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Codependency:  It May Not Be What You Think

Dr. K.J. Foster, LMHC, CAP

Codependency is an issue that is often misunderstood. I know this to be true because of all the individuals and family members I’ve worked with over the years, and their responses when I present and discuss codependency. Many have told me that what I describe to them is not what they originally believed about codependency. I’ve found most people get stuck on the “dependent” part of the word codependent. They attribute it to someone who is a weak or dependent person themselves. The fact is the person who is suffering from codependency may or may not be a dependent personality type themselves. The more common characteristic is being in a relationship with someone else who is troubled, needy, or dependent. In fact, I would consider many of the individuals I’ve met who struggle with codependency to be some of the strongest people I know. It takes a very strong-willed person to take on the responsibilities of someone else’s life.  

Yet, that’s not the whole of it. Codependency characteristics are comprised of thoughts, perceptions, feelings, and behaviors that exist on a spectrum. Just as substance use disorders are diagnosed on a spectrum of mild, moderate, and severe, I believe the same to be true for codependency. An individual can be on the low end of the codependent spectrum, with only a few characteristics. Or, one can be somewhere in the middle, with a moderate level of characteristics. And then there are those with severe codependency who will identify with the more progressive symptoms. Codependency can become more severe in response to the progression of the problems and issues of the people around us. As the people we are engaged with become more troubled, we may begin to react more intensely. Codependent behaviors are habits that can ultimately become self-destructive. In severe cases of codependency, we will frequently respond to people who are destroying themselves by acting out in unhealthy ways that can become self-destructive.

Melody Beattie defines codependency as “a person who has let another person’s behavior affect him or her and who is obsessed with controlling that person’s behavior.” This is definitely what happened with me. In retrospect, I realized I had been codependent most of my life, with my codependency escalating when I started trying to control my ex-husband’s drinking and culminating with trying to control my son’s drug addiction. I thought I could fix them. I took it on as my own personal responsibility to fix them. In the process, however, my helping became pathological. My codependency became so severe, I quite literally became addicted to meeting the needs of my loved ones (and others). In the process, I reached a point where I started to ignore and betray my own needs.

A main challenge, however, in addressing codependency, is that one doesn’t realize the nature of their own behavior. There’s an element of denial. Many who suffer from codependency often spend years having no awareness of their codependency. I, myself, spent a majority of my life having absolutely no clue. Unfortunately, it’s also a behavior that can contribute to keeping our loved ones sick. It wasn’t until I became aware of my codependency and began to focus on myself that life started to become more manageable. Paradoxically, it was by focusing on my own change that my son was finally able to recover.

I believe one of the reasons people resist the idea that they may be suffering from codependency, is because of the origin of the word and the associated stigma. There’s some debate as to its true beginnings, but it seems to have first appeared in the 1970’s at the same time private treatment centers began to emerge. Treatment providers began to realize the need and importance of a program for families. Originally, the term “codependent” was used to describe the person or persons whose lives were affected as a result of being involved with someone chemically dependent. People whose lives had become unmanageable as a result of living in a committed relationship with someone battling alcoholism or drug addiction. The definition has since expanded to include people who are not engaged in a relationship with someone suffering from chemical dependency or addiction issues. As you’ll note, nowhere in the definition by Melody Beattie does it mention substance use or addiction.

What we know to be evident and true about codependency has changed over the years. Just as what we know to be true about substance use disorders has changed over time. The problem is that the labels and associated stigma remain. I don’t particularly like labels, although I accept and understand they are a necessary evil. However, one of the problems with labels is that they put people in a box. A box that often leaves no room for movement. The implication in anything that comes after the words “a” or “an,” such as you are “a (insert the label)” drug addict, codependent, jerk or saint OR you are “an (insert the label)” alcoholic, ass, amazing person, is that this is who you are and always will be. Thus, making it more of a personal identity than a condition (set of behaviors) that can change. We make it difficult for people to break free from the box, the label, the identity of being “a (fill in the blank).”

So as not to further confuse the issue, it’s important to note that codependency is not an official disorder, in that it’s not currently included in the Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), yet it’s a disorder none-the-less. A disorder (condition or dysfunction, if you prefer those words) that creates unmanageability in the life of the sufferer. Unfortunately, there’s presently no scientific research to support codependency, which is why it’s not currently categorized in the DSM-V. Yet, there are numerous personal lived experiences (including mine) that support it.

Listed below are some common characteristics of codependency:
A need to control and fix others; difficulty expressing true feelings or needs; weak or non-existent boundaries; wanting to be liked by others (if not, everyone); anger; caretaking; low self-worth; denial; dependency; poor communication; repression; obsession; lack of trust; sex problems.

Listed below are some common progressive symptoms that represent more severe codependency:
Feeling lethargic or depressed; becoming withdrawn or isolating; a complete loss of daily routine or structure; abuse or neglect of children and/or responsibilities; feeling hopeless; feeling trapped in a relationship; beginning to plan your escape from a relationship; thoughts of suicide; becoming violent; becoming seriously emotionally, mentally or physically ill; experiencing an eating disorder (over or under eating); becoming addicted to alcohol and/or other drugs.

Keep in mind, this is not an exhaustive list of characteristics and certainly all the characteristics may not be present. However, if you identify with any of them, especially the more progressive characteristics, you’ll want to take action. Healing from codependency is a process and takes practicing new behaviors, such as detachment, not enabling, learning to respond rather than react, and focusing on you and your own recovery.

