Codependents often find themselves in relationship with addicts, alcoholics, or persons with more obviously destructive behavioral patterns or glaring needs. The term itself comes from the fields of alcoholism and family systems theory. In the family of the alcoholic, at least one person (the alcoholic) was dependent on alcohol, and everyone else in the family system was considered “codependent” – the “co” in “codependency” signifying a dependency on the alcoholic, or simply being in relationship with the alcoholic. Certain adaptive behaviors and attitudes typically developed and prevailed in the alcoholic family as coping mechanisms which allowed the family and the individual family members to survive the ongoing trauma of one person’s alcoholism.
Although the codependent behaviors and attitudes “work” in the short run, they produce hardened and habitual ways of being, which function in supporting the alcoholic to not address his/her alcoholism. These behaviors also provide family members with a lifelong script developed in a traumatic situation – a situation which was great for surviving, but not for thriving. And so people who are raised in families that were dominated by the addiction or illness of a family member, tend to be very good in a crisis (they have lived through so many). They tend to be hypervigilant with respect to the moods and movements of others, to seek to please others as a way of surviving, and are adept at figuring out how to fit in. They are not so good at knowing what they want, at seeing possibilities that have nothing to do with merely surviving, at relaxing, at trusting, at letting go, at enjoying. In their adult lives, they tend to re-enact their childhood situations and they find themselves again and again in familial and professional relationships with people whose needs are more obviously glaring — people whom they attempt to help, to fix, to serve, to change. They wind up focusing on the need of the other and to the extent that they do that, they are insecure because their wellbeing is dependent on the wellbeing of another. They sense – accurately — that this is a fleeting and precarious position.
The alcoholic makes use of a substance to feel better or to feel nothing. The use of alcohol or another substance or process makes sense – the alcoholic drinks and does feel better for a period of time. The problem comes when his dependence on alcohol begins to have negative impacts on his life and he is unable to eliminate or control his drinking. The codependent learns attitudes and coping mechanisms in an alcoholic home which are good for surviving in an alcoholic home. When he/she leaves that home, those attitudes come with the codependent. He/she will feel very uncomfortable in relationships where those skills are not needed. And so the codependent will seek habitually, albeit unconsciously, to be in relationships where those skills are valued. And so the suffering continues for the codependent, not because he/she freely and consciously chooses to be a caretaker, but because he/she feels compelled by strongly ingrained habit to be that way. Asked to identify what she needs, she answers by saying that she does not need anything for herself or she answers in terms of what she needs for others or the way she needs others to behave. When he is asked what he wants for himself, he does not know and is perplexed. When she is asked to identify what will make her happy she answers, “I will be happy when my son stops using drugs” or “when my husband becomes a responsible person.” The codependent tends to identify self-care with selfishness.
And of course there are those too who grew up in homes dominated by trauma who are both codependent and addicted. There is a saying in the twelve-step rooms, “Scratch an addict and you’ll find a codependent.” Many people come into recovery for an addiction, gain some initial sobriety, and discover codependent traits which must be addressed if they are to become free from their addictions and free in the long run.
Among other words and concepts that tend to go hand in hand with codependency are:
- Victim Identity – the codependent often sees himself as the victim of the behavior of others. In many situations, the person has been victimized – he or she has been wounded by the other and lacked the power to prevent the abuse from happening. This victimization was real and needs to be acknowledged and validated. And, for many codependents, that victim-mode can harden into a habitual way of seeing oneself primarily as victim, where one does not see the actual choices and opportunities that are available now in adulthood. There can be a certain uncomfortable comfort of being in the victim role. The codependent’s world shakes when she begins to claim her strength and to say “yes when she means yes and no when she means no.” When one gets run down by a truck, there is a time for lying down in the street, for screaming out in pain, for getting the license number of the offending vehicle. And there is a time for letting the ambulance take you to the hospital and for you to convalesce, and to be furious about what happened to you, to blame the driver or yourself, and to have sorrow for yourself. And even to feel depressed for a period of time. And there is a time for you to go to the rehab unit and to continue to have your feelings, and to work hard at healing, and to grieve what you have lost, and to assess what you can now do and not do. And there is a time now for you to live fully today!
- Blaming: In many ways, blaming can serve as an important transitional activity when one is moving from having been abused, deceived and confused toward claiming one’s own hurt, anger and truth. It is necessary and proper to identify the abusive and deceitful actions of the other and to know the impact those actions have had on the self. Blaming can be seen as an alternative to enabling. Anger and blame are normal and healthy responses to abuse. The difficulty comes when one gets stuck in blame – either blame of the other or of the self. It is particularly challenging to not get stuck in blame when the injury suffered has been significant.Consider, for example, codependents who have contracted sexually transmitted diseases from their partners, or whose houses and savings have been wiped out because of a spouse’s gambling addiction. The movement past blame is important, not so much because it is the ethical thing to do, but because holding on to the blame keeps the self stuck in suffering. Blaming does not feel good. It may feel “comfortably uncomfortable” to a degree but it is a burdensome shackle. In addition, blaming restricts one’s ability to enjoy, to be free, to see alternatives, and to make real choices.
