"It is not easy to find happiness in ourselves, and it is not possible to find it elsewhere."
- Agnes Repplier, The Treasure Chest
LCSW, CSAT, CMAT
WHAT IS CODEPENDENCY?
Codependency is an emotional and behavioral condition that interferes with people’s ability to live a full and meaningful life. It is learned in childhood and passes down through generations until someone in the generational link changes the codependent patterns. Characteristics of codependency usually intensify with time and cause a great deal of pain and unhappiness. Recovery from codependency, however, is possible. Like working out new muscles at the gym, learning how to manage the codependency in you will dramatically improve how you feel and experience your life.
Two key areas in which codependent people suffer are in relationship with the Self and relationships with others. As a person’s relationship with the Self improves, his/her relationships with others also improve. Codependent characteristics include low self-esteem, poor boundaries, lack of trust, difficulty with knowing and asserting one’s needs and wants, being able to see reality, and managing one’s own feelings and life in healthy and moderate ways. Codependency is found where there is addiction (drugs, alcohol, sex, food, gambling, etc.), in people who are in relationships with addicted individuals, in people addicted to relationships, and in those who come from difficult families and home environments.
WHERE DOES CODEPENDENCY COME FROM?
When addiction and/or mental illness are present in a family, every family member is affected. That is why these are considered to be family diseases. Children who experience addiction in the family as well as abuse (physical, emotional, sexual), often feel ashamed and embarrassed by their family or certain family members; they usually learn to hide or lie about the truth of their home environment. They are often blamed for making mistakes, for their problems, and for the problems of their families. They acquire an overwhelming sense of responsibility and guilt, which continue to show up in adulthood. Parent/child roles are often blurred or reversed when children sense the need to take care of their parents emotionally and physically. They become caretakers, giving up their own needs. These children learn early on to deny their needs and wants. They work tirelessly to keep the family environment safe and others happy. They learn to survive. Because of fear, anger, shame, and a general sense of being unsafe, children become experts at tuning into and predicting others’ moods and feelings. This creates a great deal of confusion for the child and later on the adult.
HOW DOES CODEPENDENCY AFFECT YOUR LIFE?
People Pleasing: Codependent people feel responsible for making other people happy. Saying ”no” may cause them anxiety, fear, guilt, and distress. They give up their needs and wants for the sake of doing what other people want. They say what people want to hear and avoid speaking their truth to avoid confrontation. They fear rejection and abandonment and work hard in relationships to avoid experiencing these. Feelings of anger and resentment are strong, yet they continue to try harder to make things better and keep others happy.
Low Self-Esteem: Looking for one’s value and sense of self-worth from the outside is called other-esteem. That is, needing external conditions such as job, status, money, education, and social/marital status in order to feel worthy and valuable. Seeking approval and validation from others creates a temporary feeling of value and esteem. In order to numb pain and negativity, people often engage in excessive behaviors such as drugs, alcohol, sex, food and shopping. Excessive behaviors often lead to addiction. Inner-esteem finds your worthiness and lovability from inside you. Self-esteem and personal value are not dependent on anything external.
Taking Care of Others: Identifying and setting boundaries are critical for personal safety and relationship health. The parts of our lives that need boundaries are physical, sexual, and emotional as well as with talking and listening. Internal boundary keeping means behaving in ways that are in line with your personal value system - how you want to see yourself be. People often violate others’ boundaries as well as their own. When this happens you are left with regret, asking yourself, “Why did I act like that?” or “How did I get so out of control?” Violating boundaries (your own and others’) feels lousy, fosters shame, and creates great disturbance in people’s lives and relationships.
Denying Reality: Denial is a survival mechanism that serves to keep things the way they are and avoid feeling pain. Seeing reality may threaten relationships and force a person to make choices and changes that are scary and unwanted. Even if the current situation is painful, it is familiar. The unknown often feels too scary to consider. Denial has the power to keep people in difficult relationships and situations for prolonged periods of time. It prevents them from taking care of themselves, and over time they become more unhappy. Reality, although it may be painful, encourages people to consider options and make healthy, positive choices. It has the power to bring personal growth and enormous positivity to one’s life and relationships.
Needs and Wants: Codependent people struggle with knowing their needs and wants and the difference between the two. They tend to expect others to read their minds and know what they want and feel without having to say it directly. They believe others are responsible for their happiness and that people should just know what to say and do to make them feel good. People often view it as proof of love, e.g., If he really loves me he would know and do and say what I need in order for me to feel better. This leads to a general feeling of disappointment and a sense of being a victim most of the time. Not knowing how or being able to voice needs and wants in relationships causes strain and unhappiness with others.
HEALING FROM CODEPENDENCY
In order to recover from codependency, you need to learn about it and recognize where and how it shows up in your life. The goal is to change patterns of thinking and reacting. It requires action. You know you are healing when you see your ability to be more true to your Self increase. This means you develop a deeper capacity for:
Your thoughts, feelings, actions, and values are in sync, and you have clarity more of the time.
With recovery comes a sense of honor, dignity, and emotional growth. Change is difficult and sometimes scary. Having the courage to change brings great rewards in every facet of your life. You will notice it in all areas!