November 19, 2020
When we think about addiction, we associate it with alcohol, drugs, gambling, etc. There is another type of addiction, an addiction to a certain kind of relationship. An addictive relationship is also known as codependency. Psychologists coined that word when they studied relationships in families of alcoholics and drug addicts. Today, codependency is also used to describe a one-sided relationship, where one person, the helper, finds fulfillment and purpose through being needed.
What do codependent relationships look like?
Codependents lack a sense of self and don’t recognize their innate value. They often rely on relationships to provide them with a sense of identity. They only feel comfortable or worthy when they are in the role of helper, otherwise known as enabler. Their relationships are not reciprocal. They meet other people’s needs, but their own needs don’t get met. Often, they don't even realize that they have needs.
As one person famously said, “I was always ashamed to take. So I gave. It was not a virtue. It was a disguise.”
How Does Codependency Develop?
Codependency develops in childhood as a survival skill. We all know about the fight, flight or freeze response that kicks in when we’re confronted by danger. When facing a threat, real or perceived, our bodies respond. Some of us become aggressive and fight, others choose to flee from the danger, and some of us are so overwhelmed that we shut down and freeze. .
Peter Walker, a psychotherapist and author of several books on trauma, suggests a fourth response - fawn. According to Walker, fawning is a way to escape by becoming helpful to the aggressor. Fawning, he says, is typically developed by children who experience childhood trauma. Childhood Trauma and Codependency Children who grow up in a healthy environment get their needs met. They also acquire a balanced approach towards meeting their own needs and helping others. Children who grow up with parents who don’t provide a healthy environment and don’t get their needs met, learn to distort reality. Children want and need to be loved, so they find ways to get it. This is a survival skill. Because they are only children, they can’t understand that their parents are limited and are unable to give them love or fulfill their role as caregiver. Instead, the child thinks, “There’s something wrong with me” or “I don’t matter”. This is the type of thinking that leads to action, the action Walker classified as the fawning response to threat. A child’s fawning leads them to become their parent’s caregiver. They do things around the house that are beyond their age and experience, like calling for appliance repairs, making sure the parent wakes up on time for work, and giving emotional support to the parent by being their friend or confidante. The most troublesome outcome is that the child fails to develop a sense of self, and their identity is linked to taking care of others. When this becomes their template for all relationships, a pattern they repeat throughout their life, they are deprived of enjoying the benefits that meaningful relationships offer - the benefits we all need to thrive, feel loved and fulfill our potential. Signs That You May Be Codependent Cheryl asked Lacey to help her study for their math final scheduled for the next day. Lacey had been looking forward to going to her cousin’s engagement party that evening. Lacey skipped the party to help Cheryl study. How can you judge whether you are codependent or just someone who loves to be kind and helpful? Here’s one way: If your entire identity and self-worth depends on others depending on you, then it’s time to learn healthier ways of relating to others and yourself. Read that again.
Alarm bells should ring if:
You can’t set boundaries or say no to anyone.
You need other people to notice your help, so you receive their approval.
You like to rush in to help people and be viewed as their savior.
You have an exaggerated sense of responsibility for others.
You are uncomfortable expressing your own needs to others.
You need to project an image of competence at all times.
You feel sorry for the other person, even when they hurt you.
You do things for other people, even when it makes you uncomfortable.
You feel unanchored when you have time for yourself - don’t know what to do with it.
You would like to extricate yourself from a relationship but don’t because the other person relies on you
How to Stop Being Codependent Change is not easy, never immediate, and takes work, but is possible. Remember, fawning was a survival skill. Changing a behavior like that is hard because you’re asking yourself to give up something that kept you safe. But, you‘re not in danger anymore.
How do we change our behavior? One way is to replace it with another behavior. Replace the unhealthy relationship you have with yourself (not valuing yourself, not meeting your own needs) with a healthy one. Here’s how - fair warning: be prepared to have uncomfortable feelings.
5 Steps to Start Your Journey
Learn to accept that others will be angry or disappointed with you. This is counterintuitive for you. It will be stressful when other people let you know that they are disappointed in you. Stop believing that you are responsible for their feelings. You are not; they are. This will distress you, but learn to tolerate it.
Maintain Boundaries. A boundary is identifying what you can or cannot do for someone else. For example, saying “I won’t be able to watch your children for you next week” is setting boundaries. Another way would be to ask for something. An example of that would be, “When you want me to drive you somewhere, please don’t wait for the last minute to ask.”
Identify your feelings instead of going numb. Numbness is not the absence of feelings. Numbness is the inability to identify, express and understand your feelings and then allow them to move through you.
Learn how to care for yourself. You’ve been so consumed by others; you’ve neglected your own care.
Recognize that it’s okay to feel afraid. Being a helper provided safety. Giving that up feels scary. That’s to be expected. However, your journey will lead you to a place that is truly safe - a place where you will be your true self.
Learn New Skills
When you have healthy boundaries, and a stronger sense of yourself, you will attract new people into your life - people who have a healthy approach to relationships. This will expand and reinforce your desire for healthy relationships. Becoming codependent developed when you were in an unsafe relationship, therefore, being in safe relationships is an important part of recovery.
Learning new skills takes practice. Here are some ways to support yourself.
People will continue to ask you to do things for them. Previously, your automatic response was to agree. Using these strategies will help you delay your response and give you time to think. Consider this a cheat sheet and memorize it.
When asked to do something for someone else, say, “Let me get back to you on that.”
Start with saying no to the things that are easier to say no to. For example, when the server asks if you are ready to order yet, say no. If your friend calls and asks if you can talk now, say no. If your child asks you to buy them a chachka at the store, say no (Okay, that wasn't an easy one!)
Say “I don't” instead of “I can't”. Say “I don't want to go out today” versus “I can’t go out today”.
Realize that saying no to one thing means saying yes to something else. In this case, you are saying yes to a healthier you.
Remember that you can’t please everyone. To borrow an idea from Abraham Lincoln, you can please all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.
Getting More Help and Support Learning new ways to relate to yourself and to others is complicated. When you were a child, you had no options, and you did what you needed to do to survive. Now, you’re an adult and can make changes so that your relationships have a reciprocal quality to them. There is nothing wrong with you and you’re no longer that scared child who needed to prove her worth by taking action. Some people can do this on their own, but many people need help, guidance and support. By now, you know what I will say next - there’s no shame in that. Above all, be kind to yourself.
Discover more from Michelle Halle, LCSW