Author Charles L. Whitfield states in his book, Codependence: Healing the Human Condition, that codependence is a “disease of lost selfhood.” When people try to become what others want them to be, they lose their personal identity and goals. It is this handing over of personal responsibility for themselves to somebody else that causes them to be defined as codependent.
This inability to feel complete as themselves requires codependents to find completeness elsewhere. Whitfield describes it as an “addiction” since people are looking outside themselves to find fulfillment and happiness, similar to other addictions like alcohol, drug, or sexual addiction.
Other sources define codependence as a dysfunctional relationship where one person may be supporting another’s addiction (e.g. alcohol, drugs, gambling) or undesirable traits such as immaturity, irresponsibility, poor mental health, or even underachievement.
Alarmingly, studies have shown that codependence can be passed from generation to generation as the ability to relate to one another is learned in the family. For example, it is quite common in families struggling with an addiction, such as alcoholism, for one of the members to deny the problem and instead sacrifice him or herself for the addicted relative, especially if the addicted one is a parent.
This self-sacrificing member becomes more attuned to the needs of the addicted relative and eventually begins to define themselves according to the requirement of the situation.
So rather than becoming who they would like to be, they change their habits and plans according to the relative’s needs. It may seem like a noble sacrifice, but in many cases, it is not. The result may be an adult who has difficulty expressing emotions and one who is not in touch with who they truly are.
The Symptoms of Codependency
There are many symptoms of codependency. In the books Codependent No more and Facing Codependence, author Pia Mellody lists several signs to watch out for.
Codependents usually feel afraid and wounded which leads to frequent anger. They tend to live with people of the same sentiments creating a vicious cycle. Codependents frequently cry, become depressed, overreact, easily get sick, and are prone to unhealthy temper outbursts. They try to punish people for making them feel angry.
Codependents have a driving need to take care of others. They want to help solve the other person’s problem by making things right, easing their feelings, or guiding their thoughts or actions.
So they are much more comfortable around people with needs yet feel quite uneasy when people try to help them instead. Codependents are often overburdened with demands from others but willingly forego their personal plans to be of assistance. Boredom often sets in for them when there is no crisis to prevent or problem to fix.
Codependents like to be in control since they have experienced difficulties with people who were out of control (e.g. a violent alcoholic parent or an incessant gambler who lost the family’s money). Control is maintained through manipulation, threats, seeming helplessness, or by guilt. In the end, however, the codependent may feel manipulated and controlled as well.
Codependents often pretend that everything is manageable, that the situation is not as terrible as others may believe. Such people often depend upon prescriptive tranquilizers or other such drugs to help them. They may also enmesh themselves in work to stay busy; spend compulsively for a temporary happy feeling; or overeat to make themselves feel satisfied. They may wonder why they feel crazy at times.
Codependents cannot find internal peace and search for it outside themselves since they often feel incapable of self-care. Many believe that they cannot be truly appreciated or properly loved by others. Some stay in abusive relationships because they believe it is the best that they can ever receive.
Lack of trust
Codependents do not trust themselves nor do they trust others. Sadly, they believe that God has abandoned them, possibly in favor of someone else.
Codependents do not respect themselves. They believe they are not worthy or that they are not good enough. They usually blame themselves and believe that the good things in life are meant for other people. Though they also long for praise, when they do receive it they reject it, believing that they do not deserve it.
Codependents are worrywarts. They are anxious about the problems of others, focusing all their attention and abilities on somebody else’s concerns.
Codependents rarely know how to communicate well. Instead, they may intimidate, beg, or blame other people. They usually hide the truth and their feelings and have difficulty saying “no.” Gossip is something they may do as well as it is about other people and not themselves.
Codependents are inflexible and controlled. They are usually embarrassed to be their real selves for fear of the judgment of others.
Codependents believe sex equates to love. So even if they do not wish it, they will engage in it just to feel loved by their partner or to make their partner feel loved. When they are upset with their partner and wish to withdraw, they often abstain from sex and may even be disgusted by the idea of it. Thus, sex becomes a tool for them – something they do, but do not necessarily always enjoy.
Codependents have a hard time establishing healthy relationship boundaries. Others regularly violate their boundaries since they cannot say “no”. Though they may make such rules more flexible to tolerate the needs of others, this may also cause them to become angry or intolerant.
Codependency is unhealthy, especially if the home or work environment is particularly harmful. Physical sickness, mental disorders, broken relationships, dangerous addictions, and even suicidal tendencies may eventually.
If you believe that you or someone you care about has been described in this article, then it is important to seek help. A licensed mental health counselor can help overcome the situation before it is too late.
“Yet More Balance” Courtesy of Murray Barnes, Flickr.com; CC BY 2.0 License; “Angry Man,” courtesy of pixabay.com, pexels.com, CC0 Public Domain License; “Face-off”, Courtesy of Silvia and Frank, Pixabay.com; CC0 License; “Worry”, Courtesy of Maria Victoria Heredia Reyes, Unsplash.com, CC0 License