The traditional stereo-typical view of co-dependency was of the long suffering spouse of an alcoholic. She (because stereo-typically it was a woman) would spend years propping up her “no-good” alcoholic husband, covering up all his drunken misdemeanors, apologizing on his behalf and generally conducting her duty with “the patience of a saint” When her drunken spouse finally saw the light and got himself into recovery, suddenly she would find herself adrift, floating in a void without meaning or purpose.
Today, the term has much wider definition and can be applied to a broad range of behaviours and many different types of relationships, such as with intimate partners, with parents, with friends or with work. Ironically, co-dependency is not really about our relationship with others, its about our dysfunctional relationship with ourselves.
It is very likely that if you have become dependent on substances you will have someone close to you who is co-dependent or you yourself will have co-dependent traits.
Signs of codependency
- Inability to say no to requests from others.
- Doing more than your fair share
- Constantly trying to rescue or ‘fix’ other people.
- Feeling responsible for other people’s feelings and actions
- Trying to control other people’s choices.
- Believing that someone cannot manage without you
- Putting other people’s needs before your own
- Making another person the focus of your existence
- Not expressing own thoughts feelings and needs for fear of hurting others.
The consequences of codependency can be extremely damaging – people with co-dependent traits often turn to addictions to deal with the emotional toll that arises from discounting their own feelings and needs and taking over responsibility for another person’s life. They also suffer from chronic feelings of emptiness, lack of fulfillment and resentment, as more and more of their own needs go unmet.
In recovery, it’s important to identify if you have co-dependent traits and also to look at any relationships that you have that may be co-dependent. Sometimes, people in your life might try to encourage you to return to substances as your sobriety makes them feel uncomfortable.
Healing from co-dependency
Like any change, addressing co-dependency will take time and can generate quite a bit of discomfort initially. If you have a history of saying yes to every request, you are likely to feel a lot of guilt when you first start saying no. You might also start to feel some emptiness and lack of purpose when you shift your focus from others to yourself. This is perfectly normal and, once you can accept those uncomfortable feelings, without reacting to them, you will be able to start understanding your own feelings and needs more clearly. The following steps will help you start on your process of change.
Identify the your specific co-dependent behaviours and start to change them slowly. Practice saying no to people or notice when you start trying to fix/ rescue and advise someone. Pause before you act and notice where your motivations are coming from. What is it that you feel? Do you feel selfish, guilty or mean? Are you worried what they will think about you if you don’t help? Or do you feel uncomfortable watching someone else struggle to do something? Try to stay with the feeling that arises and don’t act on it. When you change the behaviour you will notice a lot of discomfort. As you do this more, you will start to understand your motivations for the behaviour.
Get in touch with your own values /needs/feelings/desires. What is it that you value in life? How do you want your life to change? What emotional needs are not being met? Start writing a journal of your feelings and thoughts throughout the day. When you start to pay attention to your own feelings and thoughts you will gain a greater understanding of who you are and what you need.
Learn to assertively express what you really think, feel and need. This can be extremely challenging at first as the fear of hurting others or being judged and rejected can be very strong. Assertive communication means being honest about what is going on for you but in a respectful way that considers the other person’s feelings. At first, you are likely to feel anxiety and guilt about doing this and then shame or fear after you have said what you want to say. With practice, it will get easier and you will start to feel an increased sense of self-esteem and confidence. Remember, you have a right to express your feelings and ask for your needs to be considered!
Start implementing emotional and physical boundaries. Look at the relationships in your life. Is there anyone who makes you feel bad about yourself or criticizes or abuses you? Is there someone who relies on you when they could actually be doing things for themselves? Do you worry too much about someone’s feelings? Slowly start to address these issues by building better boundaries and take steps to create healthier, more fulfilling and reciprocal relationships with the people in your life. Some relationships might even have to end if they are too dysfunctional to change.
Start spending time doing meaningful work and activities for yourself. Learn to spend time alone reading, listening to music, painting, writing, – whatever you think you might enjoy that doesn’t involve other people. Learning to be okay on your own and tolerating the feelings of loneliness and emptiness that initially arise is the key to leaving dysfunctional relationships. Really try to avoid spending time on activities such as watching mindless TV or going on social media as this in itself can add to feelings of emptiness, boredom and dis-satisfaction.
Changing co-dependent behaviour isn’t about becoming self-centered, mean or uncaring, its about taking responsibility for your own feelings and needs and allowing others to do the same.
For more information on the connections between addiction and co-dependency, check out an interview we did for a great website called:
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