By Darlene Lancer, JD, MFT
Codependency is sneaky and powerful. You may not be aware that it’s the root cause of your problems. Focusing thinking and behavior around someone else is a sign of codependency. We react to something external, rather than our own internal cues. Addicts are codependent, too. Their lives revolve around their addiction – be it food, work, drugs, or sex.
Codependency derived from the term “co-alcoholic,” originating in studies of family members of substance abusers who interfered with recovery by enabling. Family therapists found that codependent behavior developed in their childhood growing up in a dysfunctional family. In the 40s, German psychoanalyst and humanist Karen Horney wrote about neurotic behavior caused by self-alienation. She described personality types that fit codependency and believed that they resulted from faulty parenting and the “tyranny of the shoulds.”
The 12-step program Codependents Anonymous (CoDA) was founded in 1986 by Ken and Mary, two therapists who had grown up in abusive families.
Codependency is not considered a disorder by the American Psychiatric Association, due to lack of consensus on a definition and empirical research. However, the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders does list a dependent personality disorder, described as someone more passive, submissive, and dependent than most codependents. In 1989, experts at a National Conference in Scottsdale, Arizona arrived at a suggested definition: “A pattern of painful dependency on compulsive behaviors and on approval from others in an attempt to find safety, self-worth and identity.” Other definitions by experts in the field include:
Melody Beattie: Allowing another person’s behavior to affect him or her and obsessing about controlling that person’s behavior.
Earnie Larsen: A diminished capacity to initiate, or participate in, loving relationships.
Robert Subby: Resulting from prolonged exposure to oppressive rules.
John Bradshaw & Pia Melody: A symptom of abandonment – a loss of ones inner reality and an addiction to outer reality.
Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse: A brain disorder that leads codependents to seek the relief of soothing brain chemicals, which are released through compulsive behaviors, including addiction to work, substances, gambling, food, sex, and/or relationships.
Charles Whitfield: A disease of a lost selfhood.
Darlene Lancer: A person who can’t function from his or her innate self and instead organizes thinking and behavior around a substance, process, or other person(s).”
Beattie’s and Larsen’s definition centers on relationship behavior. I agree with Bradshaw, Melody, and Whitfield that codependency resides in us whether or not we’re in a relationship. I also agree with Wegscheider-Cruse that addicts are codependent and that relief is sought through substances, processes, and people. However, unlike Cruse, I believe codependency is learned behavior that’s trans-generational. Other influences are cultural and religious biases. Although research shows that some teens had brain abnormalities even before they became drug addicts, their twins did not become addicted, so the full impact of genetic and organic causes is still unclear, particularly in view of the brain’s plasticity in adolescence.
Core Feelings and Behavior
Core feelings include:
- Low Self-esteem
- Painful emotions: Shame, Guilt, Anger and Resentment, Anxiety and Fear, Depression
Core Behaviors include:
- Intimacy problems
- Dysfunctional communication
- Dysfunctional boundaries
- Control of oneself and/or others (includes Caretaking)
Core feelings and behaviors create other problems, such as, people-pleasing, self-doubt, mistrust, perfectionism, high-reactivity, enabling, and obsessions. Codependents are usually more attuned to other people’s needs and feelings than their own. To quell anxiety about rejection, they try to accommodate others, while ignoring their own needs, wants, and feelings. As a result, they tend to lose their autonomy, particularly in intimate relationships. Over time, their self-worth declines due to self-alienation and/or allowing others to devalue them.
Codependents have varied personalities, and symptoms differ in type and severity among them. They also have diverse attachment styles. Not all are caretakers or are even in a relationship. Some seek closeness, while others avoid it. Some are addicts, bullies, selfish, and needy, or may appear independent and confident, but they attempt to control, or are controlled by, a personal relationship or their addiction. Sometimes that relationship is with an addict or narcissist. A relationship that is one-sided or marked by addiction or abuse is a sign of codependency. But not all codependent relationships are one-sided or abusive.
Untreated codependency can lead to severe anxiety, depression, and health problems. There is help for recovery and change. Recovery goes through stages that normalize codependent symptoms. The goal of recovery is to be a fully functioning adult who is:
- Capable of intimacy
- Assertive and congruent in expression of values, feelings, and needs
- Flexible without rigid thinking or behavior
Become informed. Get guidance and support. Codependent patterns are deeply ingrained habits and difficult to identify and change on your own. It often takes an experienced third party to identify them and to suggest alternative beliefs and responses. Therapy and 12-Step meetings provide this. In recovery, you will:
- Come out of denial
- Let go of others
- Build an autonomous Self
- Raise your self-esteem
- Find pleasure – develop friends, hobbies
- Heal past wounds
- Learn to be assertive and set boundaries
- Pursue larger goals and passions
Self-Help and Therapy
Codependency is highly recoverable, but requires effort, courage, and the right treatment. A therapist should be knowledgeable in treating codependency, shame, and self-esteem, as well as be able to teach healthier behavioral and communication skills. Cognitive-behavior therapy is effective in raising self-esteem and changing codependent thinking, feelings, and behavior. In some cases, trauma therapy is also indicated.
Recovery can generate more anxiety, so it’s important to maintain a self-help support system such as, Al-Anon or CoDA 12-Step programs. Do the exercises in my books, Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You and Codependency for Dummies and my ebooks, 10 Steps to Self-Esteem and How to Speak Your Mind – Become Assertive and Set Limits (see also companion webinars) to build self-esteem and become more assertive.
©Darlene Lancer 2019 All rights reserved
Darlene Lancer, JD, MFT
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