2022 has been an interesting year so far. My so-called Path to Freedom is going well but a little hampered by some niggling physical ailments such as a heel injury sustained while hiking and the need to have an operation on a hernia. Apart from that, things are well and progressing nicely. I can’t complain at all.
Codependency is something that is a major part of my life, personally and professionally. I deal with many codependents who often struggle to understand why they behave like they do. Many of them are are very confident, successful people who are high up the corporate ladder or dynamic entrepreneurs leading cutting edge companies. The stereotypical image of codependency of the overwhelmed, enabling housewife trying to keep her alcoholic husband out of the bar by keeping beer in the fridge at home is no longer totally accurate, though it still exists.
There is a danger, of course, of labelling every issue in relationships as codependency or narcissism and anyone seeing codependency as a therapist, ideally has to have recognized it in themselves and to have understood the complexities of it. Many therapists are not willing to acknowledge it as it is not part of the DSM and I have had many conversations with fellow therapists who doubt its existence and prefer to see it as a symptom of something more diagnosable such as borderline or a general anxiety disorder. This of course has a lot to do with getting paid by managed care systems who require a DSM code. The unfortunate and tragic side effect is that once diagnosed with something, the medication often follows. In a number of cases I am dealing with at present, medication has been over-prescribed and caused more issues than the original problem.
I have been dealing with codependency for about 15 years and the amount of awareness about the condition has massively increased in that time. I would go as far as to say that if you grew up in a dysfunctional household as a child, there is a huge chance of codependency being a part of your life. Given that most people did in varying degrees, it shows the depth of the issue. It has its roots in child development and is driven by developmental and relational trauma and the acquisition of toxic shame. The feeling of ’not being enough’ or ’something wrong’ fuels the action of manipulating the environment to survive. This is done by overachieving, subduing ’unacceptable’ parts of personality and ’parenting the parent’ in order to gain connection and feel secure. This prevails into adulthood, leaving one unable to identify and meet personal needs and an external focus on the welfare of others.
Shame-prone individuals are more likely to have internalised their toxic shame experiences and as a result are more susceptible to internal shame. Toxic shame teaches codependents that the shame experiences define them as people and they truly believe themselves to be defective, intrinsically bad and lacking in self-worth. As these thoughts are perpertrated against the self through self-hatred, self-criticism or self-sabotage, the only method to deal with this is to look externally and meet the needs of others. Many codependents also use this method in order to prove to themselves they are not worthy.
Despite so many people identifying with the symptoms, there are still some who doubt its existence or hold derogatory views against anyone claiming to be codependent. This is sad because even codependents do this to themselves. I have heard people describe themselves as weak or pathetic, narcissistic and comparing themselves to babies. This is normal in a codependent, victim based personality but it is rather alarming to see the way codependents are sometimes described on social media sites. Some of the insults appear in the title to this article. ‘Parasites’ was the uneducated headline I saw on a recent YouTube video which has now been taken down. The video was posted by someone who documented various methods he had employed to deal with his codependent girlfriend including silent treatment, withholding affection and validation. He also said that he allowed her to practice her willingness to meet his every need to teach her a lesson that it won’t work to get what she wants. Sounds quite a catch and one can only hope that she finds someone who truly cares about her.
I have also heard codependents called “emotional vampires” and always “needy”. What these terms fail to realise is that codependents have been conditioned to behave in a certain way in order to get their needs met and its automatic. They manipulated their environment to gain what they needed.This is why it is very hard for them to see their behaviour as bad. They are the “good guys” and that can’t be wrong. However, it mirrors their childhood experiences and they know no other way but to control.
Therapy can help people understand why they overcompensate, fulfill everyone’s needs but their own, or put themselves last. Inner child and cognitive behavioral therapy are both well suited to treating codependency, although any form of therapy is likely to help. Therapy can help a person identify codependent tendencies, understand why the behaviors were adopted in the first place, and develop self-compassion in order to heal and transform old patterns.
Some common characteristics of codependency include:
- worry or anxiety
- “bending over backwards” to take care of others
- not knowing or not trusting one’s own feelings
- feeling guilty for “not doing enough”
- feeling isolated or depressed staying in bad relationships (or sabotaging potentially good ones)
- trouble with emotional connection and intimacy
- sexual problems
- lack of energy
- low self-esteem
- inability to set boundaries
- inability to share (or experience) feelings (emotionally numb)
- striving for achievement (at any cost)