One of the most toxic aspects of having a relationship with an addict is the development of what’s called “codependency.” This is a psychological term for a set of behavioral characteristics usually found among people who have close relationships with addicts, though it is not limited solely to this demographic. Codependent persons form close relationships with people, often addicts, that are one-sided and sometimes emotionally abusive, often passing on these behaviors to children. Why would someone want to be in this kind of relationship? Well, the answer is complicated and stems from the set of behaviors that people learn while growing up.
What is Codependency?
Codependency arises from dysfunctional families in which one member suffers from fear, anger, pain, or shame that is continually denied or ignored. This type of pain usually comes from one or more family members having an addiction to drugs, alcohol, sex, or work, or who is physically or emotionally abusive or has a chronic mental illness. Dysfunctional families grow up learning to accept that a problem exists but refusing to confront them. Family members learn to repress their emotional well being and disregard their own needs, becoming survivors. Instead of being open with one another, family members can become strangers in their own homes.
They don’t talk
They don’t touch
They don’t confront
They don’t feel
They don’t trust
All of the energy, attention, and focus goes towards catering to the needs of the family member who is the addict or sufferer from mental illness. Family members may take on a caretaker role and try to cater to the needs of the afflicted family member. The codependent person may eventually resent the person, but they derive pleasure from taking care of the person and receiving praise or gratefulness or even love. They have spent so long denying emotions, that the little recognition they do receive from the person feels like a lot. Eventually, they grow to rely on the health, welfare, and safety of the person, and by extension others, to feel a sense of self-worth.
This type of thinking leads to codependent people having a “need to be needed” mentality. A codependent person look for anything outside of themselves to feel better or worthy, whether it be drugs and alcohol, the approval of others, money, success, or relationships. They take on martyr roles and become used by the individual who is in need, which often grows worse and worse with time. Repeated catering only serves to allow the unhealthy dynamic to continue unchecked.
Signs of Codependency
Low Self Esteem
Codependents may often feel like they are never good enough and compare themselves to others. Sometimes this is disguised as narcissism and thinking extremely highly of oneself while genuinely feeling unlovable beneath the surface. Codependents will feel sensations of guilt and perfectionism. They find that perfectionism is one of the only ways they can feel good about themselves, even if it is only momentary.
Codependents have weak boundaries, both physically and mentally. In other words, they allow other people to dictate how they feel and act and have trouble drawing lines. At the same time, they will also set up rigid boundaries around their deepest feelings, never letting people in and making it hard for others to get close.
Codependents will have a hard time saying no to someone. They may go out of their way and sacrifice their needs to accommodate other people.
A consequence of having poor boundaries and people-pleasing tendencies is that you tend to react to everyone’s thoughts and feelings with undue severity. You may take some things extremely personal and get easily triggered. Instead of listening and evaluating, you are entirely absorbing people’s words and reacting with either agreement or defense.
One manifestation of codependency is a chronic tendency to caregiving. If someone else has a problem, you feel guilty about not helping them. It’s natural to want to help others, especially those closest to you, but codependent people need to put others ahead of themselves. For codependents, their well being is based on whether or not they are needed.
Control is what helps codependents feel like they are safe and secure. Everyone needs control over their lives, but codependents use control as a means of perfectionism to avoid confronting uncomfortable feelings. They may have an addiction like alcoholism that helps them loosen up, or throw themselves into work, so they don’t feel out of control in a close relationship. They may also try to control those closest to them, needing them to behave in certain ways to be happy with themselves.
Codependents have trouble communicating their thoughts, needs, and emotions. Either they don’t know what they want, or they won’t own up to what they want. Codependents are afraid of confronting or being truthful, so they lie. In essence, this is manipulating the other people close to them out of fear.
Codependents have obsessions with how other people feel. They tend to think about other people’s opinion of themselves, what someone is thinking, what they are feeling, and why. This stems from the initial dependency on someone else and anxieties and fears around being rejected.
Codependents need the people in their life to like them. They are afraid of being abandoned or rejected, so they desperately cling to relationships. In some instances, this may manifest itself as always having to be in a relationship with someone, even if the relationship becomes abusive, or having many relationships that are only surface level. Either way, they will find it difficult to start and end relationships with people.
