Are you making sacrifices for someone else’s happiness and not getting much in return? Are you so focused on taking care of other people that you are sacrificing your own physical, emotional or financial well-being? Are you afraid that people won’t love you unless you take care of them?
If the answer is yes to any of these, you may be codependent.
Jennifer paid $1,000 to get her alcoholic boy friend out of jail for his second drunk driving offense. Before that, she paid for his third stint in rehab, and helped him finance a new car after he got drunk and crashed his old one. When she finally said “no” and refused to rescue him from his latest drunken incident, she felt horribly guilty.
Judy and David keep taking their drug addicted son into their home, even after he stole their money and jewelry and wrecked their car. They frequently call in sick for their son to keep him from losing his job, when in fact he’s hung over or too stoned to go to work.
Martha is so busy taking care of everyone in her life that she’s neglecting her own health and financial needs, to the point of draining her savings to help a friend, so she can’t afford her own physical therapy. She agonizes over every decision for fear that someone will disapprove, and says she doesn’t have time to take care of herself because other people need her.
In fact, codependency is an addiction, like drug or alcohol addiction. Except codependents are addicted to taking care of other people’s issues. Codependents feel a need to control people around them. On the surface, it may look like care taking. But it has more to do with a codependent person focusing on others to avoid his or her own anxiety. The care taking takes on a compulsive quality that can be destructive and disempowering to all involved.
Codependents tend to enable addicts and others to continue their destructive behaviors. By compulsively protecting people from the negative consequences of their actions, they encourage addicts to keep using and alcoholics to keep drinking. They feel responsible when the people they care about suffer the consequences of their bad choices and addictive behaviors.
Then they end up feeling like martyrs or victims when the troubled person they care for continues to act badly. And they feel guilty when they take care of themselves.
Codependents find it hard to “be themselves,” and often get lost in relationships by subordinating their needs to those of their partners. They try to morph themselves into whatever personality meets the needs of whoever they are with.
Codependency is generally rooted in early childhood. Children in alcoholic, addicted or otherwise dysfunctional homes learn early on that they have to take care of other people in order to feel safe and loved. Like other dysfunctional patterns, this can go from generation to generation as codependent parents model these behaviors for their children. Fast forward thirty years, and even though they are living in safe environments, they are still driven to compulsive care taking and neglect their own needs. In essence, they become codependent adults.
This cycle can be broken. Codependency recovery is possible. But it takes work and a lot of support. It’s extremely difficult to break out of these patterns alone. As with other behavioral addictions, codependents may experience anxiety and shame when they let go of compulsive care-taking and prioritize their own needs. And they may encounter resistance from the people they have been care-taking, especially if those people are alcoholics or addicts, and the codependent is no longer available to rescue them from their bad behaviors.
Help and support are available. Therapy can be helpful for codependency. There are also support groups, like Codependents Anonymous and Al-Anon. And there are good self-help books, including Codependent No More by Melody Beaty and Facing Codependence by Pia Melody.
You can find my tip sheet on Self Care for Codependents here. I’m also available to help if you need counseling for codependence or you are struggling to cope with an addicted loved one. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (812) 371-6330.