Codependency is a relatively recent concept whose meaning can be confusing. A common understanding would be that codependence is an emotional disorder that drives sufferers to compulsively put other people’s needs before their own. A codependent is likely to find their self-esteem and well-being existing in relation to the approval of others and, in particular, the worth that others place on them. Its aetiology is unclear, but may be related to unconscious feelings of childhood abandonment, fear of rejection and the experience of conditional acceptance contingent on meeting the needs of others. Codependency describes a maladaptive and entrenched pattern of interrelating. It involves patterns of compliance, denial, low self-esteem, control and avoidance.
Its pay-off is the avoidance of deep emotional pain, usually arising within family system trauma during childhood, via fixation on meeting the needs of others. A codependent is likely to sacrifice their own happiness and values while endlessly meeting the needs of others. This will appear selfless. However, codependent behaviour is intrinsically self-serving. By hiding their true feelings and instead engaging in people-pleasing and self-sacrifice, codependents are trying to control how others feel about them.
This means that a fundamental paradox of codependence is that while the codependent behaviour seems to be selfless, it is in fact absolutely self-motivated. Recovery from codependency requires acceptance of this fact. Codependents will tend to enter relationships with people who are emotionally unavailable or needy. Such relationships will often be abusive, physically or emotionally, leaving the codependent with even less self-esteem and a greater need to fix their emotional distress through gaining the love and approval of others. The failure of others to ever meet the codependent’s needs reinforces the codependent’s core sense of being not good enough and unloveable.
Not surprisingly, codependents will often feel like martyrs, wear a halo and experience ‘codependent rage’. The negative feelings generated by this codependent spiral of relational trauma repetition may, over time, begin to be managed through increasingly problematic use of drink, drugs, sex or food. Most addicts will have a ‘codependent other’. It was this observation that introduced the concept of codependence to the addiction treatment field in the 1980s. In other words, while the addict is obsessively focused on the object of their addiction, the codependent other is just as obsessively focused on trying to control and fix the addict, typically as their ‘enabler’.
Help back then took the form of encouraging the codependent parent/spouse/partner/child to understand that they were powerless over their addict and to set, and keep, clear and consistent boundaries. Since, then, it has become increasingly clear that codependency is in many ways an addiction entity in its own right. Some people use addictive processes around alcohol or food to mediate their feelings, where codependents engage in equally problematic addictive processes around other people. As with any addiction, codependency is fundamentally about a need for control, is shame-based, progressively spiraling and engenders unmanageability and a feeling of profound helplessness.
At Start2Stop, we have extensive experience of helping people recover from this condition. We have helped many clients suffering from codependency to develop healthy boundaries, a positive identity, increased self-esteem and a new hope for a happy, autonomous, life.
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