You just care, but a little too much...

Codependency sounds like such a naughty word. When educating a patient on codependence,  I start by explaining it simply, "you just care, but a little too much." That's the thing. It comes from a place of concern, of love. It just mutates into frantic attempts of control over time, and feels like your insides could spill right out onto the floor. What is codependency? Well, while this umbrella term can refer to many interpersonal relationships, often times this takes place between intimate partners, family members, and even friendships. I try to simplify it through the following illustration: within an interpersonal relationship, there are two people. One person is broken in some way (sick, mentally ill, an addict, underachiever etc...), and one person wants to fix and/or enable the other one, or at least ease their burden. Enabling is a hallmark of codependency (engaging in activities that allow their person to continue their dysfunctional behavior without consequences).The fixer is the codependent, while their person relies on the fixer to take care of them, or cover up for them, without much of a battle- because they know their fixer needs this to feel good, plus they didn't want to change their behavior anyway. Now this sounds like quite a symbiotic relationship doesn't it? Someone needs to be cared for, and another needs to care. A match made in heaven, right? Wrong. The problem with this, is that dysfunction erupts and spreads over time like a cancer. This can quite literally make you feel emotionally ill.

Inability to tolerate being alone...

Symptoms of codependency (Johnson, R. Skip. Codependency and codependent relationships):

  • Intense and unstable interpersonal relationships.
  • Inability to tolerate being alone. Also, frantic efforts to avoid being alone.
  • Chronic feelings of boredom and emptiness.
  • Overlooking one's own needs to focus on the needs of the person you're involved with.
  • Overwhelming desire for acceptance and affection.
  • External referencing (checking outside of yourself before making choices. Not feeling that you have authority to make decisions on your own.)
  • Dishonesty
  • Denial
  • Low self-worth

Peacemaker in the family...

Often times a codependent comes from a family of origin (the family you were raised in) that suffered chaos. Within this family, if there was mental illness, addiction, physical illness etc... often times this leaves the child feeling out of control and invisible. This child can then become focused on trying to be the peacemaker in the family, smoothing things over and making people happy. This role continues into adulthood. Unfortunately, as we grow and develop, we are attracted to traits in people that are familiar to us. It's not uncommon to reestablish dysfunctional roles with partners and friends as adults. Codependent relationships are not reciprocal. One is giving all of themselves, while the other is taking, and loving it. 

The reason Jerry Springer and Maury Povich exist...

The classic codependent relationship is shared with a narcissist. Narcissists are energy suckers. Worse than that, is their total lack of empathy and persistent desire to manipulate- at any cost. Just imagine, a person that doesn't genuinely care about anything but what's in the mirror, finding someone that is willing to give all their heart and soul to care for them. It's the reason Jerry Springer and Maury Povich exist. Since codependents want to please, and detest conflict, the narcissist soaks up all the attention without batting an eye. Unless of course, they are challenged in some way. That's a fast track to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Narcissists hate being called out. They hate boundaries even more.

So you're codependent, what now? First of all, don't be too hard on yourself (as you tend to be). This is something that can be overcome with a little help. Here are some starting points to sift through: 

  1. Learn more about it. This article is a good start, but there are many more resources to help learn about codependency. Start with this book. There is also a workbook available to dig deeper. Give it a read.
  2. Find a therapist. Therapists are a wonderful resource to help identify behaviors that are harmful to you, while addressing it with kindness instead of drama (like friends can do). 
  3. Support groups! If you have had a relationship with an addict/alcoholic, codependents find relief with Al-Anon. Al-anon is a twelve-step program designed to help people who are challenged with establishing and maintaining boundaries within their interpersonal relationships. Co-dependents anonymous is another organization that is specific to codependency without the addiction component. 
  4. Boundaries boundaries boundaries!!!! Learn more about how to say no, reestablish expectations within relationships, and even end them if necessary. 

Getting better hurts...

As a public service announcement, I feel it necessary to tell you that getting better hurts. Living within a set framework (however unhealthy) is comfortable. Changing is uncomfortable for anyone. Whether you're establishing a regular habit of flossing, or giving up diet soda (say it isn't so!) Like anything, relapse is part of the change process. For example, a few years ago my parents had me move my childhood piano into my new house. I was thrilled to have it, but knew it would have to be tuned before sitting down to uncomfortably peck out some old lessons from the 80's. It hadn't been tuned since sometime in 1987. When I called the piano man (not Billy Joel) to tune my piano, he informed me that he would be happy to tune it, but he would have to tune it again in about a month. Why? He said that it was so used to being in that position for decades, it would want to slip right back into it's old spot. This is what I refer to therapeutically, as an epic metaphor. We are the same way. Our behaviors are so comfortable, that changing them requires attention and persistence. Oftentimes, we have to readjust again and again because of these old habits. Keep with it. If you slip back into old behaviors, dust yourself off and get back on the horse. Codependence doesn't have to be your story, your label. This is an opportunity for growth, that will make you a richer human in the long run. I believe in you.