be a huge first step.
- Meditate. Practicing focused breathing, stillness, and any form of meditation that works for you is an important step to becoming more calm and self-aware.
- Discover your limiting beliefs. Simply put, our beliefs and emotions control our thoughts and actions. If you can find what firmly-held beliefs hold you back—maybe without realizing it—you can rewrite them and literally redirect your subconscious to guide you to a different outcome. (Example: “I always get ditched” becomes “I have not yet found the person who will value me as I deserve.”)
- Create your life vision. If you have been living for and on behalf of someone else for a long time, you may not be in touch with your very own vision for your life. You can reconnect with that vision, or create one… starting now.
- Set emotional and physical boundaries. And keep them! Say no, and mean it.
- Broaden your circle. Reach out to others. Reconnect with people you’ve lost touch with. As Hamlet said, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” For our purposes, what the prince is getting at is: you need to get out more.
- Develop and pursue your own interests. Has it been awhile since you pursued a passion or delved into something that mattered to you? Or just watched a TV show you wanted to watch?
- Tell yourself the awesome truth. Sing it! The beautiful truth about yourself that you’ve lost sight of. Remind yourself every day. This could be as simple as writing in a journal. Something positive, hopeful, joyful, sympathetic, or delightful about you. Yup: e.v.e.r.y d.a.y.
Codependent relationship patterns are learned. The good news? They can be unlearned. Programming can be undone. Beliefs can be rewritten. Where you are now is not a life sentence, unless you want it to be. With support, the desire to change and heal, and some emotional “elbow grease”—you can be rid of the patterns of codependency that have held you hostage until now.