What is Codependency and does it matter

Codependency is a word that has lost some of its original meaning from overuse. Codependency originated in the recovery movement and was used to describe the behaviors of people who were in a relationship with an alcoholic or substance abuser. Codependency has come to mean addiction to relationships, relationships that do not have healthy boundaries and relationships where the codependent has not been able to protect themselves.

Over the years, however, codependency has expanded into a definition that describes a dysfunctional pattern of living and problem solving, developed during childhood by dysfunctional family rules. These families suffer from poor boundaries (to understand these boundaries and definitions of abuse) and produce adults who have been abused as children. This abuse may come in the form of neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, verbal abuse and/or emotional abuse. Abuse will be have found in families who suffer from mental health issues, problems with addictions and compulsivity, in families where for whatever reason parents don’t have time for children, and in families where the parents were abused as children.

Pia Melody in her book, Facing Codependency, defines the Five Core Symptoms of Codependence:

• Having low self-esteem
• Difficulty setting boundaries
• Knowing yourself, knowing what you want
• Taking care of adult needs and wants
• Difficulty experiencing and expressing reality moderately.

In any family there are elements of accommodation that we have to make, for some these accommodations are little for others it can be a form of abuse. We adapt so we can survive. You couldn’t wake up each day and say “This is hell”; you have to go into some type of denial to survive. Those tools we used to adapt were the tools available to children and as adults we may find that we still rely upon them and they don’t work as well as they did before. Remember: as a child your choices are limited. They are pretty much limited to your thoughts and fantasy, these are the tools of children. “How can I think about what is happening to me in a way that I don’t feel like a victim?” Children blame themselves for the problem: “If I were better, maybe my parents wouldn’t fight or I wouldn’t be hurt.” “If I brought more joy to my family than they wouldn’t be so unhappy.” As children we don’t even usually think things this clearly its not until we are far removed from the situation that we can really allow ourselves to think about it. As a child to feel the problem might be in  our parents often makes us feel helpless and hopeless — we do not have the power to change how others respond and as children we don’t have the power to leave or protect ourselves.  So to feel a sense of mastery in the world, we become the problem. “This is something I can work on and fix. I can change me and I can’t change them.” But we constantly fail because we are not the problem.

Psychotherapy has been a good setting for learning that you are not the problem. It can be a good environment for learning how you accommodated and how to put yourself first. How to grow, develop insight and understanding so you will have more options and choices in your life.

As we grow our tools for protecting ourselves should grow, but remember we must be taught coping and problem solving skills. Without this education we still use the tools our child’s mind came up with and often continue to blame ourselves for other peoples behaviors. As adults we need to expand our resources, we have not been taught good problem solving skills or good self care.

Recovery from codependency is learning how to meet and identify our own needs, to learn that putting ourselves first is not always selfish. When we set boundaries and factor in our needs we become a better friend, spouse/partner in any type of relationship. I always use the example when you are on an airplane and the flight crew is giving you the instructions most of us ignore they always tell you if the oxygen mask comes down first place it over your mouth and then if someone needs assistance help them. If you can’t breath you are little help to the next person. This isn’t a hall pass to always have it your way it is an opportunity to start looking at your relationships and consider how they can become collaborative. It is an opportunity to challenge some of the beliefs you have learned about yourself and find that some of them may not be accurate or maybe were but no longer fit.  We learn ways of communicating,we learn to honor and respect our needs and wants and the needs and wants of others. We learn what a reciprocal relationship is and how we deserve to be in them. We learn how to problem-solve and look for the win-win solutions. How to set health boundaries, how to compromise and accept others limitations and not take it personally. We learn to tolerate differences and know there is not always one way to do something. We learn we are not damaged and doomed to repeat the same mistakes. We discover our self-worth and self-esteem. We learn that we are loveable.

By Licia Ginne, MFT