Healing from codependency is a process that takes practicing new behaviors. In this month’s article, Part II of “Codependency: It May Not Be What You Think,” I’m sharing some of the ways you can begin to move down the scale of codependency. All healing starts with awareness and is accomplished by a change in behavior. Some suggestions of behavior change that have helped me to reduce my own codependency are learning how to successfully detach; stop enabling; respond rather than react; focus on you; and engage in your own recovery.


Detachment was perhaps one of the most difficult behavior changes for me, mostly because I didn’t really understand what it meant. I thought detachment was this harsh and angry withdrawal. It’s not! As a matter of fact, that type of hostile detachment has the potential to make matters worse. Conversely, it’s not being a doormat and having to accept anything and everything your loved one throws your way. It’s also not a severing of your relationship with your loved one, although this may be necessary in some circumstances. What detachment really means is that I’m detaching from the agony of the involvement with my loved ones’ issue and doing so in love and with compassion. Detachment is based on the premise that each person is responsible for themselves. We stop taking on the responsibility of the other person and their problem. Instead, we focus on our own responsibilities.

When my son was in active addiction I could no longer stand by and watch him slowly killing himself. I could not participate or be involved in his life, until he was willing to take responsibility for his addiction. His behavior was not only making him sick, but it was making me sick too. Then I began to practice staying in my own lane. Al-Anon uses the metaphor of a hula-hoop to illustrate staying focused on our own responsibilities. I prefer the car analogy. In this depiction, I’m in my car driving in my own lane, while my son is in his car driving in his lane. What I used to do is constantly lean over into his car, push his hands off the wheel, and start driving his car for him, without him even asking. Unfortunately, in this scenario, the likelihood that we will both crash is greatly increased. The goal is for me to stay in my own lane and focus on driving my own car, while allowing my son to be responsible for driving his own car and keeping my hands off his wheel! This, of course, is much easier said than done. My habits were ingrained, and it took a tremendous amount of practice in order to change my behavior.

Stop Enabling

I’ll never forget when I first realized the damage I had been doing to my son with my enabling. I was attending an Al-Anon meeting and had shared about my current struggle with my son and his addiction, bemoaning all the things I was paying for, and doing for him, to help him fulfill his responsibilities. Aside from enabling him by making it easier for him to continue using drugs, this behavior, my behavior, was something that had started way before his addiction issue. Then another woman shared how she had done the same thing with her son until she realized the message she was conveying to her son every time she did something for him that he was capable of doing for himself. The message her son was getting, as a result of her actions, was that she didn’t believe he was capable of doing it himself. And although this may have been true, she wasn’t even giving him the opportunity to try. She talked about the lesson and gift in allowing her son to figure things out on his own, allowing him to be angry with her, and even allowing her son to fail in order to grow. After the meeting, that woman and I debated back and forth about what it meant to enable and rescue my loved one from the consequences of his behavior. She further explained how I was hurting my son by doing everything for him. Especially those things that he was capable of doing himself. Suddenly, I realized that I had spent years robbing my son of his ability to gain self-esteem.

Admittedly, there is a grey area when it comes to enabling, rescuing, and what it means to offer true help. My rule of thumb has been this: if my loved one is actively using and not willing to accept help to recover, then I do not offer any kind of assistance (financial or otherwise). I lovingly and compassionately detach and make it clear that I am here, ready, willing and able to help them recover as soon as they are ready. Once my loved one is committed to pursuing recovery, I will do anything within my power to help them achieve success. This is where it can become murky and, quite honestly, where I’ve made the most mistakes. I had to learn that if I help to clean-up the mess my loved one created (financial, legal or otherwise), which I did over and over again, I’m rescuing them and preventing them from experiencing the consequences and full impact of their behavior.

Respond, Rather than React

Fortunately, learning to respond rather than react is a skill that you can learn. A good place to start is with mindfulness, or another meditation practice, that will help you become aware of your thoughts and feelings. This will help develop the ability to sit with uncomfortable thoughts, perceptions and emotions. When we react, we forfeit our personal power to think, feel and behave in our own best interest. Sometimes our reactions will actually provoke our loved one to react in certain ways and have the potential to make matters worse. We help our loved one to justify certain behaviors. Practicing brief periods of meditation on a daily basis will help you acquire the power of the pause.

Focus on You

Healing from codependency is all about learning to take responsibility for self and a change in behavior that focuses on self-compassion and self-care. The following are some suggestions on how you can start to focus on you and your own recovery:

1. Challenge Your Beliefs and Assumptions
Observe your beliefs and be willing to question them. Often our opinions and behaviors are so habitual that we don’t even stop to see if they reflect what we really feel or what we truly believe. Evaluating your perceptions of yourself, others, and the world, is key for your personal growth and evolution into your true, authentic self.

2. Start Making Decisions for YOU
Start to focus on your own needs. How would you like to spend your day. What do you want to do. Start to consider your personal passions and hobbies. You’ve probably been neglecting these by focusing all your time on your loved one and their issue.

3. Practice Self-Compassion
Give yourself permission to acknowledge and feel your feelings. Don’t “should” on yourself. Instead of thinking, “I shouldn’t feel this way” or ignoring your feelings, be a good, kind and loving parent to yourself. Learn to be gentle and kind to yourself.

Engage in Your Own Recovery

“Everyone in the family is in recovery!” This is my mantra with family members. Substance use disorders impact everyone in the family. The truth is that recovery will be much more successful if everyone in the family is working toward their own growth and change.
When you begin to integrate these practices, you’ll start to experience the benefits of putting the oxygen mask on yourself first in order to be your strongest and best self. And being your strongest and best self will be the absolute best way you can support your loved ones.

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