By Licia Ginne, LMFT
Codependency is a word that has lost some of its original meaning from overuse. Codependency originated in the recovery movement and was used to describe the behaviors of people who were in a relationship with an alcoholic or substance abuser. Codependency has come to mean addiction to relationships, relationships that do not have healthy boundaries and relationships where the codependent has not been able to protect themselves.
Over the years, however, codependency has expanded into a definition that describes a dysfunctional pattern of living and problem solving, developed during childhood by dysfunctional family rules. These families suffer from poor boundaries (to understand these boundaries and definitions of abuse) and produce adults who have been abused as children. This abuse may come in the form of neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, verbal abuse and/or emotional abuse. Abuse will be have found in families who suffer from mental health issues, problems with addictions and compulsivity, in families where for whatever reason parents don’t have time for children, and in families where the parents were abused as children.
Pia Melody in her book, Facing Codependency, defines the Five Core Symptoms of Codependence:
• Having low self-esteem
• Difficulty setting boundaries
• Knowing yourself, knowing what you want
• Taking care of adult needs and wants
• Difficulty experiencing and expressing reality moderately.
When we live in painful families, we find ways of adapting so we can survive. You couldn’t wake up each day and say “This is hell”; you have to go into some type of denial to survive. Those tools we used to adapt were the tools available to children and as adults we may find that we still rely upon them and they are not adequate. Remember: as a child your choices are limited. They are pretty much limited to your brain. Fantasy or future thinking are the tools of children. “How can I think about what is happening to me in a way that I don’t feel like a victim?” Children blame themselves for the problem: “If I were better than this problem wouldn’t be happening.” “If I brought more joy to my family than they wouldn’t be so unhappy.” To feel that it is our parents makes us feel helpless and hopeless — we can’t make anyone else do anything they don’t want to do, unless by coercive measures. So to feel a sense of mastery in the world, we become the problem. “This is something I can work on and fix. I can change me and I can’t change them.” But we constantly fail because we are not the problem.
Psychotherapy has been a good setting for learning that you are not the problem. It can be a good environment for learning how you became codependent and how to put yourself first. How to grow, develop insight and understanding so you will have more options for living.
As we grow our tools for protecting ourselves should grow, but remember we must be taught coping and problem solving skills. Without this education we still use the tools our child’s mind came up with and often continue to blame ourselves for other peoples behaviors. As adults we need to expand our resources, we have not been taught good problem solving skills or good self care.
Recovery from codependency is learning how to meet and identify our own needs ,if we don’t take care of ourselves we can’t be there for someone else. We learn how to protect ourselves with healthy boundaries. We learn that we view the world through a set of beliefs that came out of our families and our parents were limited with what they could teach us.. To recover, we learn healthy ways of communicating,we learn to honor and respect our needs and wants and the needs and wants of others. We learn what a reciprocal relationship is and how we deserve to be in them. We learn how to problem-solve and look for the win-win solutions. How to set health boundaries, how to compromise and accept others limitations and not take it personally. We learn to tolerate differences and know there is not always one way to do something. We learn we are not damaged and doomed to repeat the same mistakes. We discover our self-worth and self-esteem. We learn that we are loveable.