One problem that codependents struggle with is that they’re usually in denial about their affliction. For that reason, they’re usually in denial about other problems in their life, meaning they either keep complaining or trying to fix the other person. They have denied their feelings for so long that they have trouble identifying what they want. As such, they pay more attention to what other people’s needs are.
Although sexual dysfunction is possible, this is referring to the figurative intimacy of a relationship. Because of the shame of being codependent, a person may fear opening up out of fear of being rejected or judged too harshly. You may fear getting close or to lose your autonomy. Either way, it is difficult for codependent people to have an open and healthy relationship with their partner.
If you’ve come this far, they may be a chance that you identify with some of the signs of codependency. Codependency occurs in different degrees of severity, and most normal relationships may occasionally show signs of codependent behavior from time to time. Only a clinical professional can make the diagnosis, but if you answer yes to more than a few of these questions, it may be worth seeking the assistance of a licensed therapist or psychiatrist.
1. Do you keep quiet to avoid arguments?
2. Are you always worried about others’ opinions of you?
3. Have you ever lived with someone with an alcohol or drug problem?
4. Have you ever lived with someone who hits or belittles you?
5. Are the opinions of others more important than your own?
6. Do you have difficulty adjusting to changes at work or home?
7. Do you feel rejected when significant others spend time with friends?
8. Do you doubt your ability to be who you want to be?
9. Are you uncomfortable expressing your true feelings to others?
10. Have you ever felt inadequate?
11. Do you feel like a “bad person” when you make a mistake?
12. Do you have difficulty taking compliments or gifts?
13. Do you feel humiliation when your child or spouse makes a mistake?
14. Do you think people in your life would go downhill without your constant efforts?
15. Do you frequently wish someone could help you get things done?
16. Do you have difficulties talking to people in authority, such as the police or your boss?
17. Are you confused about who you are or where you are going with your life?
18. Do you have trouble saying “no” when asked for help?
19. Do you have trouble asking for help?
20. Do you have so many things going at once that you can’t do justice to any of them?
Why is Codependency so Harmful?
Codependency negatively impacts everyone who is involved in the relationship because it feeds two unhealthy addictions in different ways. On the one hand, the addict or afflicted person is allowed to continue indulging in their addiction or unhealthy behavior. On the other hand, the other person is feeding their unhealthy “need to be needed” by continuing to accommodate and help the other person. Both parties thus become reliant on one another to continue, though the dynamic will only get more unhealthy as time progresses until it destroys the relationship.
Ways to Overcome Codependency
Treating codependency is best done with the help of a licensed therapist or psychiatrist. It often involves confronting deep-seated issues and exploring childhood memories and experiences. It is a lifelong process of recovering from unhealthy modes of thinking, but there are methods for overcoming codependency that you can employ on a daily basis.
Care-taking vs. Self Care
Instead of always being there for your loved one, try to balance out the time spent on yourself with time spent on them. Dedicate enough time every week to yourself, whether it exercise, meditation, or any of your favorite activities. If you need alone time, don’t feel bad about scheduling it.
Saving vs. Empowering
If your loved one is always in need of help, rather than protecting them, empower them to solve the problem on their own. Encourage them to take healthy risks and learn to live without you.
People Pleasing vs. Building Self-Esteem
People pleasing may seem like harmless behavior, but in truth, it is a passive form of manipulation that codependents use to derive their feelings of self-worth. Instead of being a people pleaser, figure out what your wants and needs are and what makes you feel good about yourself. You can still help others, but make sure it is not the only way to feel good about yourself.
Yes Person vs. Honest Communication
Codependents are often “yes people” that agree to other’s whims because they have difficulty communicating their real, authentic thoughts and feelings. Rather than feeding your self-esteem through the approval of others, learn to find your authentic voice and communicate exactly what you’re feeling.
If you identify with the signs of codependency and wish to find help for overcoming this condition, then you should seek the help of clinical psychiatrists and trained professionals in addiction counseling. If you believe that your loved one has a problem with substance abuse, Landmark Recovery is a drug & and alcohol recovery center that help addicts take the first steps towards achieving and maintaining sobriety. Our caring staff is trained in residential treatment, individual and group therapy, as well as intensive outpatient and detox treatment.