Trying to explain the definition of Codependency isn’t easy because it’s so multifaceted. It’s like diagnosing a complicated illness that has a mile long list of symptoms. Only you may not exhibit all symptoms, just a handful of them and still have it. Thus, I am going to attempt to define it in the best way that I can. I think to simplify the process I am going to make a bullet list of the characteristics.
- Unhealthy dependance on Others: Codependence is the state of being connected and dependent on what others are thinking and doing. So lets say a spouse, for example, is struggling with an addiction. We insist we will not be happy until they stop their addictive habits. That is what a codependent individual does. A codependent’s peace and happiness are dependent on whether or not the addicted individual is doing what they think they should be doing. It’s a state of control where we try to control the outcome of a situation. A person can be codependent in behavior, even when a spouse doesn’t have an addiction. IN FACT, we can exhibit codependent behavior around anyone.
- Low Feelings of Self Worth: Feeling like you’re never good enough, constantly comparing yourself to others, feel unloveable or inadequate, persistent feelings of shame, guilt, and perfectionism. Often only feel good about self if things are perfect.
- People Pleasing: It’s totally fine to want to please someone, but in this case, codependents usually think they don’t have a choice. Saying no causes them intense anxiety. They have a hard time saying no to anything and often sacrifice themselves to accommodate the needs of others. This in turn results in burn out or resentment. This goes into the next point.
- Caretaking: I’m going to explain this in two parts. Part 1: First, it’s a beautiful thing to care for those around us, we should cultivate empathy and love for those around us. Just like people pleasing, codependents will put the needs of someone else above their own needs. I am going to take great care to explain this. We are often told we need to sacrifice, serve and care for others. This is true. However, where we get confused is we forget that we must take care of our own needs first. We mistakenly think this is being selfish. What is considered a need? Needs include adequate rest, sleep, food, water, and personal hygiene. Other needs include personal sanitation, keeping our homes clean and in good repair to prevent illness. These are needs. If we are sacrificing to the point that these things are constantly neglected, and obsessing with the care of another, obsessing with fixing another person and getting frustrated when they won’t take our advice, we are exhibiting codependence behavior. Part 2: Codependency is often fostered in caretaking situations. Often times, when children are raised in a shame based home, a child who longs to be loved and cared for, will do everything in their power to make the parent happy with them. These children then grow to be adults and reach out to save, help, fix, or take care of others as a way of validating their personal worth, to feel needed, and to feel loved. Only this isn’t love at all. It’s called conditional love. (The act of showing you care only when people do what you want them to do, how you want them to do it and when you want them to do it. Another word for this is manipulation)
- Poor Boundaries: When you have boundaries, you are able to differentiate between what is yours and what is someone elses. (What part is mine, what part is yours?) Boundaries aren’t just about money, belongings or your body. It includes feelings, thoughts and needs. If you’re codependent, you may feel you are responsible for someone elses feelings or problems. You may blame someone else for your problems. Other times the boundaries of a codependent individual may become too rigid and push others away.
- Easily Triggered: This is the result of having poor boundaries. You become reactive to the thoughts and feelings of others by becoming defensive. You absorb words by taking things too personally. When you have healthy boundaries, you are able to just recognize it as their opinion and that it isn’t a reflection of you.
- Control: Everyone needs to feel safe and secure, so having some control over your personal life isn’t a bad thing in and of itself. No one want’s to live a life in constant uncertainty. What happens with Codependents, is they are often unwilling to take risks or share their feelings. Often times, they develop addictions like over drinking to help them loosen up, or become workaholics so they can feel like they are in control of something. Some feel they are not okay unless they have control of everyone around them. Codependents can be bossy and tell you what you should and shouldn’t do.(This violates the boundaries of those around them.) They may step in to control or smooth out uncomfortable situations as well.
- Difficulty in Communicating: Codependents often have a difficult time communicating their own thoughts, feelings and needs. They are afraid to be truthful or true to personal feelings because they worry they will hurt someone else’s feelings. This may be the result of being discouraged, in your growing up years, from voicing own opinions. Then it can go to the opposite extreme of demanding others do what you say and not valuing their thoughts and feelings. The codependent is so out of touch with what they need to be working on, but know exactly what everyone else needs to work on. The other aspect in communicating, that is often dishonest, is when asked to do something, a codependent individual will say yes and make committments when they may not have financial means or time for. Again, sacrificing themselves at the expense of others and neglecting to voice they don’t have the means necessary to do what was requested.
- Denial: Without honestly taking a look in the mirror, one cannot get the help they need. Codependents are usually stuck on the problems of everyone else, constantly complaining about what everyone else is doing wrong, trying to fix others problems and never owning up to the fact that they have a problem. Many codependents are really needy, expressing to everyone their injustices and the need for you to come fix it all. Others are just the opposite extreme, won’t reach out and have trouble receiving. They are in denial that they need help.
As part of my continual recovery, each year I brush up on my reading on this subject. I’ve come a long way from being where I used to be, but I know not to ever become complacent or say I have it mastered. I have things come up almost daily where I have to remind myself, “Self, that was a pretty codependent way to handle that.” Recognition is huge in the process. I’m still working on not feeling like I have to explain myself all the time and having to give reasons for why I’m doing something. I’m still working on not feeling like I don’t have to give advice. I’m still very much working on listening and expressing empathy versus feeling the need to fix.
In future posts, I will be sharing some of the things that have helped me in my recovery journey and continue to use to keep myself in a better place. My favorite book on the subject is “Healing the Codependent Heart” by Douglas Dobberfuhl. You can find it at Deseret Book or Amazon. I’m sure there are many places that carry his book. It’s my favorite because it comes from an LDS perspective and help you see how to relate it to the gospel of Jesus Christ. It also shows you how to work on recovery using the 12 Step program.