Clinical Mental Health Counselor








What is Codependency?

Co-dependency is learned behavior which gets passed down in families. Codependent patterns undermine relationships by weakening and burying the self. People with a weak sense of self often are often attracted to relationships that are emotionally destructive. If the self is buried long enough and deeply enough, codependency becomes what is called “relationship addiction” or "love addiction"

Codependency was first identified by studying the interpersonal relationships in families of alcoholics. "Co-dependent" was the term used to describe how family members structured their lives and their sense of self by revolving around the unpredictable behaviors of the family addict. Those living with addicts tend to make their personal decisions based on the mood of the addict rather than what is truly a healthy choice.

Today we understand that codependency can grow in a variety of situations. Similar patterns have been observed in families dealing with chronic illness or mental illness.

Codependent behavior is often characterized by an intense anxiety around interpersonal relationships.In order to manage their anxiety, codependents unconsciously monitor the dynamics around them, and dedicate themselves to what others need or want. In that way a codependent feels safe.

A codependent has strong ideas of how things "should" be and are often excessively helpful, trying to "fix" things. Underneath this mask is a strong control impulse; this is how a codependent manages his or her anxiety.

Codependents will create situations of giving too much to the wrong person or the wrong situation, and end up being the victim or scapegoat. Then they have "reason" to blame others or the world for their unhappiness. It is hard for a codependent to see their part in creating their own pain, as they truly believe they are being selfless, and kind and appropriate. It is everyone else who is at fault.

What is a Dysfunctional Family?

A dysfunctional family is one in which members suffer from fear, anger, pain, or shame that is ignored or denied.

Dysfunctional Families Do Not Acknowledge Problems

Dysfunctional families don’t talk about problems directly. Family members learn to repress emotions; they learn to ignore what they really need and really feel, and expect others to do the same. The most important directive of the family is to deny what is really happening, no matter the cost. Avoiding difficulty is a way of life. Family members are expected to "buck up" or repress their feelings in favor of supporting the established lie of the family. People are brushed aside or cast out of the family if they cannot stick to the program. Often there is little or no physical affection; people do not trust each other, do not talk honestly with each other, and they will believe this is normal. Children growing up in this kind of environment never become emotionally mature adults unless there is an intervention. Life is experienced on a very basic level of survival.

The "established lie" of the family, often centers around a family member who is either mentally ill or addicted. The lie can cover up abuse that is hard to face such as sexual abuse or emotional abuse or violence. Co-dependents will place themselves at the bottom of the need list, believing this is what must be done in order to survive. Eventually they lose touch with the core of who they are - and they become just as sick as the ones they were serving or protecting.

Underlying family problems may include any of the following:

  • Physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
  • A family member suffering from a chronic mental or physical illness
  • A family member addicted to drugs, alcohol, sex, pornography, romantic fantasy, workaholism, eating disorders, gambling

"When the codependent is drowning,
someone else's life flashes before their eyes."
Author Unknown

Codependents have diffuse boundaries; that means it is difficult for them to tell the difference between their own needs and the needs of another person.

Co-dependents have low self-esteem. They have forgotten who they are, and believe their value lies outside of themselves. They are uncomfortable in their own skin. and look for things or people outside of themselves to make them feel better. They find it hard to be themselves. Either everyone is more important than they are, or they have to be more important than anyone else. Either way they are concerned with how others view them, and what others are doing instead of exploring their inner world of self. Many codependents take on caretaking roles. Some try to feel better through alcohol, drugs or food - and become addicted. Others may develop compulsive behaviors like workaholism, gambling, or indiscriminate sexual activity.

Co-dependents are often kind people who have been taught ways to love that are not truly healthy. They believe that by giving too much of themselves they are loving more. They believe that they are being kind by allowing bad things to continue or by sublimating their own desires, needs and feelings.

Some examples: A young mother is so immersed in taking care of her family that she neglects her own health and drops into depression. A husband ignores his wife's verbal abuse of their children to keep the peace. A mother dotes on her son and denies his gang affiliation. A young woman puts up with insults and controlling behavior from from her boyfriend because she wants to be with a man. A wife covers up for her alcoholic husband so he doesn't lose his job. A father steps in to protect his son from consequences of poor behavior instead of teaching the son the proper way to act. A woman wants to prove that she is a good wife so she obsesses about her husband's every desire, making him the center of her universe, and then he becomes violent to push her away. A man stays in a job even though he knows it is not healthy for him, because he is too afraid to step into an authentic life.

A codependent may hide behind a person with power, in a job or in a marriage, hoping to gain secondary power for themselves without real self exploration.

The compulsion to be connected to anything but themselves encourages unhealthy behaviors in others as well. When things go poorly the codependent is so convinced of the rightness of their giving up of self that they believe this is the highest and only way to be. They will cling to this point of view to the point of destruction.. Being a victim is seen by the codependent not as being out of sync with life, but simply being unappreciated by others. This is a form of the martyr.

