What Is A Codependent?

Let’s examine some of the behaviour traits of a codependent. This list is by no means exhaustive but is, in my opinion a list of the most typical.

Typical Thinking Patterns

There will be many people who listen to this who are stuck. Stuck in life generally but specifically in relationships that are abusive, dysfunctional and with people who care very little about them. They will complain, sometimes medicate themselves, often seek therapy but the urge to stay exactly where they are is overwhelmingly strong. Strong enough not to be able to see or manage what many people around them can see for the obvious….that it is best to move on.

Logically, they often understand this but there is always an emotional argument to counter this and this is the side that mostly keeps a codependent hanging on in there until the bitter end, which is usually very bitter. This battle between logic and emotion is one that must be won if reason is to prevail and I find this particular struggle the biggest challenge when working with codependents.

I firmly believe that when we react emotionally, we are accessing the deepest parts of our psyche. This is the part of us that has all the raw emotion, the conditioning and the experience we have had. It is the place where the parenting style we were subjected to has the greatest effect. It is our child-like self. The place where we generally find difficult to regulate, where we become overwhelmed, where we are reactive and irrational. Just as in our childhood days, we are clueless, vulnerable and looking for direction. When we react emotionally, we are in effect transporting ourselves back in time to a place where we are interacting with our caregivers.  If this relationship was dysfunctional and it often is, we spend our time looking to solve it in adulthood. This quest leaves codependents especially vulnerable to the type of person who will take advantage of this and this search also keeps them stuck in these types of relationship. They are driven by fear given that they have never learnt (or been taught) how to be independent emotionally. So how can logic overcome this? Part of the problem with the emotional side of us is that the inner critic, the catalyst of all things dysfunctional resides there. The inner critic, through its “shoulds” and “musts” drives the emotional process, shooting down any sign that a different way of thinking can come. He is there to protect in the most dysfunctional way possible. It doesn’t want anyone to move forward and prefers its victim to stay in the comfort zone that it has created. Challenging this concept is essential in the battle between logic and emotion. It takes, first an awareness of the presence of the inner critic, where it is likely to rear its ugly head and then finding out what it is exactly trying to protect you from. You can mostly say that this is usually about not taking the risks that are quite normal in life. That is, facing rejection, fear, new beginnings, etc. All normal concepts of life. Once this has been identified, it is a case of challenging those very voices with logic consistently. However, remember that the inner critic is something that is a part of us, we created to protect us from childhood dysfunction. It helped us then and we believe we should still listen to it. Let’s look at some typical examples ;

” Don’t leave this relationship, you will be alone and you know how that will feel..you won’t cope!” becomes….” Yes, thanks for advice, I know it might be difficult at first but I will have a chance to have a better, more independent life”

” You are crazy to believe that you can do this…you have never been able to…you have always needed someone…just stay where you are…it is easier for everyone” becomes ” I refuse to be treated this way..I know there are no guarantees and I could find it difficult but I could also be better off!”

” You cannot cope alone…You are useless at it” becomes ” Yes, I find it difficult but I am willing to do what is needed”

Navigating this battle is an essential part of winning the war of recovery and defeating the forces of emotion. The forces that keep us stuck in the rut of dysfunction.

Martyrdom/Sacrificial Behavior.

When one delves deeper into the daily lives of a codependent,  typical patterns of behavior emerge and can be identified. One typical attitude that is usually the first to be seen is the sacrificial, all- giving, martyr mentality that drives their  thinking.  As discussed before, this was often formed in childhood when being forced to look after parents who might have been ill or alcoholic or even if they were placed in a caring role for siblings. It’s all they know and even though they often realise that their needs are not being met, they continue to look for and stay in situations where they can do this. They see their job as the “fixer” and they are usually the matriarch/patriarch of the family, community or organisation. They make themselves indispensable in  the lives of the people around them, looking after their needs and being the eternal caretaker. This behavior is nothing new to them and it has normally been a constant pattern since childhood and is the only behavior they really know. By adopting this, as in childhood, they are looking to control situations and people to gain security, validation and affection. They live a life of sacrificial giving as they feel this is the only way they will be loved. As we will see, this comes at a price for the people around them and is very much part of the cycle of control often found around codependents.

Failure to set and maintain boundaries.

I deal with many co-dependent people on a daily basis and one factor that is extremely common is the inability to set healthy boundaries. Codependent people experience emotional abuse in relationships because they are basically not able to form firm boundaries and allow others to take down those that they have. They are not usually assertive enough and dare not express feelings due to fear of rejection and disapproval. Not having healthy boundaries means that codependents have an unclear sense of “who” they are and have difficulty defining the difference between theirs and other’s feelings, problems and responsibility. Due to these blurred boundary lines, codependents take responsibility for others, absorb other’s feelings and have no sense that boundaries draw the line between “you and me”. They often mistake sacrifice and codependency for love and that having no boundaries is “healthy and normal” when in a relationship. The reasons for this are many and too numerous to mention here but research shows that abuse, shame, humilation, inappropriate intergenerational roles have a major impact on the development of codependency and subsequently on boundary formation. When parents fail to or are unable to demonstrate or model healthy boundaries, it is no surprise that children come into adulthood with the same issues and have difficulty forming a sense of “self”. Often, even codependents who see the need for boundaries fear what will happen to the relationships around them, thinking that people will reject the “new” assertive person. What can happen is that people who are not used to having boundaries put around them will maybe fall away. At the same time, other maybe discarded relationships may revive themselves in a healthier way. Boundaries exist to give us a sense of ourselves and to distinguish us from others physically, intellectually and emotionally and are there for our protection. They are flexible, not fixed and can change with how we feel and who we are with but they are our boundaries. They define how people should treat us and are linked to our definite choices and values. They are a measure of our self-esteem and individuality. The easiest way to think about a boundary is a property line. We have all seen “No Trespassing” signs, which send a clear message that if you violate that boundary, there will be a consequence. 

