How Do I Know If I Have Codependency, Or Love & Relationship Addiction?
Performing good deeds for others, or altruism, is a highly desirable trait. If it wasn’t, then college admissions boards would probably omit the entirety of the “Volunteer” section from their applications. But, there is a cutoff point—particularly in the context of social, romantic, and familial relationships—when acts of selflessness become mutually destructive, for the giver and the recipient alike.
Codependency is the term that describe this phenomenon, and it was originally coined following decades of research on alcoholics and family members who enable. If you’re a fan of intervention programs, then you’re probably familiar with the paradigm: One family member has a crippling addiction to drugs or alcohol; and the family member who can’t bear to see the them suffer softens the blow of the real-life consequences of the addict’s behavior… perhaps by lying for the addict so that the addict can “save face” with their employers or by bailing the addict out of yet another substance-related financial calamity.
Nowadays, codependency isn’t a term that applies exclusively to addicts and their enablers. Simply put, codependency is broadly recognized as an addiction to caretaking, and the “caretaking” may involve any manner of relationship that is unhealthy—even if the recipient of the care isn’t terminally ill or diagnosed with a mental illness. The individual in question may be physically, emotionally, or sexually abusive to the codependent, and the codependent shoulders the weight of the responsibility, by rationalizing: “If I don’t love and understand him/her… then who will?”
The irony is… that question that the codependent asks himself or herself is masking their true fear: “If even the recipient of my care can’t love me… then who should?”
Why Do People Develop Codependency?
It’s kind of fascinating, actually.
Codependency (almost always) has its roots in childhood. The image of “roots” has lost its conveying power: so imagine the underground roots that nourish a plant that’s saturated in poison.
People who go on to develop codependency tend to grow in the same soil. Their childhoods are characterized by:
- Abuse: Witnessing or experiencing physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
- Addiction/Illness in the Family: Living with a family member who suffers from a substance or behavioral addiction, mental illness, or life-threatening disease
- “Growing up too fast”: An inversion of the parent/child role, such that the child assumes the emotional responsibilities of an adult at a very young age
- Stoicism: or an absence of emotion, that enables the child to survive through the trauma in a seemingly adaptive way until adulthood, when the patterns of codependency emerge
- Feeling Unlovable: Being told as a child that “No one will ever love you” or being maltreated and convincing yourself that love is elusive
What Are The Signs & Symptoms of Codependency?
- Low Self-Esteem: This is the lifeblood of codependency—even in codependent individuals who project faux-confidence. Low self-esteem fuels a codependent individual’s fear of abandonment and misconception that love is forever out-of-reach
- A pattern of destructive relationships: in which the codependent individual assumes the caregiving role to emotionally draining, needy, or abusive individuals who take advantage
- Avoidance of healthy relationships: Spending time with “well-adjusted” people makes a codependent individual’s own unhealthy tendencies stand out in stark contrast—so the formation healthy relationships is sidestepped
- Responsibility & Reward: The codependent individual feels a self-martyring sense of responsibility to solve the problems of other people to his or her own person detriment; however, there is a simultaneous sense of reward in unconditionally loving even an abusive person
- Hurt & Self-Victimization: Despite loving people who are emotionally unavailable, codependent individuals feel profoundly hurt when they are exploited, casting themselves forever as the victim despite playing a role in their own victimization cycle
- Suppressing Emotion: Codependent individuals bottle up their emotions because they fear that their honestly will lead to their desertion
- Frantic attempts to avoid abandonment: A codependent person is well-intentioned, but will resort to dishonesty/manipulation to save a destructive relationship that appears to be on the brink of dissolution
- Risk-taking: Many codependent individuals engage in risky behaviors (substance abuse or sexual promiscuity) to dull the pain of past abuse or to cope with current abuse
How Can Counseling & Therapy For Codependent Behavior Help Me?
Codependent habits are particularly difficult to break, perhaps because the practices are rooted in our earliest life, when our most basic sense of self and how we relate to the world is first developing. But individuals with codependency can—and they do—recover. And yet, recovery is a long road: You can’t change how you’ve always viewed your world in a single night.
Here’s how therapy and counseling for codependent behavior can help get you back on the right track. Your therapist should help you to:
- Examine why you are the way that you are… and yup, this involves confronting trauma. Your therapist won’t demand that you dive headfirst into unpleasant childhood memories. Ripping away your shell before you’re ready would only do more harm than it would do good. But in due time… understanding yourself will be the key to initiating lasting change.
- Fully utilize the principles of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: This involves changing how you cognitively process (fancy phrase for “think”) about your role as a caretaker—for example, do you feel as though you have an enhanced sense of responsibility to take care of a particular person… and if you do, more importantly, why do you? Questioning—and adapting—how you think about your relationships can ultimately help you modify destructive behaviors. (And although it’s easier said than done at first—the doing part will become second nature).
- Learn how to regain self- (as opposed to other-) focus: When taking care of another person becomes your sole modus operandi, you neglect to take care of yourself. Your therapist will help you identify constructive ways to love yourself and to heal from codependency. These techniques could involve in-office meditation, mindfulness, or psychotherapeutic yoga, or out-of-office activities that help you reconnect with the things that you love doing
- Learn how to help others constructively: Recovering from codependency doesn’t mean that you must refrain from helping other people—but it does mean that you can no longer accept your role as “doormat” or “problem-solver”. Your therapist will help you to develop healthy practices for helping others without shouldering the burden of a dead-end problem or a toxic relationship