Codependency – A Serious Disease of Lost, Confused, Undeveloped and Other-Centered Selves
Written By: Mark Smith
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I need to apologize first before I write about this ‘common cold’ mental health condition. The apology is for not ever writing about it before in 23 years. It is definitely the #1 condition that we work with at Family Tree Counseling Associates. It has sort of been like a Podiatrist never getting around to mentioning feet. Frankly Codependency just isn’t very sexy. What I mean by that is that it never grabbed me as a writer because it is so common place and so much has already been written on it and I felt as if our focus should be in places where people weren’t already writing about a lot. I have had requests for many years that I have ignored, to write about codependency from Family Tree’s cutting thought leading perspective. Since I’m writing my 2nd E-book THE BASICS for a Healthy Life and Marriage I am being forced to get down to the basics myself and address this destructive and prevalent condition. In this article I will address what exactly Codependency is, what causes it, how prevalent it is and how you effectively treat it. Let’s start with a little bit of poetry.
BEING lost and without a solid, genuine sense of self
BEING depressed and without a sense of direction
BEING way too passive and without enough fire in your belly
BEING way to freakin nice and without depth and edge
FEELING victimized even though you have not been
FEELING overwhelmed with being too responsible for others
FEELING invisible, unappreciated and unloved
FEELING exhausted, over-powered and not very special
ACTING confused a lot, rarely showing your full competency
ACTING like you have it together on the outside while insecurity floods your soul
ACTING bitter, beaten down and without boundaries
ACTING like you are supposed to act verses just BEING who you are
HIDING from painful realities while numbing out on whatever numbs best
HIDING your real self so as to not offend anyone
HIDING your true feelings so as to not feel as rejected later
HIDING what you really need while hoping that someone will love you enough to guess
A LOSS of hope, a loss of direction, a loss of strength, a loss of self
A LOSS of intimacy, a loss of self-care time, a loss of your potential
A LOSS of true partnership in relationships, a loss of the ability to command respect
A LOSS of your uniqueness, a loss of your voice, a loss of your full color
AN OPPORTUNITY to re-invent yourself – how cool is that?
AN OPPORTUNITY to face off with your roots, your pain, the truth about you
AN OPPORTUNITY to learn how to expand your world into something bigger and better
AN OPPORTUNITY to learn to play, to laugh out loud, to celebrate and to dance a victory dance
Does that sound familiar? It really isn’t a lot of fun. In our culture women are especially trained to be codependent. They are to give, support, serve, organize, take care of, worry about, facilitate and otherwise enable the rest of us. Codependents are taught to take care of others. They are taught that SELF is a dirty word. Many of them only used to have fun hobbies. Try drive themselves into the ground in an effort to please everyone. Many of them have been beyond exhausted for decades.
I find great joy in aiding in the Recovery process for Codependents. They blossom like beautiful flowers over time. They usually make great progress if they make their work on themselves a top priority. They are like fighters in training for a big upcoming bout. They are being empowered. I love it when they turn the corner and they figure out who they are what they want and that they pleasantly just aren’t going to take any more crap from anybody. I have observed his thousands of times. I love it when a Recovering Codependents really begin to find joy in life. It gives them energy, hope and a skip in their steps.
I. What is Codependency? – Codependency is a combination of four personality characteristics that ultimately result in a great deal of frustration and powerlessness…insecurity, dependence, other centeredness and being too passive.
In their heart of hearts Codependents have very low self-esteem and they lack confidence. Self-assured, confident, controlling people tie Codependents in knots. Codependents usually haven’t experienced enough sense of mastery in their lives to give them a life-long sense of competency and strength. They are lost and confused. They are looking for someone to give them direction. They just haven’t quite found their true place in the world yet. Instead of fulfilling their true destiny they are usually following an even more confused man around more living in his world than living in a world of their own making. They are usually in the wrong place, with the wrong person, at the wrong time for the wrong reasons.
