What is Codependency, Anyway?

IMG_1214To many, the word Co-dependency is psycho-babble; a word used willy-nilly to mean too dependent, too close, too controlling, too attached, too caring, too something or other, but what the heck is it exactly, anyway?

According to Melody Beattie, author of Codependent No More (published in1987), the word Co-dependent appeared in the late 1970’s out of the field of addiction recovery. It evolved from the term C0-Alchoholic and was used to describe symptoms thought to be caused by living with an alcoholic or drug addicted person.   It described the wife of the alcoholic who compulsively searched the house for hidden bottles; the daughter who regularly called in sick for the drug addicted mother passed out on the couch; the husband driving from bar to bar looking for his wife, terrified that she was going to get into another drunk driving accident.

By 1989, only two years later, Pia Melody published her book, Facing Codependence. She explained how the meaning evolved. As co-dependents sought their own therapy, it became clear that the framework for these symptoms existed prior to their relationships with the current addict in their lives.   Co-dependents realized that their family of origin also included alcoholism, drug addiction or other dysfunction. What I mean by “dysfunction” is a family that was unable to nurture the appropriate needs of the child. In a healthy family, parents are stable, themselves, and able to focus on the physical and emotional needs of the child. In a dysfunctional family, the parents are unstable, and the child is raised to focus on the parents’ needs.

When a child must focus on the parents’ needs in order to be emotionally or even physically safe, he develops a focus on others and doesn’t develop a connection to himself. He becomes out of touch with his own feelings and needs, and has no belief in his right to get his own needs met. In fact, he develops shame about having any emotional needs whatsoever. These children grow into adults whose self-esteem is based in pleasing, taking care of, or not bothering others. This is what D. W. Winnicott in his article, “Ego Distortion in Terms of True and False Self” (1960), refers to as the false-self, because there is no, or very little, connection to the real self.

This is not a conscious choice. It is a condition. It is the way one grew. A plant grows towards the sun to become nourished. A co-dependent person grows towards meeting other’s needs in order to be nourished. The irony is that he never gets his needs met, and unless he goes into recovery, he never understands why.   In a nutshell, Co-dependency is a childhood adaptation that causes the child to be centered on others, rather than centered from the self.

Co-dependency can be a very serious condition. It can absolutely destroy lives, especially the life of the Co-dependent. The feeling that I can only be happy if: You like me, you are OK, you are happy, you understand me, you agree with me, you get it, means that I can never be responsible for my own happiness.

When I ask a client “How do you feel about that?” And the client answers, “I feel like he/she just doesn’t get it.” I try to help him or her to recognize that this may be the thought, but that he or she is having an inner experience, too, a feeling. A feeling can usually be described in one word, such as happy, sad, angry, or scared. A feeling is experienced on the inside. When I ask, “Where are you in all this?” and I hear, “I just don’t understand why he can’t stop drinking, appreciate me, want a relationship…” it indicates to me that the self is felt to be located in the other. Co-dependency puts responsibility for our feelings on someone else. This can lead to feeling lost, hopeless, and ultimately depressed. In severe cases the need to change someone’s mind or feelings can drive dangerous behaviors towards ones-self or others. Codependency is no joke.

A Co-dependent person will say, “No matter what I do, he just won’t get it. How do I make him get it?” A healthier person can say, “No matter what I do, he just won’t get it. And so, what do I need to do to take care of myself? It’s up to me to make my life better.”

Recovery takes courage, dedication and time. Recovery is about gaining awareness of the self and the valid wants and needs that were suppressed in childhood. It is about coming out of shame about having emotional needs and about being vulnerable; and it is about learning how to care for the self.   Recovery focuses on self-care before other-care. It is about the individual’s responsibility to the self. So how does one begin this journey of recovery? You must make recovery your top priority. One way to set yourself on the road to healing is with a combination of psychotherapy and the 12 Step program, Codependents Anonymous, http://coda.org. If you find, after giving it a real try (3 or more different meetings) that a 12 Step program is not for you, then decide to keep finding and trying other support structures until you find the right fit. Make a decision that you will take responsibility for your own healing. Only with this foundation of self-responsibility and self-love, can there truly be freedom to live.


Recommended Reading on Codependency 

Codependent No More, Melody Beattie, New York, Harper & Row Publishers by arrangement with the Hazelden Foundation, 1987

Facing Codependence, Pia Melody, San Francisco, Harper & Row Publishers, 1989

Healing the Child Within, Charles L. Whitfield, M. D., Deerfield Beach: Health Communications, Inc., 1989

Beyond Codependency: and getting better all the time, Melody Beattie, Harper & Row Publishers by arrangement with the Hazelden Foundation, 1989



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