Codependence is a new word that became popular in the 1980's. It has become a buzzword and important for you to understand in becoming the person you want to be. In less aware times codependence was considered normal. To be good, perfect, compliant, agreeable, giving, and selfless was rewarded and was the unconscious standard with which many people, especially women were conditioned. Now we are understanding that there is a fine line between where being selfless and taking care of others crosses over to becoming a disease similar to having a physical addiction. If you want to have healthy, mature adult relationships with loved ones and close friends, you will benefit by understanding this condition.
What is codependency? Codependency is a term that grew out of the recovery movement and is what family therapists have termed enmeshment. This is when you are overly involved with another to the point of dysfunction. The codependent personality is formed while growing up in a dysfunctional family system which was emotionally repressive. The codependent does not have appropriate emotional boundaries, can merge easily with another, and does not experience the other person as separate from his/herself emotionally. If you are codependent, you go overboard responding to another person's problems, needs, and wishes before thinking of your own.
Now let us review a brief history of the word codependent. The recovery movement began in the United States with Alcoholics Anonymous, co-founded in 1938 by Bill Wilson. He developed a peer support group to help alcoholics stop drinking based on twelve principles that changed his life. His spiritual awakening came as the result of practicing these twelve steps. As awareness of alcoholism grew, it was noticed that the partner of an alcoholic had certain types of behavior that were part of the problem. Early on they were labeled co-alcoholics, which was later changed to codependent. It was discovered that the partner had addiction problems too, but these were in the area of relationships with emotional addictions, rather than with a physical, chemical addiction to a substance like alcohol, nicotine, cocaine, or marijuana. There was an unconscious investment of the codependent to enable the alcoholic to stay the sick, "bad" one with the problem, so they could be the good, helpful one, victimized by the chemical dependency of the addict. There was the need for the alcoholic to take the heat, so the codependent did not have to look at his or her own problems. As time passed it was recognized that you do not have to come from an alcoholic family system to develop codependence, this could also come from a dysfunctional family system. Since most families are dysfunctional to some degree, there are many codependent personalities in society that act out different degrees of emotional dependency addictions. Now we recognize that many people in our society suffer from codependence and many do not even know it.
How do you recognize if you have a codependent personality or a tendency in this direction and need help healing this? If you are a caregiver, overly responsible, a dependent type person, do not like to be alone, are the rock your family leans upon, have made yourself indispensable to at least one other's functioning, need to be needed, are a people pleaser, or attract needy, dependent people, then you are a great candidate for this condition. A good rule of thumb to determine if your normal giving and interest in a loved one is dysfunctional and becomes codependent is answering "yes" to any of the following statements:
I take care of you when you will not take care of yourself.
I take care of you before I take care of myself.
I foster dependency on me by doing what you need to be doing for yourself.
I take care of your needs and do not take care of my needs.
Giving and receiving are not balanced in my adult relationships with family members and friends.
Note: Here I am not talking about the care of young children, the elderly, the ill, or the challenged family member, with physical, emotional, or intellectual limitations. I believe you do have a greater responsibility in these situations to help people.
To be a fully functioning adult and have mature loving relationships with family members, you need to take care of yourself, your needs and wants, follow your interests, develop your talents, and have your own friendships outside of the family. You need to say "no" to doing tasks that foster immaturity and dependence in adult children; such as, buying, washing, or ironing their clothes on a regular basis. This strong boundary setting serves family members to separate from you, learn to individuate (be separate individuals), take care of their own needs, to grow up, and be able to have healthy, mature, adult love relationships. As you set limits on what you give, you foster family members and close friends to have mature adult-to-adult relationships with you. Here you relate in a balanced give-and-take way, where you are not in the role of being the "grownup" who is giving all the time. If you do things for your grown children beyond what is age appropriate, then you lower their self-esteem and actually stop them from growing up.
When you are codependent you are enmeshed with family members' emotional boundaries and you treat them as extensions of yourself. Therefore, you do not like to see them in pain, uncomfortable, making unwise choices, or unhappy. You like to fix them or their situations to be what you think is right and good for them. If codependency operates to an extreme, it involves subtle control over your adult children's choices of career, place of residency, religion, choice of marriage partners, and over all you dominate their decision-making abilities. Secretly you feel safe, secure, and loved when others need you and depend on you; it makes you feel important and gives your life meaning because you do not have your own life fully understood and integrated.
Why do codependents do this? Besides the overall comfort experienced when others are dependent on you, the main reason is to avoid dealing with the painful feelings that are stuffed in yourself. These might be feelings of disappointment, unhappiness, trauma, abuse, victimization, lack of fulfillment, stagnation, and not growing and expanding towards potential. If you focus on another, then you can take your mind off of what has happened, or is happening, to you emotionally and you can stay in denial that you have problems that need attention. Since another's problems dominate your thinking, keeping busy with someone else's issues eases your inner discomfort, which keeps your emotions at bay. If someone is dependent on you and needs you, you do not have to look at your dependencies. It starts in childhood where rigid, unhealthy rules dominated the family system.
It is a good trait to want to give to others. It is important for your own emotional health, as well as others, to learn the fine line between giving that benefits and serves another verses giving that hinders another and binds them to you and is codependent. Remember to balance giving and receiving, to give from your overflow, to notice the affect of your giving on another, and to take care of yourself. Notice when you have issues with codependency so you can make these corrections in your life, to enjoy reciprocal, mature, loving, fulfilling relationships with family and friends.
Suzanne E. Harrill, M. Ed., LPC empowers individuals to build awareness, heal self-esteem, create satisfying, life-enhancing relationship, and to grow spiritually.
Suzanne’s Counseling and Writing:
•Encourages inner worth and healthy self-esteem
•Facilitates self-discovery, self-awareness, and inner healing
•Builds rich meaningful relationships
•Supports managing life challenges and transitions
•Helps one manage life challenges–divorce, illness or depression (within self or a family member), retirement, caring for elderly parents, dealing with adolescents
•Encourages creativity, confidence, and inner self expression through art and journal writing
Suzanne’s unique and intuitive approach, along with her warmth, combine to provide a personal, loving, and engaging experience which inspires others in their process of self-healing through inner work. Many of her clients see her as their fairy godmother, as in her book, Enlightening Cinderella, providing insights and support for inner healing, awareness, and transformation.
For over 30 years, Suzanne has facilitated the growth and awareness of many people through counseling, writing, teaching, and professional speaking. On a personal note, Suzanne has been married since 1966, has three grown daughters, and is a grandmother. She enjoys watercolor painting and creating original stained glass pieces.