Codependency

Are you in a relationship with someone who uses drugs or alcohol. Does it feel like you're always attracted to people who are needy or "broken." Codependent people are "addicted" to being the helper, the fixer or the "strong one." While being strong let's you feel a measure of control, it's exhausting and usually leads to burn out, resentment and loneliness. Therapy can help you understand and free yourself from the role of codependent.

Defining codependency

"Codependent" has become such a buzz word. Yet it's so overused and misused, many of us don't really know what it means anymore.

A co-dependent person is one who attracts emotionally dependent people (who are often also dependent on alcohol or drugs). The co-dependent person becomes the caretaker or rescuer - sometimes by choice, sometimes by default. The dependent person NEEDS and the codependent PROVIDES (but also needs to be needed).

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Signs of codependency

If you're codependent, you may be feeling:

  • Worn out helping everyone else
  • Taken for granted and unappreciated
  • Like nothing you do is ever good enough
  • Like it’s not okay to say "no" or disappoint others
  • Worried about what other people think of you or your family
  • Frustrated that others don't reciprocate or comply with your requests
  • Angry or resentful that you're always the responsible one

At the same time, you may have a strong internal pressure to be a good caretaker. In fact, you may have been confusing being a good person with being a good caretaker. While you may get some sense of satisfaction for you hard work, it comes at too high a price.

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How did I get this way?
  • Codependent people often come from families where they had to earn approval.
  • Feelings of belonging and being loved were always conditional.
  • Being loved may have been confused with being needed.
  • Having your own needs meant you were burdening someone else.
  • Parents/adults were not capable of taking care of kids (or even themselves).

Caretaking behaviors developed to gain love and approval and to feel safe. This is a no-win situation. Dependent people can never get enough. So no matter how hard the codependent person works, she/he is never finished caretaking.

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Letting go of shame through understanding

On the outside a co-dependent person may seem like a pleaser or even a doormat. In some cases, they may seem controlling, bossy or even manipulative. It's important to recognize that these shameful labels are not accurate. Codependent people learned to survive when they were kids by caretaking others. Since it was never okay to get their own needs met directly, they may have learned to manipulate. And since there may not have been a reliable adult around to provide nurturing and safety, they may have learned that they had to be in control in order to feel protected and taken care of.

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How Therapy Helps

Codependent people are trained through experience that the only way to get their needs met is by taking care of someone else. Therapy is a process of shifting this old pattern of belief while also making changes and setting boundaries in relationships. It's about learning to listen to your own voice and then honor it, becoming assertive, setting limits with other people and managing your own anxiety when others express disappointment, frustration or anger.

In therapy, you have a safe place to practice new behaviors. We may role play situations where you get to set limits effectively, say no, or ask for what you need effectively. As it feels safe, you may practice these new behaviors outside - maybe joining a supportive group where working on new skills is welcomed. It's a huge relief to see that most people are actually fine with limits and will still accept and love you. It also feels really good to know that some people will even give you the care and nurturing you've had to do without for so long.

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Living with someone who is or was addicted

The word codependent came out of the 12-step movement. People realized that spouses and children of addicts and alcoholics seemed to be addicted too - not to the substance, but to the addict. While codependency can happen in relationships where there is no substance abuse, it is extremely likely that there is some kind of addiction - if not to a substance, then to work, to food, to the internet, etc.

If you are living with an addicted person, therapy can help you find the support and resources you need to let that person stand on their own feet. This can be difficult, but it's possible. In giving them back responsibility for their choices and behaviors, you may both find that you are stronger than you realized. Letting the other person falters may actually be helpful in the long run - allowing them to recognize how serious their addiction has become. By not saving them, you empower them to save themselves (and they are really the only ones who can). At the same time, you save yourself from getting pulled into their drama.

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Letting other's take care of you

Perhaps the hardest thing for a person with codependency is letting others care for them. As much as you may be craving unconditional love and tenderness, these things may be unfamiliar, even scary at first. If you came from a family where you always had to rely on yourself or be disappointed, it can be hard to trust. In many families, there is an implicit message that "your needs are a burden to me."

It's important to go slowly and really test people out. Letting someone do a little thing at first may feel safest. Gradually, over time, you may discover that there are people out there who can come through for you - with pleasure - much of the time. In allowing others to take care of you, they receive a gift too - the satisfaction of being able to provide and the joy of seeing your relief or comfort.

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For more information or to book a session,
contact Heather Marchman, Marriage and Family Therapist.

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