I don’t love the term codependency. I think it’s often misunderstood. Some people find it a helpful description and others reject it because it feels blaming or inaccurate. Unfortunately, there isn’t another succinct way of describing what are commonly described as codependent traits.
In an effort to bring some clarity to the term codependency, I want to address some of the common myths about codependency.
Myth #1 Codependency means being really nice and helpful.
Truth: Codependency isn’t just being really nice and helpful. One of the hallmark traits of codependency is care taking and a strong desire to please and help others. However, codependency is much more. For people with codependent traits, the strong desire to help also serves as a way to feel needed and important; it’s central to their identity. For people with codependency, helping and fixing also involves an element of trying to control and change people and situations in order to manage their anxiety, discomfort, and feeling out of control.
Myth #2 Codependency only happens in families with an alcoholic family member.
Truth: Codependency doesn’t only develop in families dealing with an addicted family member. It’s true that the concept of codependency originally came from trying to understand the dynamics of women married to alcoholic men. However, as our understanding has grown over the years, we’ve come to recognize that codependency can develop in a wide array of family situations. People with codependent traits often grew up in families with addiction, untreated mental illness, abuse, or neglect. But there are still others with codependent traits who describe growing up in well-functioning families. These families may have set exceptionally high standards, not been attentive to emotional needs, or emphasized caring for others or pleasing others over taking care of oneself and developing a strong, independent self.
Myth #3 You’re either codependent or you’re not.
Truth: Codependency isn’t all or nothing. You can have codependent traits to varying degrees. You may have only a few codependent traits or you may have many. And you may feel the impact of them to varying degrees. For some people codependent traits cause significant problems in their lives and for other people they don’t (although it’s important to note that this could be denial). Codependency isn’t a mental health diagnosis so there isn’t a definitive diagnostic criterion. Think of codependency as existing on a continuum.
Myth #4 Codependents are weak and create dysfunctional relationships.
Truth: You didn’t develop codependent because you’re weak. Quite the contrary; people with codependent traits are strong – so very strong. They are survivors. Codependency is a natural and understandable reaction to trauma, overwhelming experiences, or inattentive or inconsistent parenting. Codependent traits develop as a way to cope. They’re adaptive and strong.
Codependency isn’t your fault. You aren’t the cause of your dysfunctional relationships. Relationship problems are the result of all the people involved. Sometimes people with codependent traits think “I should be able to make my spouse (or child or parent) stop drinking. If I was stronger (or smarter or prettier), s/he’d stop.” This is flawed thinking that leaves you blaming yourself and trying to control the uncontrollable.
When you acknowledge your codependent traits, you take ownership of your own thoughts and behaviors. Accepting your codependent traits doesn’t mean you are responsible for being mistreated or for anyone else’s poor choices or behaviors. And while many people with codependent traits are the victims of abuse and trauma, accepting your part in the relationship dynamics does not in any way justify or mean that you’re responsible for being abused or mistreated.
Myth #5 You’ll always be codependent.
Truth: If you choose to make changes, you won’t always have codependent traits. Thought patterns and behavior patterns can be changed. It can be a lengthy process, but people absolutely change their patterns. I believe that acknowledging your codependent traits is the place to begin. As I said, I know that some people don’t like the term codependency and feel it’s blaming, but I think it can be empowering if you choose to make it so. When you know how your thoughts and behaviors aren’t serving you well, you can begin to change them. You can start untangling yourself from the unhealthy people and relationships in your life. You can become emotionally free.
Wishing you well on your healing journey,
Image by Serge Bertasius Photography at freedigitalphotos.net