What is codependency?
It may be a term you’ve heard thrown around before, but if you are confused as to what it actually means, that may be because the definition of codependency has evolved over time. The term codependency was first coined in the 1970s and referred to a person’s penchant to enter into, and continue to exist in, a relationship with a partner who had an alcohol or drug addiction. Today, the definition of codependency has expanded to mean the following:
A dysfunctional helping relationship where one person supports or enables another person’s addiction, poor mental health, immaturity, irresponsibility or under-achievement. A person who continuously tries to help another person who cannot be helped, so much so that it becomes compulsive and defeating and results in a disturbance of the codependent’s identity development.
Gerald is a 65-year-old man who lives with his wife, Edith, and their 40-year-old son, Aiden. Aiden is a self-employed contractor who works about 20 hours a week and nets $25,000 a year. He lives in his parents’ basement and spends a lot of his free time gambling online. Gerald and Edith, both retired, help Aiden manage his contracting business and help him pay his bills. Since college, Aiden has had a few opportunities to marry, but his parents would question his desire to move away from them. Aiden has also had many opportunities to expand his contracting business but always turns them down. Gerald occasionally expresses frustration about Aiden’s lack of initiative when it comes to his own life. Whenever Gerald suggests it may be better for Aiden to move out, Edith immediately shuts Gerald down, stating that they can never abandon Aiden and it’s best for him to live at home. Edith emphatically states that she knows what’s best for Aiden and she’ll never stop caring for her son. Recently, Aiden went out drinking with friends and ended getting a DWI. His parents went down to the police station to pick him up, accompanied him to court, and paid the accompanying fines.
In this vignette, Gerald and Edith are codependents who enable their son Aiden’s immature, irresponsible and under-achieving behavior. Are you a codependent or involved in a codependent relationship?
Do you feel responsible for other people or for other people’s feelings, actions and choices?.
Do you refuse help from other, but are the first to offer help to someone else, even if they aren’t asking?
Do you do too much for people and then feel taken advantage of?
Do you feel guilty spending time or money taking care of yourself?
Do you think people in your life would go downhill without your constant efforts to help them?
Do you agree to do things you don’t want to do because that feels more comfortable to you than having to say “no” to someone?
Do you look to outside sources (other people, relationships or situations) to define your own self worth?
Do you find yourself attracted to (or attracting of) needy people?
Do you feel bored, empty and worthless if you don’t have a crisis to deal with, a problem to solve or someone to help?
Do you tell people what they want to hear so they will like you?
The above is just a small sampling of codependent feelings and behaviors. If you recognize yourself in any of the questions, practicing the ideas below can help you get out of codependent relationships and get you back to living a healthier, more balanced life.
1) Get honest with yourself and others. Codependents often tell people what they want to hear because they are afraid that if they speak the truth they will be ridiculed or, worse, abandoned. You can please some people some of the time, but you probably won’t succeed in pleasing everybody all the time. Practice being true to yourself in your communication with others. Even if someone isn’t pleased with your feedback, they will likely still value the relationship they have with you. Shifting your priorities from pleasing someone else to working on healing yourself can help motivate you.
2) Learn to say “no” without feeling guilty. You have the right to decide how to spend your time and money. Remember that you don’t owe anyone anything just because they are asking.
3) Pay attention to how you feel. Codependents are often so busy trying to please everybody else that they do not pause to consider what their own opinion actually is. Begin practicing this when you are alone and have time to think, rather than when you are in conversation and required to respond. Check in with yourself multiple times a day and just ask yourself for your own opinion. (What do I want to eat for lunch today? What did I think of what my boss told everyone at the staff meeting? How do I really feel about my sister deciding to host the Purim seudah without consulting me?) It may feel strange at first, but the goal is that responding from how you feel, rather than what others want to hear, will become more natural over time.
4) Set boundaries with yourself. An internal boundary is what you say to yourself regarding a tricky situation. Your needy friend Elana is constantly keeping you on the phone to vent or for advice, but the relationship is one-sided and you are getting tired of being a sounding board without getting anything in return. Your internal boundary is you listening to your own need and deciding to set limits when Elana calls. The internal boundary is also not allowing guilty feelings to flood you for doing so.
5) Set boundaries with others. The external boundary is between you and Elana. You choose not to pick up the phone when Elana calls or you limit the conversations you have with her. In doing this you do not defend or explain yourself.
6) Learn to communicate assertively with others. This can be an especially tough one for codependents and will take practice and perseverance to master. Communicating assertively simply means expressing your opinions or needs in a sincere, respectful and matter-of-fact way, without being passive or aggressive.
7) Take care of yourself. It will likely feel uncomfortable and unnatural in the beginning, but make it a priority to put yourself first. Remind yourself that practicing this will help you recover from codependency. Take time to meditate, exercise, rest, eat better, shop for yourself, etc.
Untreated codependency is harmful because it doesn’t allow healthy, reciprocal relationships to develop and flourish. Codependents usually struggle with some level of depression and anxiety and, in severe cases, self-destruct. If you recognized a family member, friend or yourself in this article, take time to learn more about codependency and the role it could be playing in your life. With help, recovery from codependency is possible.
By Heather Feigin
Heather Feigin, LCSW, is a psychotherapist with a private practice in Passaic, NJ. For appointments, call 973-348-5279. Got a question for Heather? Email [email protected].