What is Codependency?

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The term “codependency” has been around for almost half a century. Although it originally applied to spouses of alcoholics, researchers have found that the characteristics of codependents are much more prevalent in the general population than first imagined. Moreover, they’ve found that being raised in a “dysfunctional family” increases the likelihood that one will you experience codependent symptoms. Fortunately, these symptoms are reversible if treated properly.

But what exactly is codependency? By definition, codependency means making a relationship more important to you than you are to yourself or putting a relationship ahead of your own needs. Below is a list of common symptoms of codependents.

POOR BOUNDARIES: Boundaries are like an imaginary line between you and others, dividing up what’s yours and not yours. This could apply not only to your body and belongings, but also to your feelings and thoughts. Many codependents have blurry or weak boundaries; they feel responsible for other people’s feelings and problems or blame their own on someone else. On the contrary, some codependents have rigid boundaries; they are closed off and withdrawn, making it hard for other people to get close to them It is possible for people to flip back and forth between having weak and rigid boundaries.

CARETAKING: It’s natural to want to sympathize and empathize with others, but codependents start putting other people ahead of themselves. They need to help and often feel rejected if another person doesn’t want help. Furthermore, they keep trying to fix the other person, even when the person isn’t taking their advice.

LOW SELF-ESTEEM: People with low self-esteem feel incapable, inadequate, and unworthy. They compare themselves to to others, and often experience extreme fear and anxiety because they think there is something innately wrong with themselves. Guilt and perfectionism often go along with low self-esteem.

PEOPLE-PLEASING: It’s fine to want to please someone you care about, but codependents usually don’t think they have a choice. Saying “no” causes them anxiety; thus, codependents often go out of their way to please others. They sacrifice their own needs to accommodate other people out of fear rejection, failure, and making mistakes. This can often lead to feelings of resentment.

DYSFUNCTIONAL COMMUNICATION: Codependents have trouble when it comes to communicating their feelings, thoughts, and needs, often leading to confusing and/or dishonest communication. They are often afraid to be truthful in in fear of upsetting someone else. Instead of saying, “I don’t like that,” they may pretend like everything is okay.

CONTROL: Everyone needs some control over events in their life; however, codependents often need excessive control in order to have a sense of security. They may also need to control those close to them, subconsciously using people-pleasing and care-taking as tactics to establish control.

DEPENDENCY: Some codependents need other people to like them in order to feel okay about themselves. They’re scared of being abandoned or rejected, even if they can function on their own. Other codependents need to always be in a relationship because they feel depressed when they’re by themselves for too long. This makes it hard for them to end a relationship, even when the relationship is painful or abusive.

DENIAL: One of the problems people face in getting help for codependency is that they’re in denial about it. They often think the problem is situational, or a result of someone else’s behavior. They may keep complaining, keep trying to fix the other person, or go from one relationship to the next without realizing that they have a problem. Furthermore, they often deny their feelings and needs because they are so focused on what others are feeling. Although some codependents are needy, others act like they're self-sufficient when it comes to needing help; they are in denial of their vulnerability and need for intimacy and love.

OBSESSIONS: Codependents tend to spend their time thinking about other people or other relationships, due to their fear, anxiety, and dependency. They can become obsessed when they think they’ve made a mistake. They may lapse into fantasy about how they’d like things to be, or about someone they love, as a way to avoid the pain of the present.

PROBLEMS WITH INTIMACY: Those with codependency may struggle being vulnerable with someone in an intimate relationship. Shame and weak boundaries often lead them to fearing that they’ll be judged, rejected, or abandoned. Other codependents may reject or deny their need for closeness, making themselves unavailable and distant from their partner.

According to codependency expert Darlene Lancer, codependent symptoms will get worse if left untreated; however, they are reversible if treated properly. Addiction treatment is available for those suffering from codependency. Professional support groups, such as CODA and SMART Recovery, can help codependent people develop new patterns of relating. It is also important for codependents to explore new interests and activities, in order to create space between themselves and those they are overly dependent on. Hiring a Recovery Support Specialist to assist in the navigation of new hobbies and extra curricular activities. Additionally, recording thoughts and reflections in a journal can be helpful because as individuals track new experiences, they often begin to see their relationships changing and improving. Identifying specific areas of low self-esteem can also help the individual to see they are often false beliefs. Once these areas of low self-esteem are identified, individuals can begin to take action to improve their self-worth.

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