“Codependency” is often used, particularly regarding addiction and
recovery. While the term was coined in the 1980s in recovery groups, its concept and meaning can be applied to all kinds of relationships and settings, whether they involve substance abuse or not. The question is: how can understanding codependency help your life right now?
One way is by understanding that codependency is a behavior that relates to all relationships and how balanced they feel. Ever feel like you’re in a relationship with someone (mother, sister, husband, wife, friend, boss) and feel like you give a lot in the relationship, and they take a lot, but the dynamic never reverses? Do you feel responsible for making them happy or unhappy? Do you have anxiety around their emotional responses and try to control circumstances to control their reaction? Maybe you offer to help when you really don’t have the time or energy, but your need for approval overrides your fatigue. These are all very common examples of codependent behavior in everyday life.
But, you may be asking, I’m just helpful; how can giving be wrong? It’s not wrong to give and be helpful. However, you must look at the impulses underneath the giving and helpfulness. As a writer and recovering alcoholic, Anne Lamott writes, “Help is the sunny side of control.” Helping is not helpful when it causes the relationship to go out of balance and when it protects dysfunctional behavior. An example of an addict and codependent behavior is when the addict is too hungover to go to work, the codependent then “helps” them by calling into work with a lie, saying they have the flu. Now the addict won’t face any consequences for the choice they made to use, and the codependent has proven how helpful they are in the addict's life because they will handle the feelings and consequences for them.
Codependent behavior is often driven by low self-esteem, and this low self-esteem is generated in childhood experiences in all kinds of ways. If you grew up with an addicted parent, if you were emotionally or physically abused, if you were emotionally or physically abandoned, if you grew up with a parent with explosive tempers, these are all dynamics where codependent behavior is quite common. As a child, we have a lot less power than the adults in our lives. When there is behavior that is threatening and frightening to a child and when the child can sense that the adult can’t regulate their own feelings, the child will unconsciously begin trying to control the situation in several ways: by being helpful, being invisible (having no needs) , being “perfect,” etc. The child cannot grow in ways that develop their maturity and sense of personal value—they are either too busy because they are managing the chaotic adult in their lives, or they have gone unnoticed by an emotionally unavailable parent.
Feeling that you have no value is frightening. If I have no value, how will I ever be loved? The codependent’s answer is to be helpful, to pick someone who will need you, someone whose life may be a mess, and who needs your help sorting it all out. Codependent behavior always puts the other person’s needs first, even when inappropriate. The codependent is not always acting from a “helpful” place either; they have a need to control the relationship so they can have assurance that they are needed and therefore have value.
Here are some simple exercises to identify and stop codependent behavior in its tracks:
Boost your self-esteem with self-care–if you’re a person who gives and gives to other people, it’s time to ask yourself what you need. Even asking yourself that question is an act of self-care. It could be anything from a nap to lunch with a friend, a trip to the mall, a hike in nature, turning off your phone, or whatever feels good to you. Follow your desire, and put what you want first.
Set boundaries–Do you ever find yourself spending time wondering what someone else is feeling or feeling anxious about what they may be feeling? Now is the time to draw an invisible circle around yourself and say, “I am responsible for managing the feelings inside this circle. My feelings. Other people are responsible for their feelings. Their feelings are not my job.” It is amazingly freeing!
Learn to let go and say no–because codependents strongly need to control other people’s feelings and reactions to them, it can be difficult to say no. If we say no, we are removing ourselves from the responsibility of the situation: managing it, saving it, controlling it, etc. That can feel scary at first. When we let go of control, we allow the natural sequences of events to take their course. If our addict partner is too hungover to go to work, we do not call the boss with an excuse. We let the chips fall where they may. If our boss asks us to do extra work that we’re not paid for or don’t have time for, we value ourselves and our time enough to say no. We don’t take on extra work out of fear that we must prove our value. When you need to control a situation, ask yourself what it would feel like to drop the reins and walk away. Quite often, it is the healthier response for someone with codependent tendencies.
The goal for all of us (and all of us are susceptible to codependent behavior) is to seek out interdependent relationships rather than codependent ones. Interdependent relationships are balanced; the role of giver and taker is fluid and can change based on circumstances with what each person needs. All feelings are allowed and expressed respectfully. When each person can take ownership of their own feelings and emotional regulation, the dynamic in the relationship can flow freely, unimpeded by a need to control or manage the other person.
Recovering from codependency and choosing different ways to respond is not easy, but it will offer more personal freedom and self-esteem in the long run. It’s ok to make changes slowly and, as always, be gentle with yourself.
For further reading on codependency, check out these resources:
Co-Dependents Anonymous: CoDA.org
By: Alison Rogers Napoleon, LMSW Intern