The term “codependent” is flung about with much frequency in recent years, largely by people with only a passing understanding of what a codependency is all about. In layman’s terms, a codependent is someone who has difficulty separating their own emotions, and in extreme cases, their own thoughts, from the emotions or thoughts of the people with whom they interact. Most codependents are intelligent people; however, they’ve learned coping mechanisms along the road of life that are actually quite harmful.
The concept of codependency originated to describe family members who were affected by a loved one’s abuse of alcohol. In time, the mental health community realized that the same coping skills and behaviors were visible in others, people who had not been touched by the ravages of alcohol or drug abuse.
People who exhibit codependent behaviors are typically regarded as “people pleasers”, or “yes men.” These individuals want so very badly for the world around them to run smoothly that they are willing to sacrifice their wants, desires, feelings, and thoughts to make that happen. Frequently they feel that if something bad happens at home or at work that it was their fault, even if they were not involved in the situation directly.
Other characteristics of codependency include:
- Difficulty making decisions
- Judging everything done or said by themselves as never good enough
- Valuing others’ approval of their thoughts, feelings and behavior over their own
- Perceiving themselves as unlovable and not worthwhile
- Consistently compromising their own values and integrity to avoid rejection or anger from others
- Extreme sensitivity to the feelings of others, often adopting those feelings as their own
- Extreme loyalty, frequently staying in bad situations far too long
- Attempting to control others in an effort to “help” them
- Believing that others are incapable of taking care of themselves, and doing everything for that other person
- Becoming resentful when others will not let them help
- Using sex to gain approval and acceptance
- Having to feel “needed” in order to have a relationship with others
This is just a small list, other examples of codependent behavior and thinking can be found at: Coda.org.
Some codependents learn these behaviors and coping skills as a child, others develop them later in life, depending on what circumstances find them later. For the individual who learns codependent behavior early in life, breaking these habits is not only essential in forming healthy relationships, but it is also possible to do.
The first step for any codependent seeking to break the vicious cycle of codependency is to realize that they are indeed codependent. All humans are codependent to a certain extent, but determining whether codependency is causing you to behave in unhealthy ways allows you to take further action in changing those damaging thought patterns.
The next action for an individual seeking to change their codependent behavior is to come to the understanding that they are worthwhile and that their thoughts and feelings are valid. Just as valid, in fact, as anyone else’s thoughts and feelings. Validation for most “healthy” people is internal; it does not rely on external sources in order for the healthy individual to know and feel that they are ok people. The codependent person, on the other hand, has spent a great deal of time learning the exact opposite, that their own opinions are not valid; therefore if they feel that they are ok, this is an incorrect assumption on their part, and they must then realize that they are not ok. Small example, but this rule of opposites marks much of codependent thought and behavior in regards to themselves.
Developing an internal sense of “I’m OK” is not an overnight process, to say the least. It typically involves first coming to an intellectual understanding of one’s own validity, followed by an emotional understanding of the same. Affirmations, though scoffed at by many, can be very useful in this undertaking. We don’t always notice the harmful things that we repeat to ourselves, but our minds do take those negative and harmful phrases and feelings and incorporate them into how we treat ourselves and how we allow others to treat us.
These steps are merely a beginning, but an important foundation for anyone wanting to step away from the merry-go-round of codependent behavior.