Finally, while the codependent is caught up in blaming, the behavior of the abuser or addict is still defining the codependent’s life and is still the focal point of the codependent’s attention. Codependency recovery entails moving beyond the blaming of self or other toward an active decision to take responsibility for one’s own life and to take actions on one’s own behalf.
- Controlling: Codependent people are often pejoratively characterized by themselves or others as being controlling. The codependent, in relation to old trauma or to current perceived threat, seeks to protect self and other by managing, manipulating, demanding, dominating, cajoling, pressuring, yelling at, begging, deceiving, covering up for, enabling, protecting, preaching to, pleasing, and praying for the other. The trouble with all of this — the fallacy that underlies this approach — is that the behavior of the other is not under the actual control of the codependent. The other may comply for a period of time, but his behavior and condition are not under the control of anyone else. In many instances, such as serious illness and compulsion, the other is not even in your control.So the codependent’s attempt to assert control is illusory at best and doomed to failure. At root, the codependent recognizes this — and so is in a constant state of anxiety because her wellbeing is so dependent on the wellbeing of the other. The codependent is unable to see an alternative to this way of being, because for years (often since childhood) this has been the only way she has known.
To do something radically different, such as, for example, doing nothing in the face of another’s addiction, seems wrong. All controlling behavior stems from fear. Understanding that is the beginning of a compassionate response to one’s own controlling behavior or to the controlling behavior of another.
To drop the controlling behavior, the codependent needs to understand that it is rooted in past or present fear, and to see that in most instances there are more effective ways of dealing with one’s fear and anxiety than getting someone else to change.
- People-pleasing: This behavior also stems from fear and habit. If you grew up in a codependent family system in which your sense of safety and well-being was threatened by rage, abuse, illness or unpredictability of another family member, it would make sense that you would learn to please the powerful people in your family as a way of preventing the abuse or lightening the burden of stress in the family. People-pleasing behavior would help you survive in your family of origin and in many other systems, but would not help you to be aware of and go after what you actually want or value beyond safety.
- Passive-aggressive behavior: A codependent person may not have been able to directly express frustration or anger in his family of origin for fear of being punished in some way. Nevertheless, every person experiences anger, and that anger will find a way of giving expression to itself either directly or indirectly. The truth will come forth. Passive-aggressive actions are indirect expressions of anger at self or others which mask the actual anger that the codependent person is unable or afraid to recognize and to express. Many seemingly innocent behaviors can sometimes be understood as less than conscious attempts to give expression to anger – for example, forgetfulness, chronic lateness, physical illness, and “accidents”.
- Caretaking: A codependent person will often do “for others” what those others should be doing for themselves. In so doing, codependents can see themselves as long-suffering heroes or martyrs, or criticize themselves for being doormats, or become angry at others for not doing what they should be doing. Alternately, the codependent person can see himself as loving. Not all taking care is codependency.Truly caring, loving actions are freely chosen. Codependent care-taking is compelled. If you struggle with codependency, one litmus test you can use with regard to any action you are considering taking “for another” is to ask yourself, “If I do not take this action, will I experience anxiety or guilt?” And if the answer is yes, do not take the action or at least wait awhile before taking the action. Further, loving actions take into account the wellbeing of the self and the other. I may want to buy this gift for my teenage son, but is this ultimately good for him and for me? I may feel that I have to or should clean up my teenage daughter’s room “for her” but is that ultimately in her best interest, or in my best interest? I may feel like I should again do the dishes tonight but is that good for me and for others? Love and caring involve engagement, discernment and balance and they respect the freedom of the self and the other to say, “No!”
Recovery from Codependency
When you are caught up in codependency, you may find yourself thinking phrases like, “I can’t live my life until he changes” or “I will be happy when he is happy”. Your sense of well-being depends on the well-being of another, and therefore is never secure because it is based on things outside of your control.
We seek therefore to bring the focus of your attention back to that person over whom you actually can exercise a significant level of influence –yourself – over what you choose to think, what you choose to believe, what you choose to do. Although, not even our thinking is under our complete control, we do have some ability to influence how we are going to think about ourselves, about others, about other external realities, about spirituality, etc. That focus is a much more reasonable, secure and efficacious route to freedom and joy than is the focus on other human beings.
Recovery from codependency entails:
- Developing an awareness of your own codependent thinking and behavior;
- Examining the positive function that codependency once had in your life;
- Identifying the negative impact that codependency has in your life;
- Understanding the distinction between when your impulse to get involved in the life of another is compelled and reactive, rather than a free response from your authentic self;
- Creating a non-codependent worldview;
- Training yourself to keep the focus on yourself with regard to your wellbeing and with regard to where you direct your energy for change;
- Utilizing support for making healthy free choices in the midst of fear, manipulation and guilt.
- Abstinence from codependent behaviors.
- Claiming responsibility for your own wellbeing.
- Developing a spirituality which is free from codependency.
These can seem like overwhelming and daunting tasks. Fortunately, you do not need to make these changes all at once – there is a gradual step by step process. And you do not have to take these steps alone. You are not alone. You have access to many resources to assist you on this journey.