When a Codependent starts a romantic relationship they tend to put too many eggs in that one basket. They invest their whole lives in a guy who ultimately turns out to be an addict, a betrayer, a little boy, a rager, a controller, weak, lost, little, and otherwise not coming as originally advertised. Early on the Codependent is way too emotionally dependent way too quickly. They know who they like. Before too many years go by Codependents learn that the relationship they have arranged for themselves does not include a whole lot of goodies for them. Prince charming who put the full court press on to secure her generally is only interested in her these days to try to extract some sex from her. He is too busy and important to take the time and energy to really get to know her on an intimate and daily basis. That simply isn’t who he is. Codependents also tend to arrange their worlds so that they are financially dependent on a man. Mom is taking care of the kids so that Superman can go out and take over the world. In the mean time each year that passes by is another year that she is out of her career field, not developing her earning power and many times feeling not good enough because they aren’t earning their own money directly.
Codependents have big hearts – too big. They rescue men, children, puppies, strangers, neighbors and friends. Their first thought is ‘what does my husband or my kids need, what will work best for them’. They do not think about their own needs enough. A huge part of their Recovery process is learning to take good care of their own needs. Codependents get lost for decades in the meeting of others needs while ignoring what their own hearts were trying to say to them. Codependents many times don’t have much going on in the hobby department. They have no time devoted to what makes themselves happy. Their lives aren’t really about them. They are rest starved, fun starved and inspiration starved. They need to learn to be selfish in a healthy way. They are parched ground lacking in color and joy.
Codependents are way too passive and powerless. That is the deal that they choose. They pick controlling men to marry. That was always the deal. Codependents do not know how to pleasantly set boundaries with consequences and teeth. They might lose they tempers from time to time, but then they go back to being too passive. It is their nature. Arguing with their controlling, defensive husband is like trying to argue with a brick wall. Codependents are voiceless. They seldom get heard by the people that they really need to get heard by. They are riding in a runaway van that their unhealthy husbands are doing the driving. It seems unfair but it is not. It is the deal that was struck from the very first date. Codependents need to locate the fire in their bellies.
II. What causes Codependency? – Marriage does not cause Codependency; it is just a place where it is practiced a lot. The roots of Codependency are always in childhood. Controlling, critical, abandoning, abusive and shaming parents and caretakers inflict the wounds in the tender psyches of children that result later in life as the low self-esteem, powerlessness, voicelessness, other centeredness, low entitlement, passiveness and depression that we correctly call Codependency. Many times this damage can seem subtle during the childhood itself. If it is all that you have ever known then what do you have to compare it to? In a healthy family children and teenagers are encouraged to have a voice. They are encouraged to speak up and make their cases. That is a skill that they will need in relationships, in school and on the job down the road. In a healthy family a child gets the focus and the attention and the care that they need. The focus isn’t on dad’s alcoholism or mom’s depression. The parents have the ability to really be there for the kids consistently. Parents can give praise directly to the children and they are lavish with it. Home is a safe and a predictable place. The child does not have to grow up too quickly. They can just focus on being a kid. They don’t become the emotional caretakers of their parents. Women are especially trained in our society to be Codependent, although there are also millions of Codependent men in our society as well. Women are taught to be sweet, supportive, nurturing, gentle, not too assertive and not too opinionated. The message a Codependent gets growing up is that they aren’t quite good enough. They don’t quite rate dad’s attention or his time. They don’t quite measure up to mom’s expectations. They need to try harder. They need to eliminate the self and anything positive that the self could have done for them. They need to live for others.
III. How prevalent is Codependency? – Honestly I am not sure if there has been clinical research into Codependency. I am not going to try to prove to you by numbers that this condition exists. I am making the assumption that I am preaching to the choir. I can give you my best observations as a therapist who has been in practice for 23 years now. For women I believe that Codependency, in some measure, impacts at least 80% of the population. For men I would put the number at 40%. These are staggering numbers. Think about it. How many women do you personally know with extremely high self-esteem, a powerful but not controlling presence, solid boundaries, a long term healthy and equal relationship, fabulous hobbies, lots of friends, a successful career who are genuinely happy and well balanced? Not too many, uh?
