Daring to Talk About Codependency

I launch into a blog post about codependence with some trepidation. Already, at the mention of “codependence” some readers can feel their heart rate rising and anger beginning to boil inside their chests. And rightly so. Codependency has been used as a hammer by many therapists, treatment providers, doctors, and popular culture over the years. The typical “nails”? Female partners of addicts (alcohol, drugs, sex….). Rather than receiving empathy and understanding, these partners were made to feel responsible for their partner’s addiction. Perceived as irrational, emotional, weak, and needy, they were told their feelings were just symptoms codependency. As with any label, when the term “codependence” is used to demean, control, dehumanize, and disconnect from another person, it is being used abusively.

So, it is with some care I’m choosing to write about codependence. Despite the misuse, I believe it’s a helpful concept, characterizing a predictable and rational response to trauma, shame, and adverse life experiences. Of course, codependence is a very BIG topic, so what follows is just an overview. Future posts will explore some of these concepts more deeply. I hope you’ll stay with me on the journey. As they say, take what you want and leave the rest!

What is codependence?

A brief Google search will reveal many definitions. I won’t review all of them, but I am a fan of Pia Mellody’s perspective. She describes codependence as an underdeveloped relationship with, or loss of, the Self. The Self is the vulnerable part of us that holds our truth, intuition, feelings, wants, needs, curiosity, creativity, and capacity for connection, intimacy, and awe.

Without interference, we don’t question the goodness of the Self. A baby, for example, doesn’t ask herself if she deserves to be held, fed, or changed. It is when we learn, especially repeatedly, that expressing aspects of our Self will result in harm (i.e., being made fun of, embarrassed, dismissed, belittled, shamed, ignored, punished, hit, shunned, abandoned) that we disconnect from the Self to stay safe. Unfortunately, such disconnection means we can no longer trust that we are o.k. – good enough – just as we are. No longer is our internal “voice” a safe guide for us as we navigate the world. Instead, we must create safety for ourselves by trying to manage the reactions of those around us. At the same time, we must figure out how to get our needs and wants met without upsetting anyone. Rather than having an inherent knowing of our goodness, we must find someone or something outside of the Self to make us feel good enough.

5 Characteristics of Codependence

Pia Mellody offers 5 characteristics of codependence:

1) difficulty experiencing appropriate levels of self-esteem,

2) difficulty setting functional boundaries,

3) difficulty owning our own reality,

4) difficulty acknowledging and meeting our own needs and wants,

5) difficulty experiencing or expressing our reality moderately.

These characteristics of codependence lead to unhealthy and, ultimately, harmful relationship patterns. When I no longer have a connection to my Self, or that connection is damaged, I must resort to behaviors of codependency to get my basic needs for love, safety, acceptance, belonging, and connection met. Click here to learn more about how codependence affects behaviors and relationship patterns.

Codependence likely exists on a continuum. At times, everyone abandons self-care and overly focuses on someone else. This does not necessitate a label of codependency. These behaviors may be a temporary reaction to some recent traumatic or painful event (i.e., discovering a partner’s infidelity). For many, though, codependence is a long-term pattern greatly influencing life and relationships. It affects how they interact with partners, children, parents, supervisors, employees, and friends. It affects how they feel about themselves. And, for some, codependence motivates them to engage in dangerous – even life-threatening – situations and relationships, creating extreme physical, emotional, financial, and social consequences.

Thankfully, these patterns can be interrupted and recovering your connection with your authentic Self is possible. AND, the good news is you don’t have to do it alone. Others have been on this path and can help. Check out my resources page for more information or call me to schedule an appointment.

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