Rarely the primary focus, codependency issues are often identified in connection to the treatment of a family member with an addiction. A person in a significant relationship with someone addicted to a substance or activity is at risk of developing a set of behaviors (also an addictive pattern) from which they too need healing to restore life balance, integrity and peace of mind.
Codependent persons have a developed ability to “read” the moods of others, and take pleasure in “knowing” what others want, how to pacify or appease. Pleasing others, however, is rooted in fear, and a wishful fantasy or expectation that, somehow or someday, the ones they seek to please will recognize, appreciate, and value them for the efforts they make.
This set of behaviors, sometimes referred to as “enabling,” is known as “codependency” or “co-addiction.”
A co-addicted person engages in a set of behaviors that, similar to addiction, provides a pleasure-inducing “fix,” one that stimulates the reward centers of the brain. These behaviors become ingrained, the more they repeatedly stimulate certain reward centers of the brain. The feelings of pleasure, such as a pseudo sense of personal power and safety in lowering anxiety, keeps the pattern alive and active. They become particularly potent because, along with feelings of pleasure, the reward centers are also stimulated by fear-based emotions, such as guilt or shame.
In a groundbreaking book, Codepedent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself, Melody Beattie first brought attention to this phenomenon, and defined codependency as, “one who has let another person’s behavior affect him or her, and who is obsessed with controlling that person’s behavior.”
Notably, this type of “controlling” has little to do with the mainstream definition of “power” as seeking to possess authority or the “right to rule” another, which is more typical of narcissism — codependency’s counterpart. Wittingly or unwittingly, codependency patterns enable narcissistic behaviors, and vice versa; they seem to attach to one another in unhealthy ways that bring both down.
In other words, the release of “feel-good” chemicals in the brain and body that modulate codependent behaviors, unlike narcissism, are not connected to proving self-worth on the basis of proving dominance or ability to subvert another’s will (more typical of narcissism). The codependent is rather bent on proving worth by feeling “needed” or valued to fix upsets, conflict with a mix of pleasing and placating behaviors.
The dance between codependency and narcissism is as intoxicating and alluring, as it is toxic and prohibitive of intimacy and emotional fulfillment.
Author and expert researcher in the field of addiction, Dr. Patrick Carnes in his book Out of the Shadows: Understanding Sexual Addiction, labeled co-dependent patterns as co-addiction, noting the compulsive nature of a co-addicted person’s behaviors. Much like the addicted spouse, a person with a co-addiction cannot seem to stop their behaviors despite negative consequences to include not only enabling the addiction, but also personal costs to own mental, emotional well being.
Are you codependent or in a co-dependent relationship with another? What are the signs? Based on this therapist’s experience in working with addictive and co-dependency patterns, there are at least 20 indicators. You or your partner may be trapped in codependent patterns if you regularly:
- Feel responsible to ensure no conflict, upsets, angry outbursts occur in your key relationships.
- Seek to “keep the peace” with little or no thought to your own personal needs, wants, well-being, growth, etc.
- Are overly attuned to what others need or “must have” to feel okay or not get upset, yet have little or no awareness of own needs, feelings, wants, boundaries, etc.
- Worry about being viewed as “selfish,” “controlling” or “mean” by asking for what you want, doing your own thinking or acting on your own behalf.
- Check the moods of key others around the clock, in particular, looking to see if you’re needed to put out “fires” (i.e., anger, upsets, discomfort, etc.).
- Set boundaries or new rules for how you others treat you yet talk yourself out of sticking to the guidelines you set (i.e., thinking “what’s the use”).
- Are “used to” living with another’s drama, outbursts, addictive patterns, etc., believing “they’re not capable” of making better choices, handling their emotions, making changes, etc.
- Tolerate behaviors toward you that stunt both your and another person’s growth and development, thus, producing a toxic relationship.
- Are preoccupied, worried or obsessed about another person’s opinions of you, and go out of your way to avoid disapproval, upsetting or angering them, and so on.
- Refuse to make requests of another because asking them to change or be thoughtful in how they treat you may inconvenience or cause them discomfort or “stress.”
- Easily trust and believe what another says, ignoring warning signs, gut feelings or past experiences that tell you blind trust is unwarranted.
- Make excuses for another that “enable” them to continue to make poor choices, engage in addictive patterns, act in toxic or life-harming ways, etc.
- Keep another dependent on you by rescuing them, bolstering their ego or providing assurance when they get upset.
- Treat another as incapable of tolerating frustration or handling situations without you.
- Nag and complain, scold and lecture another, rather than make requests for what you want or need from them, thus, treating them as capable adults.
- Do for others (children, spouse, etc.) what you wouldn’t consider doing for yourself and thus think this “sacrifice” will cause them to value and appreciate you some day.
- Neglect other responsibilities or persons in your life, i.e., your children, job, etc., because you’re pre-occupied with another’s addiction, reactivity, problems, etc.
- Need to think of addicted person as “incapable” in order to feel “needed” and valued, caring and connected to them.
- Believe that you will find love and fulfillment by putting others first and yourself last, etc., somehow others will appreciate and recognize you for this “sacrifice.”
- Wallow in guilt and regret about times when you’ve let others down, blaming yourself, intensifying efforts to prove you’re “good enough” in order to avoid being rejected or abandoned in the future.
Ultimately, codependency is an ineffective way of realizing human yearnings to matter, to love and be loved. Guilt is often the basis for action. Secretly, codependents wish to be seen as “heroes” and get their “high” from emotionally saving or rescuing others from having to deal with or take responsibility for their problems.
Though outwardly the co-addicted person seeks to appease and take care of another, in reality, the behavior pattern is a defensive means to restore their own sense of safety and security inside. The behavior pattern is rooted in fear of rejection or abandonment, and associated with core beliefs and protective strategies learned in early childhood experiences, which link a codependent’s self-worth to their ability to prevent conflict and upsets by appeasing others.
A primary fear of the co-addicted person is being rejected on the basis of being selfish, mean or uncaring. Most of their focus is on finding ways to put out fires, prevent crises, not upset or disappoint others—and never the root cause. That is what makes the behaviors an unhealthy and futile waste of energy.
Because a codependent person is disconnected from their own wants and needs in the relationship, their inability to “receive” often destabilizes and keeps their key relationships (and them) out of balance. People in their lives are not challenged, and may stop growing or not develop to full potential.
It’s important not to mislabel all sacrifice or giving persons as “codependent.” A good measure of “healthy giving” is that it promotes the growth and well being of both self and the other, whereas codependency tends to foster “dependency” that can arrest another’s development. For example, giving a child junk food to avoid conflict, giving in to a partner who wants to “relax” at bars drinking with buddies, or buying gifts you cannot afford to feel loved or loving is not healthy giving. And, it’s codependency if a repeated pattern one finds impossible to break.
As with addiction patterns, co-dependency or co-addiction is an impaired way of thinking that enslaves the mind. Mental enslavement occurs whenever the mind holds rigid schemas (limiting beliefs) that cause us to feel we have no choice, no other alternative but to turn to some substance or person or activity for comfort, fulfillment.
Neither of these patterns are not easy to let go of because they’re associated with protective strategies and early-survival love maps. The good news is that, thanks to the brain’s amazing capacity for change (plasticity), people can and do break free of these addictive relating patterns, and awareness of them is a vital first step.