What is codependency?
Codependency is a dysfunctional relationship pattern. People who identify as codependent usually play the role of “rescuer” in a relationship with someone who is impaired, addicted, or ill in some way. Codependents are constantly trying to help, change, fix, or rescue. You derive self-esteem and purpose through helping. And in doing so, you become attached to people who have problems of various sorts and need to be taken care of. However, your focus on helping creates an unbalanced relationship leaving your needs unmet.
Core features of codependency:
Codependents are the best caretakers. You’re empathetic and feel things deeply; You don’t like to see others suffer and want to “make it better”. You give and give until you’re depleted. You put everyone else’s needs before your own. Taking care of others is a core part of the codependent’s identity and self-worth.
Denial and Avoidance
Codependents deny their own feelings and needs. You minimize problems and try to avoid conflicts. You avoid confronting problems by staying busy, distracted, and numb. You also deny your own feelings and needs
Resentments build up when you’re needs aren’t met, you don’t have a voice, and you’re treated with disrespect. Hurt and fear can also turn into anger. You probably learned that anger is a scary emotion and/or that you aren’t allowed to feel or express anger. Instead, you may experience it as depression, crying, or physical health problems. Your anger gets repressed because it’s not safe or acceptable to express it directly. You may act in passive-aggressive ways or eventually lash out.
When life feels out of control, many people try to grab onto control even harder. Codependents try to control other people’s actions and feelings. You try to control the outcome and avoid problems from happening. Of course, this is impossible as you can only control yourself. And even this is hard at times. It feels like others are trying to control and manipulate you.
Enabling or Rescuing
When you help, you do things that others can’t do for themselves. When you enable, you do for others what they can and should do for themselves. You help your loved one avoid the natural (and negative) consequences of his/her addiction (or mental illness or other impairment). This may temporarily keep the peace but ultimately prolongs the problems.
Lack of boundaries
Boundaries are the rules you create to let people know how to treat you. Healthy boundaries create separation between people. In codependency, these boundaries are weak. You feel responsible for how other people feel and want to make them feel better. You allow people to disrespect you and don’t communicate assertively to ask for what you need. Without boundaries, things feel out of control.
You can stop enabling and controlling when you:
1) Break through denial. If things have any hope of changing, you have to see reality for what it is. Your life is not “fine”. You do have feelings. You do have needs. You do have opinions. You do enable and try to control things. Stop pretending you’re making it better. Stop pretending you can fix, rescue, and prevent bad stuff from happening. Acceptance is always the first step toward changing your life.
2) Set boundaries. Boundaries allow you to separate yourself emotionally. When you have boundaries, you recognize that you’re not responsible for the outcome. You don’t have to try to control things so they turn out a certain way.
For example, you can set a boundary that you won’t clean up your loved one’s empty bottles, dirty clothes, and cigarette butts. You can set a boundary that you won’t allow others to curse at you and put you down. Or you can set a boundary that you aren’t responsible for other people’s anger or depression. You didn’t cause it and you can’t fix it. Remember change happens when we’re uncomfortable. Why is your loved one going to change if you continue to make his/her life more comfortable by removing the negative consequences of his/her choices?
3) Acknowledge your own feelings. You’re entitled to have and respectfully express a wide array of feelings. When you set boundaries, you may feel scared or heart-broken at the prospect of leaving your loved one in jail or refusing to make excuses to her boss. It can be uncomfortable to start feeling “unpleasant” feelings. Acknowledging and allowing all of your feelings are important steps in being a separate person with your own ideas, opinions, beliefs, feelings, and goals.
4) Detach with love. Detaching is like untangling your emotions from your loved one’s. You still love him/her, but you recognize that you’re not responsible for his/her life.
Being in a relationship with an addicted (or mentally ill or impaired) person can feel like a roller coaster ride. You don’t have to sit back and ride the ride. You can decide to get off by detaching.
Stay calm. Don’t allow yourself to be pulled into arguments. You can detach my responding differently. Try to laugh it off or respond with a calm tone. You can physically detach from a heated situation by leaving.
Remember you’re not responsible for how other people feel. This empowers you to set boundaries. If your loved one doesn’t like your boundaries, separate your emotions. You are not causing the rage or passive-aggressive treatment.
Detaching means you can be you and take care of yourself regardless of what your loved one chooses to do. In other words, your happiness and well-being are not dependent on him/her.
5) Focus on yourself. Codependents have lost their sense of self. You need to figure out who you are as a separate human being. What do you like to do? What do you believe in? What are your goals?
You also need to prioritize taking care of your physical, mental, and spiritual well-being. Part of re-balancing your relationship is to spend less time taking care of others and more time taking care of yourself.
6) Sit with uncertainty. Many people struggle with the unknown; it feels unsettling. You’d prefer to know what’s going to happen. You try to control things to lessen your anxiety. Staying mindful and noticing what’s going on in this moment helps keep you from thinking too much about the past or future. You can do this with a formal mindfulness practice like meditation or by simply using all of your senses to purposefully tune into the present moment.
You probably noticed that a lot of these strategies put the emphasis on taking care of yourself, your feelings, and your needs. I assure you, this isn’t selfish. I think of it as a course correction. Codependent relationships are focused entirely on the addict. You’ve been living your life based on what s/he wants, needs, expects. Letting go of enabling and controlling allows you to put your life back into balance.
What are you doing to enable your loved one’s addiction or dysfunction?
What’s the difference between helping and enabling?
What’s wrong with enabling?
What do you need in this relationship that you aren’t getting?
What prevents you from asking for what you want/need?
Why is an addict going to change if you make his/her life more comfortable?
How can you start to put yourself first?
In what ways does your life feel out of control?
Want to learn more? My new book Navigating the Codependency Maze is available for immediate download.
©2016 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved.
Originally published on PsychCentral.com.