Victim Mentality

Codependents get a lot of sympathy from me. They are more likely to be abused and taken advantage of and their good nature is often exploited. They make bad decisions about relationships and one gets the impression that they seem clueless about how relationships develop. However, codependents also have a range of tools in their make-up that they bring out and use if they need to. This is usually when they feel they are losing control of the “object” of their codependency physically or emotionally. When this happens, a codependent will immediately feel threatened. They will feel potential loss, rejection and the imminent fear of being abandoned. Codependency is also about control… control that they need and desperately cling to in order to feel secure. Remember, they sacrifice and martyr themselves to make themselves indispensable in their “objects” lives. In return, they want and need devotion. This, of course, mirrors the dysfunctional child-parent relationship they experienced earlier in their lives. To keep control, codependents have a range of methods at their disposal. One of the most used and common is the victim mentality.  It is the classic push-pull measure. Codependents push continually, driving the relationship for their own ends until they feel they are not getting what they need and then they pull or distance themselves, hoping this object will follow. They do this with silent treatment, taking of excess responsibility to gain sympathy, berating themselves using phrases like “I always do this” or “I will never learn ”. They will often attack verbally letting their partner know exactly how much they do, have done and will do for them. They will also threaten to stop doing these things “then see how you manage!” Depending on who the object is, these tactics will work or not and are usually part of a cycle that repeats itself over and over. If, as is mostly the case, that the codependent is involved with a partner or parent with narcissist tendencies, the partner may well have a push-pull strategy of their own and has maybe learned to manipulate these tools to their own advantage. The issue here is self-esteem or more to the point, the lack of it. Codependents are usually very reluctant to face life alone because they just feel they cannot cut it without someone leading the way. The paradox is that they exert more control than they probably even realize themselves.

Enabling and Control

Of the two extremes, codependents (unlike narcissists) are generally seen as the warm and fuzzy ones. Self sacrificing and eager to please, they are an absolute delight to be around if you are the kind of person who likes to freely take and accept all they have to give and there are many who do.  Codependents get involved with a certain type because like a jigsaw puzzle they fit together nicely. One constantly gives, one constantly takes. A perfect dysfunctional meeting and matching of ideals. Of course this situation is normally doomed to failure and when the house comes crashing down, the codependent suffers more than most. The reason being they have invested heavily in the relationship and stand to lose much more in their view. This is usually because they have lost themselves in the relationship and identified themselves through their partner. The idea of splitting such intensity (not to mention material items and finances) is a thought so hideous that they do all they can to stay firmly rooted in the relationship even when it is blatantly obvious that the relationship is dead and the partner is the wrong one.  The anticipated sense of loss mirrors their first unanswered call for love in childhood where the seeds of codependency were sown. It is much easier to hang on until the bitter end hoping things will change than face that particular issue. In doing so and thinking this way, the codependent will often enable their partner’s dysfunctional behavior and to the extreme, encourage it. We have all heard of the codependent who makes sure their alcoholic partner has alcohol available and chooses to ignore excessive drinking. We all know codependents who choose to ignore abuse and infidelity rather than make decisions and we all know codependents who complain and then go back to their partner and act as if nothing is wrong. Hope is a very relevant word here. Unfortunately not used in the best possible way. Codependents are always hopeful of using the self-sacrificing skills that they have to bring about change in the most unwilling partner. They literally give their lives to do it by absorbing themselves into their partner, often giving up any dreams they had themselves to keep “the one” happy. However, if we look at the darker side of this, we can see an element that is usually present in all codependent personalities…control. In order to keep their partner happy, they need them available and in a place easy to manage for the codependent. Here, it is easier for the codependent to exercise typical cyclical traits of sacrifice, counter dependency and victimhood…all designed to keep things in order. This often mirrors childhood experiences where love and control were present and confused in a dysfunctional parenting style. For codependents, control and sacrifice is love. With this “love” comes the expectation of return, that is …total devotion to the codependent.  This is often what keeps them hooked onto the most unavailable of targets, the hope that they can manoeuvre their “object ” into place.  I see the results of this every day in my work. As codependents normally attract the kind of people resistant to emotional connection and closeness and are also looking to control in their own way, disaster is usually on the cards.

Miscellaneous 

Codependents have, as established, a set of specific behavior patterns. We have already identified the core group. Now let’s look at others which may or not be present. 

Anger: Codependents can be very angry people when they do not get the expected return from their object of codependency, which could be a partner, family member, friend or organisation. This is often driven by a fear of abandonment and when this becomes overwhelming, a cycle of anger, rage, guilt and shame is established. 

Trust: It would be hard to believe that codependents, given their typical personality, are generally people who will find it easy to trust others. Their fear of abandonment and general insecurity about themselves will not allow this, even with people who might be trusted. For them, control is a better choice. This is usually down to the fact, they do not readily trust themselves. 

Poor communication/Lying. Codependents are poor communicators and find it hard to engage in emotional honesty. This might leave them open to being rejected and vulnerable. They will often practice emotional dishonesty and either not express what they are feeling or lie about it. They will often complain bitterly to friends and family but choose to keep that to themselves when they are in the presence of the “object”. 

Identifying feelings/avoiding conflict. Despite the outbreak of anger and rage, many codependents will avoid conflict and will often have trouble identifying and expressing their feelings in a healthy way. Their focus is often on the other person and fixing the situation and their needs are not important. Due to this, they will become very subversive with dominant partners.

2 Thoughts

  1. I was seriously reading this blog while simultaneously wondering…”am I currently codependent?”. Yuck…as well as maybe. Very informative this one.

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