Am I codependent?
Recently a client* came to see me because her couples’ therapist told her that she was enabling her husband and that she was codependent. She was told that she had to take a stand on his issues by either demanding a separation or no longer tolerating what he was doing. Pretty dramatic, for someone that has been married for over 30 years. She was aghast at being called an enabler. After all, she is nice, involved in many things, volunteers at their church, raised their children, held down a job, and anyone would say that they could count on her for anything. How could she be the cause of his problems?
Let’s start with the definition. Codependency is not a mental disorder, and you can’t find it in the DSM 5. A little disclaimer—personally, I don’t like the word at all. I believe a more fitting term is “ineffective dependency,” because we do need each other and are healthily interdependent. Living with someone with a behavioral or chemical addiction creates problems in the partner, no matter what we call it. A codependent person is not addicted to a substance, but instead to a destructive pattern of relating to other people. This pattern is usually learned in childhood. A codependent person’s identity is built from attachments to external sources, usually a partner, family, appearance, or work. These attachments create the illusion of a self.
It is generally thought of as a personality style that has the following features:
Feelings of inadequacy
Worry about what others think of them
Too much reliance on others’ opinions
Self- esteem comes from doing for others
Over-functioning in many aspects of life—even feeling arrogant and superior due the ability to over-function
Too weak–enmeshed with their partners and others, always solving problems for them
Too rigid, which keeps them from being close to others
Flipping back and forth between enmeshment and rigidity
Poor communicators due to the lack of self
Over-thinking and/or over-talking aspects of their partner’s behavior
Difficulty knowing own thoughts and feelings, or being overwhelmed by them
Difficulty expressing thoughts and feelings
Lacking assertiveness about directly and concisely communicating needs
Controls own feelings
Manages others by telling them what to do (“Know-it-all’s”)
Manipulates others by pleasing behaviors
Over-involvement or under-involvement in other’s problems—used to avoid feelings
Poor sense of self
Too dependent, with a high desire to be taken care of
Anti-dependent–unable to accept help or guidance from anyone
Lack of awareness of own needs
Denial of own needs, feelings, and reality of relationship
Preoccupation with others
Although it is hard to believe that anyone would want to live like this, codependents are forced into this behavior by living a life with addicted loved ones. There is a codependent high, which parallels the addiction high. The high comes from the adrenaline rush of functioning impressively in a crisis, because there is always a crisis when living with an active addict. When things are falling apart, the codependent copes and is the one that holds it all together. This is actually not a sign of healthy functionality. The difference is that the behavior is fueled by resentment, self-righteousness, and feelings of superiority. The codependent is secretly smug, “I have to do this because no one could do it as well as I could, and others will mess it up” rather than, “I want to do this because I care about this person.”
Codependency or Kindness?
So what is the difference between genuine kindness and codependency? The easiest way to distinguish is to look to motivation. If you are about to do something because you think you should, because you need to reinforce your image of yourself as a good person, or because you are keeping score and expect something in return, then you might want to check yourself. You may be acting not out of love but out of codependency.
So what do you think? Is there something you are doing that could be considered codependent?
*This is a composite of many clients.