Have you ever wondered in frustration why someone you respect or admire decided to “stay” with a spouse or partner who has committed repeated acts of betrayal? Or do you tend to always end up dating people who come from alcoholic or dysfunctional families? Or maybe you know someone whose job consumes all of their time and energy, leaving essentially no time for self-care or meaningful relationships. This article aims to explain why some of us struggle to separate from unhealthy people or work settings that consume our energy at the expense of our own mental and physical well-being.
Codependency became a widely used term in the 1970’s to describe family dynamics when one person is an alcoholic. Since then, mental health professionals have come to describe codependency as a learned behavior that often originates during childhood in dysfunctional families. Common causes of family dysfunction are chronic parental conflict or divorce, alcoholism or addiction of any kind, physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, or chronic illness. Children raised in an environment where their needs and feelings are frequently overlooked are at risk for developing a codependent style of interacting. As adults, they tend to seek out relationships or work environments that demand codependent behaviors, because they feel familiar and comfortable, in spite of the pain or hardship they bring.
Common characteristics of codependency
A need to control others. Codependents attempt to exercise authority over people around them through unsolicited advice, in an effort quell fears of unpredictability. They tend to use gifts, favors, doting behaviors and sex to manipulate others into cooperation. They can appear to have a superior attitude, but very often have low self-esteem as a result of poorly developed self-worth in childhood.
A need to “fix” people or things around them. Codependents need to feel needed. They have a hard time knowing the difference between normal caring behavior and codependent care-taking. They tend to believe others are incapable of caring for themselves, and are typically attracted to people whom many would deem hopelessly riddled with problems. They believe (unrealistically) in their power to change others. When people around them start to ‘get better’ codependents may sabotage others’ progress, so as to continue being needed. Other types of codependents take on unrelenting work loads, believing themselves to be the only one capable of doing a job, while others in similar positions find it acceptable to do less. They are compulsive care-givers and workaholics, often neglecting their own physical and mental health.
Codependents have difficulty expressing feelings. Codependents often struggle to identify their feelings, and attempt to minimize, deny or alter their true feelings once they are known. They tend to avoid confrontation, and remain loyal to their own detriment out of fear of abandonment or loss of a job that has essentially taken over their life. They often repress a great deal of anger, and as a result, tend to behave in passive-aggressive ways, making statements such as “After all I’ve done for you, this is the thanks I get” or “where would you (or ‘this company’) be without me?”
Outside opinions determine their self-worth. Codependents rely heavily on the opinions of others to determine their value, because they lack a sense of their own positive self-worth. They often accept purely sexual relationships when they really seek love. Only when they believe people are attracted to them/like them, or they earn coveted praise or work accolades do they feel any sense of worth. They have an extreme need for recognition and approval and are often devastated when their efforts go unrecognized.
1. Do you feel offended, rejected or angry when another person does not want your help?
2. Do you constantly over commit yourself to another, committees or your work?
3. Do you have a hard time understanding or expressing your true feelings?
4. Do you feel worthless unless you are ‘productive’?
5. Do you find it difficult or uncomfortable to spend time by yourself?
6. Do you work long hours at your job, without receiving additional compensation or recognition for your effort?
7. Do you find yourself constantly trying please others?
8. Do you worry more about your loved ones’ activities than yours own?
9. Do you go to work early and stay late, because the boss “needs you”?
10. Do you blame others for your anger and/or lack of control?
11. Do you find yourself repeating one bad relationship after another?
12. Do you sometimes deny or hide the fact that your family may have been abusive and/or dysfunctional?
13. In the last year, has anyone resorted to arguing with you, or begging to get you to stop trying to help them?
14. When you survey your relationships, do you find yourself surrounded by mostly people who need you?
15. Do you ever find yourself making excuses for needy or abusive people in your life?
If you answered YES to 4 or more of the questions above, you may have a problem with codependency. Treatment options, including individual and/or group therapy, may help you begin to make healthy changes.
www.CoDA.org (Co-Dependents Anonymous, Inc., a.k.a. CoDA). CoDA is a fellowship of men and women whose common purpose is to develop healthy relationships and is not affiliated with any other 12 step program.