You do not need to be a therapist or be actively engaged in counselling to be familiar with the term codependency. Codependency is a popular term in the world of psychology, therapy and self-help. In my opinion, this term has the potential to be used frivolously, has a negative connotation and at its worst is a label that can create shame. It is for that reason I would like to spend some time defining what codependency is and how it can manifest in our most significant relationships.

Where did the term codependency come from?

Codependency has its roots in alcohol and drug addition. In the 1980's alcohol and drug treatment centres began paying attention to family dynamics and the social network of their clients. Family members were encouraged to participate and be involved in the treatment process. This proved to be effective due to the lower incidents of "relapse" and longer periods of sobriety.

It was at this time that the partners of alcoholics were labeled co-alcoholics. This term then evolved into codependency which was defined as a person in a relationship with a chemically dependent partner. The codependent partner might be in love or in a marital like relationship with an alcoholic, have one or more alcoholic parents or grandparents or was raised within an emotionally repressed family.

Codependency as we understand it today...

Codependency can be passed down from one generation to another because it is learned by watching family members who display dysfunctional behaviour. It affects an individuals ability to have healthy relationships and relationships can be emotionally destructive and/or abusive. We are more likely to see codependent behaviour in the spouse, parent, friend or sibling of someone experiencing addiction or mental health challenges.

So what is dysfunctional behaviour in families that can lead to codependency?

  • Family members who are experiencing addiction to drugs, alcohol, relationships, work, food, sex, gambling etc.

  • Existence of physical, emotional or sexual abuse.

  • A family member suffering from a chronic mental or physical illness.

Codependency and Attachment Theory

The children of families that exhibit dysfunctional behaviours may feel unsafe or insecurely attached to their parents. As adults these same individuals may struggle with insecurity in significant relationships. People with insecure attachment styles like insecure anxious and insecure avoidant are more likely to experience codependency. At the root of it, these individuals may feel uncertain of their attachment to others, worried about rejection or abandonment or afraid they will lose someone they love.

This insecurity is heightened when these individuals find themselves in a relationship with someone who is inconsistent, abusive or neglectful. They will behave in a fearful way by becoming hyper-vigilant, ruminating on the problems of the person that is suffering, be angry and isolate themselves. Given the fear response that codependency can foster, it is not surprising that individuals experiencing codependency may also experience symptoms related to anxiety.

What are the signs of codependency?

  • Feeling responsible for the actions of others

  • Confusing love and pity with the tendency to “love” those they can rescue

  • A tendency to become hurt when people don’t recognize their efforts

  • People pleasing tendencies. There is a need for approval and recognition from others.

  • An unhealthy dependence on relationships. The co-dependent will do anything to hold on to a relationship

  • A sense of guilt when asserting themselves and their boundaries

  • Lack of trust in self and/or others

  • Fear of rejection and being alone

  • Problems with emotional processing and intimacy

  • Chronic anger

How do I heal from codependency?

1. Self-awareness. I believe the the first step to changing any behaviour is to cultivate self-awareness. If we don't know what behaviours we are actively engaging in we won't know what we are trying to change. There may be a pattern across our lifetime or a particular incident that helped shaped our behaviour. Mindfulness is a fantastic way to cultivate self-awareness.

2. Emotional processing. It is likely that particularly challenging emotions have been buried in childhood. Instead of processing challenging emotions, individuals experiencing codependency may repress emotions and cope with them by distracting, numbing and/or escaping. We need to be able to process our emotions in order to experience the full emotional range of our lives. Emotional processing encompasses identification, validation and expression of emotions.

3. Conceptualize the behaviour. This is where I personally believe a label is helpful. A term, label, diagnosis can give us a definition, scope of understanding, signs, symptoms and treatment options. This is extremely valuable and I do not want to discredit this information. It is how we and others apply this information to our experience that can lead to feelings of shame and negativity. We want to avoid this. As it relates to codependency we want to openly explore the concept of codependence and its relationship to addiction and possible past trauma(s).

4. Boundary setting. Those experiencing codependency may need to learn how to say "no" by setting personal boundaries and advocate for their personal needs in a relationship. As I mentioned in my last post, boundaries are healthy and are a way to practice self-care and self-respect. Boundaries help you communicate your needs and set limits in a relationship. Most importantly, setting boundaries allows you to make time and space for positive experiences and interactions.

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