I recently wrote a post entitled, “Codependency Kills.” It may seem like a dramatic title, but it’s not. I have been a certified grief counselor since the mid-1990s, and I have counseled many families in which someone driven to despair, many times over a breakup, committed suicide. When I was in early recovery for codependency, an in-law’s brother killed himself. I knew, from knowing them as a couple, that they were deeply enmeshed. It shook me to my core, because I was in the same dark place he was when my own marriage ended. Thankfully, I had a wonderful therapist who talked me in off the ledge.
The best definition of codependency comes from Melody Beattie, who said that the concept that you begin and end someplace and I begin and end another place is lost on codependents. In a codependent relationship, the partners are enmeshed and have no idea who owns what. In Getting Back Out There, I discuss ways for couples to settle agreements. One of the most important ingredients to a successful relationship is knowing who owns what and who is responsible for what. In a codependent relationship, no one seems to know how to answer that. Unless and until you address your codependency, a healthy relationship is impossible.
Codependents are famously exhausted — emotionally, physically, financially. I had a therapist who told me that I was not in charge of running the universe. She said, “It’s hard work, you’re overworked and underpaid. It’s time for you to quit, or I’m going to fire you.” And so began my recovery from codependency. Best job I ever got fired from.
Codependents take care of everyone and everything, to their own detriment. They have loosely drawn boundaries, if any. They get their self-esteem from doing for others, often taking on responsibilities that are not theirs and hoping it will be appreciated. But even when it’s not, they are unable to stop. They are masters of people pleasing…trying to get others to like them and appreciate them.
When I became a therapist, it seemed as if codependency was a dirty word. Professors in graduate school and my bosses at mental health agencies and clinics would insist there is no such listing in the diagnostic manual (the DSM). As a clinician who did evaluations day in and day out, it was true: I couldn’t find "codependency" in the DSM and so I couldn’t put it on an evaluation. But that didn’t mean it didn’t exist or that wasn’t a client’s presenting problem; many times it was. We would use the catch-all “adjustment disorder” diagnosis and never ever write “codependency” on an evaluation. My boss would have gone through the roof. But it’s still very real.
So what is codependency, exactly? It’s a learned set of behaviors in response to another’s dysfunctional behavior. Originally, partners of alcoholics were identified as "co-alcoholics." That evolved into the term “codependent” sometime in the late 1980s. It was not confined to the spouses of alcoholics, but also children in alcoholic homes and, later, it widened even further as codependent behaviors were identified in families in which alcohol or substance abuse didn’t exist. Many times, the family was chronically dysfunctional, or someone had a mental illness. The codependent likes to rescue and help, which enables the alcoholic or the drug addict or the dysfunctional person or the mentally ill to continue to engage in destructive behaviors. The person with the issue is never forced to confront their destructive behavior, because the codependent is right behind them, cleaning up the mess.
Codependents have low self-esteem, so they don’t ever think that they are enough. They have to do for other people. They have to rescue and help, even when it amounts to enabling someone so that they can continue their dysfunctional behavior. They never insist that the project/problem person face the consequences of their actions. An example is when someone is hung over or high or acting out and can’t go to work. The codependent will call the boss and make excuses. They never allow anyone to face the consequences of their actions. The cycle continues until it all falls apart and someone finally gets help.
People pleasing is a symptom of codependency. Because of their chronically low self-esteem, the codependent tries to please everyone. This is one reason they cannot ask others to take responsibility for their actions. If they don’t enable, they don’t have anything to do, and they feel worthless. There is no such thing as a bored codependent. They are attracted to chaos and dysfunction.
No matter how hard they try and how much responsibility they take on, they still feel incomplete. Saying no is something they simply can’t bring themselves to do. They go out of their way to do and do for others who should be doing for themselves. When I was recovering from codependency, someone told me I was a human BEING, not a human DOING. Codependents can’t shake the human DOING. When they stop doing, they become anxious. It’s a state that is almost unbearable. Codependents feel compelled to DO something about something. Someone once told me that Henny Penny was the first identified codependent: The sky is always falling.
Codependents have difficulty with boundaries. They do not understand that they begin and end in one place, and other people begin and end in another place. They become enmeshed with others and swept up in their problems. They are extremely reactive, and take on other people’s feelings. They are unable to separate someone’s opinion of them from reality. They react to the words and opinions of others. Healthy people can dismiss a negative view or criticism and understand that people are entitled to their own opinions. Codependents take it to heart and dwell on it. They try hard to change someone’s mind and can obsess about passing remarks for days.
Codependents feel the need to be in control. They want to have control over everything and everyone. This is more “running the universe” syndrome. What they think of as helping is usually about controlling and enabling, not truly helping. Similarly, their need to be the caretaker puts everyone else’s needs before their own. They are attracted to “project people” and “problem people.” They continue to try to control and caretake and make everyone else’s problems and issues their own. They need to be needed. Without that, they have no identity. That is why being alone is so difficult for codependents. They have no one to rescue or help, and their own identity is so caught up in what they do for others that they are left with a blank — and that sends their anxiety through the roof.
Codependents thrive on chaos because it gives them something to do and worry about. This is why being alone terrifies them. When I was recovering from codependency, my therapist told me to “make peace with the peace.” It’s one of the hardest things for a codependent to do. But to continue in codependency will lead to anger, resentment, anxiety, depression, hopelessness, and despair. They are incapable of having a healthy relationship, but when they recognize how harmful codependency is, they can rectify it and go on to have a happy, healthy life.
To break free of codependency, codependents need to first understand that there is a way out, but they have to be committed to recovery and to letting go of project/problem people. They have to build up their self-esteem. There is a communication pattern that codependents and their partners engage in, and it’s important to learn new ways of communicating, especially the ability to say NO.
Recovering from codependency is possible and opens up your life for the better.
To see the GPYB webinar on codependency or to register for the codependency bootcamp go HERE.