IV. How do you successfully treat Codependency? – Treating Codependency is not something a doctor does to or for a ‘patient’. It is more like having diabetes. The patient has to learn how to take care of themselves every day for the rest of their lives. Recovery starts when a Codependent understands and has insight into their condition. It takes hold when they understand that they have never been victimized in their marriage. They arranged the right marriage for themselves in order to work on their unresolved childhood issues of not having enough power, not being heard, not being good enough, not being taken seriously, not getting enough attention, not being nurtured, etc. I always recommend that my new Codependent client read Melody Beattie’s classic book on the subject Codependent No More. Then I almost always strongly encourage them to join one of our Codependency Recovery groups. Group is like the gym. It is where a Codependent goes to lift weights and get stronger. I will talk more about group in a later chapter, but Group therapy rocks – it is inexpensive, weekly, powerful, fun, insight building and affirming. In my practice the wife is many times the Codependent person and she comes with her husband for couples sessions as well as attending the group sessions without him. In the couple work with a husband who is perhaps not in as much pain or in a place of having much enlightenment about his own issues the Codependent needs to come prepared to work hard at naming the issues that hurt her in the marriage. Actually bringing in a written list is a very good idea. It is a safe environment because the therapist won’t allow reactivity, control, manipulation, defensiveness, blaming, rage, massive denial or shaming to happen without it being named and quickly stopped. One Codependent woman I worked with felt like there was a microphone waiting on her end of the couch when she arrived at couple’s therapy. The microphone was attached it seemed to her to a whole bank of powerful speakers stacked her near her husband’s head. She felt heard! Many times things get worse in a marriage at the beginning of couple’s work because the whole foundation of the marriage has to change. A spouse who has the vast majority of power isn’t going to give that up without a fight.
Recovery from Codependency is not just about gaining a strong voice. It is also very much about learning how to take good care of one’s self. It is about learning how to take the time to have fun, to exercise, to have a huge hobby that enriches your life and to nurture one’s self well. It might involve getting regular massages, joining a Book Club, making new friends, scheduling travel with your newly romantic and sensitive husband, getting enough sleep, eating right, exercising often, getting enough help in raising the kids, getting help with the household chores and getting enough alone time. Doesn’t all of that sound great? You can make it happen. You are in charge of your own life.
The Recovery process for Codependency is an adventure. It is not torture. Your marriage really is a gift that is provoking you to know the truth about yourself and work hard on yourself. It is all good and it is all fair. It is an opportunity to make your dreams come true. Being empowered is fun! Let me tell you a true story about how much fun Recovery from Codependency can be. Allie’s husband was an alcoholic, her kids were pressing the limits of her patience, her boss was manipulative and unsafe, her mother was rude and mean and Allie had no time for herself as she unsuccessfully battled it all. She was over worked and depressed. Then she got into Recovery for her Codependency by understanding her feedback when she came to therapy with her husband. She read Codependent No More. She participated in group therapy for almost two years. She worked hard. Her husband quit drinking and went to treatment rather than face the consequences of separation if he did not do so. He has not had a drop of alcohol since then. One day she woke up and next to her bed was an ugly gray metallic gun safe right next to her bed where it had been for many years. Then it hit her – “why is there a freakin gun safe in my bedroom?” Out goes the gun safe. Then the bedroom got a complete remodeling. Now the house is being sold and a better and more appropriate home will be purchased. The marriage is solid. Dave, Allie’s husband also did group therapy to work on his emotional skills for two years. The kids are more respectful, partly because they face a united front. The mom has had several attitude adjustment sessions and she is no longer rude and mean to Allie. She knows better than to act that way with her. The boss has been replaced because Allie got a better job with a better boss. Allie is really happy. She made it happen and she continues to make it happen with her continued assertiveness, self-care and partnership with her equally healthy husband. Recovery works. You just have to work at it really hard over a period of time. Today is the best day for you to start with that.
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