We’re all a little bit codependent at one time or another
Codependency is a term and a label that we throw around without giving it a lot of thought. Yes, using labels can help us communicate and share information, but when we use them to define ourselves or others, we can stifle growth and keep ourselves stuck in unhelpful patterns of behavior. I think it’s essential to define terms. Codependency is not a character flaw; it is a cluster of learned beliefs and behaviors that keep us from real emotional intimacy in our relationships. But what we’ve learned, we can unlearn.
Codependency is when we perceive others as responsible for our discomfort or comfort, or we take responsibility for other’s discomfort, believing that we need to fix them or protect them from themselves. When we believe we can’t live without them, or that we are not complete without them, we are probably struggling with codependency or poor boundaries to one degree or another.
Codependency arises out of a non-pathological, and inherent human need to connect with others. We are not broken, or weak, or pathetic. The human brain is hardwired for connection. But we are also hardwired to self-actualize and individuate. Therein lies a problem.
We’ve put those two states, connection and self-actualization, in opposite corners of the ring, instead of having them shake hands in the middle. The goal is to have a strong enough sense of self that we can healthily build interdependent relationships with others. When we regularly fall into codependent behaviors we lose the ability to distinguish where we end and they begin. That’s a problem.
The term “codependency” was coined in the mid-1900s. It referred to family members or partners of alcoholics who were profoundly impacted by their loved one’s alcohol use. Some family members lost their sense of self and began directing all their efforts toward changing or saving their alcoholic loved ones.
But codependent behavior didn’t start in the 1900’s. Think Adam and Eve — one of them caved to maintain the approval of the other one. We all, at times, engage in codependent behaviors, so we can stop hanging our heads in shame every time we hear the word relative to ourselves.
We don’t want to end up on a mountaintop, dramatically alone, swords raised to emphasize our individuality and ability to take care of ourselves. We do want to see when our behaviors begin to morph from a strong need for connection into an unhealthy loss of self.
So let’s normalize our natural tendencies so we can stop feeling ashamed of ourselves, and see what behaviors we need to change to bring ourselves closer to having the healthy relationships we crave.
Here are some behaviors associated with codependency, and questions you can ask yourself that can alert you to things you’re doing that might benefit from adjustment.
Care-taking: Do you have an exaggerated sense of responsibility for people with whom you’re close?
Humans want to help, but if we feel rejected when someone doesn’t want our assistance, and we keep trying to help and fix them anyway, we probably get angry when they refuse our help. When all our attention is on “fixing” someone else, the next step is martyrdom: “No matter how hard I try, she won’t change. I’m exhausted, don’t have time for myself, and am stressed all the time. But what can I do?” When we’re so busy fixing “them”, who has time to meet our own needs?
Approval-seeking: Do you have a hard time saying a direct no?
We find ways to sidestep saying no, sacrificing our own needs to theirs. We avoid disagreements, partly because we haven’t fully formulated our own opinions and beliefs, because what if we’re wrong? Better to stay quiet. We refer to ourselves as “people-pleasers,” but we feel like doormats. Because we feel guilty if someone is counting on us, we’ll follow through for someone else even if we are sick in bed.
Poor Boundaries: Do you have a hard time seeing where you end and someone else begins, have a difficult time saying “no,” and think that what you’re feeling is what they must be feeling, and what you want is what they must want?
When we can’t distinguish between others’ emotions and our own, it is difficult for us to say no. We can’t say no if we believe we’re responsible for another person’s emotional life, and their happiness. But we can deny our own.
Need for Control: Do you find yourself telling others what to do and how to do it?
Low self-esteem can be the driver behind controlling behaviors. If we don’t feel “good enough,” speaking highly of ourselves and working from a “know-it-all” place can be an unconscious attempt to cover up our own sense of inadequacy. When we’re busy managing others, it can be difficult to see when we’re the ones who need help.
Poor Sense of Self: Do you have difficulty knowing what you think, feel, or need?
Sometimes we know, but don’t want to own up to it. If we keep our thoughts to ourselves, we avoid conflict, looking foolish, or feeling vulnerable. Sometimes we close off and withdraw, making it difficult for others to get to know us. When we have a poor sense of self we can become obsessed with someone else, spending all our time thinking about “them” or the relationship. Often we stop talking with our friends because they let us know that they don’t want to hear it anymore. So we end up isolated, repeating the same patterns, oblivious to the reality that we’ve lost ourselves.
Dependency: Do you need others to like you to feel okay about yourself, and worry that you can’t function on your own?
When we’re dependent, we may struggle to hold on to relationships because we are depressed or lonely. The familiar, even if it’s awful, becomes more appealing than the discomfort of addressing our depression or loneliness. We forget how capable we are and question our ability to take care of ourselves.
Denial: Do you think the problem is about someone else or the situation, and find yourself complaining about them not giving enough?
When we’re in denial, we’re a little bit delusional. A delusion is a belief in something in spite of information to the contrary. We’re arguing with reality. We create a story about what’s going on that explains why we stay in an impossible situation. Our stories allow us to keep doing the same thing over and over again, without a positive outcome. It’s hard for us to hear feedback because we think we have the answer to the problem, even though the problem doesn’t go away, or at least get better.
We need to be careful about over-using or mis-using the term codependency. No shaming. There is wisdom in simply mindfully watching our behaviors to see if they’re giving us the outcomes we want. If they’re not, we can do something different. Sometimes we all act like nutcases in our relationships. That doesn’t necessarily mean we’re codependnt. We all struggle with at least a few of the traits of codependency, at least some of the time.
Overlay these characteristics onto your current relationships and gently assess whether you are comfortable with the degree of your connectedness. Gently is the operative word. The goal isn’t to stop caring for, supporting, and helping the people you love. It’s to make sure you’re making healthy choices rather than reacting from a sense of compulsiveness or a feeling of being trapped with no options.
If you find yourself unsatisfied with how you are relating to others, do some research and homework. Google codependency and boundaries. A great book for developing healthier boundaries in your intimate relationships is “It Takes One to Tango” by Winifred Reilly.
If you want support to address relationship behaviors, especially if you are in a relationship where some form of chemical or process addiction is involved, talk with a therapist or explore a twelve-step program like Codependents Anonymous, Alanon, or Relationships Anonymous. A classic book on codependency is “Codependent No More” by Melody Beattie. It’s as relevent today as it was when it was written in the 1980s.
The important reframe is that at times, to one degree or another, we are all codependent. Let’s pay less attention to the label, and give more attention to mindfully looking at our behaviors to see if they’re getting us what we want.
But don’t just think about it. Set an intention to claim the relationships you want by taking 100 percent responsibility for yourself. Take advantage of any and all resources that will help you manage yourself in healthy ways. Don’t wait for “them” to change. Life is too short.