Ultimately, codependency is not about love, but about control. Control of one's inner feelings of helplessness and emptiness; control of others by appearing to be helpful and valuable. Even control by being a rigid tyrant is a form of codependency.

Some Characteristics of Co-dependent People

  • We are afraid of being abandoned.
  • We are afraid of rejection
  • We feel isolated and alone
  • We almost always deny what we are really feeling
  • We feel afraid to be who we are and share who we are
  • We don't trust ourselves.
  • We don't trust others
  • We neglect ourselves
  • We do not reach out for help
  • We believe we are unlovable
  • We are terrified of loss, not understanding that this is a natural part of life
  • We carry a deep sense of shame
  • We are highly critical of ourselves and others
  • We are full of self pity

It's Not One Gender

Co-dependency is seen in both men and women. This excerpt by therapist and author Beverly Engel uses the feminine pronoun, but the behavior can just as easily be seen in a male.

"The irony is that as much as a "codependent" feels responsibility for others and takes care of others, s/he believes deep down that other people are responsible for her. S/he blames others for his/her unhappiness and problems, and feels that it's other people's fault that s/he's unhappy.

Another irony is that while s/he feels controlled by people and events, s/he herself is overly controlling. S/he is afraid of allowing other people to be who they are and of allowing events to happen naturally. An expert in knowing best how things should turn out and how people should behave, the codependent person tries to control others through threats, coercion, advice giving, helplessness, guilt, manipulation, or domination."

Emotional and Physical Consequences of Codependency

Codependent people are always focused outside themselves, paying attention to other people. They are out of touch with who they are. As a result they develop emotional problems such as depression, anxiety, hypervigilance, and mood swings. Relationships are difficult.

Physical problems develop such as exhaustion, gastrointestinal disturbances, migraine headaches, skin problems, high blood pressure, sleep disorders, and other stress related illnesses.

Do You See Yourself Anywhere Here?

  • Avoiding arguments seems like a good strategy
  • You worry about what others think of you
  • Authority figures are scary or difficult, or they don't see you at all
  • You are afraid that you will lose if you speak up
  • Down deep, you believe the opinions of others are more important than your own
  • It's hard to say no
  • You find it difficult to believe in yourself
  • You help people a lot, but find they do not help you
  • It's hard to ask for help for yourself, and hard to accept help if it comes
  • You are way too busy, but someone has to do it.
  • You believe love means giving everything you've got, even if it destroys you
  • You can get high by giving too much
  • You often feel inadequate
  • You think of yourself as "bad"
  • You try very hard to be "nice".
  • You don't share what you really feel with others for fear of being rejected, ridiculed or made less than
  • It's uncomfortable when people acknowledge you, but you are angry when they don't
  • You attract people who put you down, don't appreciate you
  • You attract people who abuse drugs or alcohol or sex or money
  • You're always trying to put someone else back together

How  is Codependency Treated?

A codependent person has been re-routed away from the self for so long, he or she simply does not know what is true for them any more. For this reason, therapy focuses on helping a client know what is actually true for them at this moment.

Codependents are so used to listening to everyone else and mistrusting themselves that they can no longer remember what it is to simply be who they are. In fact they have grown to believe they are hugely defective and terrible.

An effective, simple and gentle way to rediscover the authentic self is to come back to the body. I utilize Somatic Experiencing in my office, because it cuts through the mental paralysis most codependents experience. Somatic Experiencing helps by teaching you how to sense into the body and bypass the mind. The body does not lie. By paying attention to simple body awareness, the false layers fall away and true feelings are revealed in a way that is easily managed. A client can know without question what they feel by accessing the present moment through the felt sense.
(Read more under Somatic Experiencing .)

A lot of people are afraid to go inside, because they believe they will find a monster there, and they actually believe the monster is them. In treatment this fear is gently overcome. It is ALWAYS discovered that the core self is beautiful. So called monsters can be identified and distinguished from the core self. Then the monsters are cast out.

Often childhood experiences come back to memory. Beliefs that were helpful as a child are seen to be no longer helpful. Gradually a client identifies what patterns work, and which do not work, and chooses accordingly. Old beliefs can be dissolved. It is a process of practice and gradual growth.

Treatment also focuses on exploring a client's beliefs about relationships.The co-dependent must identify and embrace his or her true feelings and needs. Any behavior that allows abuse to continue needs to be acknowledged and stopped. This may include learning how to say “no,” learning to be loving yet tough, and learning to be self-reliant.

Group therapy can be helpful by learning from others, and trying new ways of relating with others.

The Change is Worth It !

Codependency is taught by example in families. If you heal your codependent behavior you have the opportunity to heal future generations of your family. As long as no one makes the effort to do anything differently, things will continue as they are. But if you have the courage and the love to stop this negative behavior NOW, future generations will learn from you, and they will thank you. You can change the future and thus change family history.

© Inside Therapy 2008-2014