By Marilee Feldman, LCPC, CADC
Relationships are wonderful, joyous things that give our lives purpose and meaning. When they are going well, that is. When they’re not, they can be a great source of pain and the reason many people seek counseling. Often we believe that some person in our lives is the problem: They’re addicted to work, a substance, the gym, or pleasing others; they’re overly aggressive; or they’re underfunctioning at home, school, or work, among a litany of unhealthy behaviors. And while they indeed may have that problem, we need to look at ourselves to see if some codependency issues of our own might be playing a role.
The term codependency became popular in the ‘80s as part of increasing awareness in the 12-step recovery movement that it is not only the addict or alcoholic in the family who needs help, but also the spouse and others. These days we recognize that a person can be codependent to just about any dysfunction in someone else. Codependency could be defined as excessive emotional dependency on another person, who often has a dysfunction of their own, such as an addiction, poor mental health, immaturity, irresponsibility, or underachievement.
Some of the characteristics of codependency are poor boundaries (eg, difficulty setting limits); relying on someone else for happiness; excessive need for approval; feeling helpless, powerless, or overburdened; nonreciprocal relationships; sacrificing own’s own needs to take care of the needs of others; control issues; high tolerance for inappropriate behavior; and victimization (not seeing options other than waiting for the other person to change).
People with codependency issues, first and foremost, are in a lot of pain and deserve compassion. They generally have unrecognized problems with low self esteem. Having an unclear sense of themselves, they get their self-worth from taking care of others. And while being helpful to others is generally a good quality, when it’s excessive or enabling of another’s dysfunction, it becomes painful for all.
When we struggle with codependency, it is often because, in our upbringing, it was either modeled in our home or our emotional needs went unmet. If mom or dad struggled with a substantial issue themselves, such as severe depression, anxiety, or addiction—or if they simply were emotionally unavailable—it was up to us to figure out how to get our needs met, and what better way to do that than to try to please our parents or others? We learn to put our needs aside. The problem is that we then lose our sense of ourselves and our autonomy and develop an identity based on caring for others. What do we then do when people don’t cooperate with our plans for them? We try harder; get burned out from taking too much on and not caring for ourselves; feel angry, hurt, and resentful when others don’t recognize our efforts; and become victimized, unable to see the role we play in how we are feeling. This is, by the way, an incredibly common pattern parents fall into these days with their children. Did you know you could be codependent to your kids?
In counseling, we learn, on a deep level, how emotional abandonment in our upbringing may be playing itself out in our relationships: We stop enabling dysfunction in others, put self-respect above a need for approval, let go of trying to control others to get our needs met, and become empowered by learning about boundaries and assertiveness. Rather than having need-based fear, we learn what it is to truly love. And most important, we improve the relationship we have with ourselves.