Dependency & Codependency

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Introduction

"Codependent" is a word that comes up frequently in session, and it's becoming used to refer interchangeably to several different states and situations. Being dependent in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it's a component of healthy relationships. Some people fear dependency, interpreting it as a sign of weakness or helplessness, or out of a fear of intimacy. In healthy relationships, this is not the case. It is altogether possible to be an autonomous person and yet be able to be dependent on another. Let's take a look at the healthy and unhealthy versions of being dependent.

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Healthy Dependency

"Depend on no man, on no friend but him who can depend on himself.
He only who acts conscientiously toward himself, will act so toward others."
~Johann Kaspar Lavater

If you exhibit healthy dependency you are willing to admit the need for others in your life, and to let them need you. After all, we all start out life as completely dependent on our caretakers. If we grew up in a family that encouraged a sense of autonomy and independent growth, with parents who praised our achievements and showed us love, we will reach adulthood with a sense of security about ourselves and our internal worth and our ability to move through the world as successful people, in whatever way we define that for ourselves.

Setting emotional boundaries, giving someone space (and taking it for ourselves) is acceptable. We can allow people to be who they are, not who we want them to be. We understand that we can't change other people, and balance feelings of closeness with feelings of separateness.

Yet we also know how to care for others and let them care for us – we're able to ask for help when we need it. In other words, it's ok to need and be needed, because we know and feel good about who we are independently of another person if that person happens not to be around. We are able to form healthily interdependent relationships without losing our sense of self.

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Unhealthy Dependency (Overdependence)

"Our dependency makes slaves out of us,
especially if this dependency is a dependency of our self-esteem.
If you need encouragement, praise, pats on the back from everybody,
then you make everybody your judge."
~Fritz Perls

Sometimes things don't go the way described above, and what's experienced growing up is criticism, rejection, conditional love (often based on achievement that validates the parents', not the child's, sense of self-worth), over-dependence promoted as valuable, making it impossible to feel adequate without another person around to shore up self-worth.

In this scenario you are unable to take responsibility for your own sense of adequacy. You expect your good feelings about yourself to be validated from outside yourself – usually from another person. You feel weak and vulnerable. You depend on someone else to feel secure, comforted, nurtured, supported, lovable, or worthy. You can't make a decision without the approval of the other person. Your relationships tend to be enmeshed rather than engaged, and the other person in your relationship probably complains about feeling suffocated. More than likely you've been called "clingy." Since it's hard to set your own agenda, you're often at a loss, looking to the other person to fill in what's missing for you.

To have one's needs met by another person is normal for children. Children, particularly infants, are in fact helpless. Sick people and the infirm elderly also truly need to be taken care of. In these situations, their dependence is not pathological, it's necessary. In the case of healthy adults it shouldn't be.

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Codependency

A codependent relationship is one in which someone else's needs are met before your own. Everything becomes about looking after the other person, at your expense. The term arose from situations of living with an addict, typically a substance abuser, but over time it has come to encompass a much broader population. It means chronically seeing in someone else the need to be "helped." And helping develops into control – control of someone's choices, behavior, even feelings.

It tends to be learned behavior, starting either as a coping mechanism to survive painful experiences in a severely dysfunctional family, or in imitation of other family members in your generation or the one above you, who are caught in the same trap. It is a coping mechanism gone to an illogical extreme and has become maladaptive. It's carried through to your own relationships, making them difficult and unsatisfying.

The "co" in codependent implies that each person is dependent on the other. The one being taken care of obviously depends on the caretaker for exactly that. But the one doing the caretaking is also dependent. Implied here is not basic needs like those of a child or a sick person, but just about anything you can imagine from being the exclusive scheduler of your mutual social events and vacation plans to choosing the other's clothing to deciding what "we" ought to do about... This person doesn't do well alone. Self-esteem is evaluated by how well you're pleasing the other.

Often neither person sees a problem, at least not initially. It feels very "giving." You're working so hard to please the other that whoever you are gets lost. The one being catered to is so well taken care of that the self of that person gets lost as well. In accommodating someone else (or being accommodated to) you ignore your own wants and needs. Eventually, resentment develops on both sides, and problems arise.

If you recognize yourself in several of the following symptoms, you could be a codependent personality. They include but are not limited to:

  • A great sense of responsibility for another person (again, excluding the truly helpless)
  • Being a perpetual "volunteer" – doing more than called for or necessary
  • Controlling behavior – a desire to "fix" or "rescue" the other
  • Difficulty with and a sense of guilt about asserting your own needs
  • Difficulty setting boundaries
  • Anticipating another's needs
  • A fear of being abandoned
  • Feeling unappreciated
  • Need to be needed
  • Difficulty trusting
  • Choosing to be responsible for all decisions
  • Feeling someone else is responsible for your feelings ("you make me feel...")
  • Needing to be in a relationship, almost any relationship, rather than be alone

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Overly Detached

The other extreme is to become overly detached in relationships. This also originates as a self-protective measure, usually against an intrusive, controlling other. It often begins in childhood and develops as the person matures and enters adult relationships. Some detachment and ability to set boundaries is healthy. It is important to let the other person in your life accept responsibility for feelings and choices. It is appropriate to protect yourself from someone who might abuse you. It becomes problematic when it results in a pattern of disengaging in every relationship. When you perpetually disengage, there is no real connection – therefore, no real relationship, emphasis here on relating. Just two people co-existing in a very superficial way.

An overly detached person finds it difficult to ask for help. It implies weakness. Attempts to allow closeness and intimacy provoke a lot of anxiety. Someone who can't connect has difficulty feeling or expressing emotions. As a result, the emotions get bottled up and come out in inappropriate ways over (often) unrelated matters. Distance is maintained by keeping conversation superficial, finding reasons to frequently go or stay out alone (work, manufactured obligations to friends or family, etc.), or inability to commit to a long-term relationship.

These behaviors come from a deep fear of being trapped or suffocated. There is fear of loss of the self, loss of choice, loss of independence. Ironically, an overly detached person often chooses a controlling, needy, clingy person to become involved with. The two then push each others' buttons and bounce off each other like crazy till they light up like a pinball machine, and the relationship self-destructs.

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Consequences

Unhealthily dependent relationships have serious consequences, both psychological and physical. Feelings of anger, resentment, irritation, emptiness, conflict, guilt, rejection, low self-esteem, insecurity, lack of respect or appreciation are all at risk to become manifest in the various forms of dependent relationships. Emotional consequences include chronic anxiety and stress, suppression of feelings, and the diminishing ability to trust and experience true intimacy. It is not uncommon for physical illness to arise as a result of the persistence of anxiety and stress.

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Emotional Responsibility

So how can this be fixed? It's not an easy process. One of the most difficult ideas to grasp and accept is the fact that you are not responsible for someone else's feelings, nor can another person be responsible for yours. Your thoughts, your feelings and your behavioral choices are yours and yours alone. Nor do you have control over someone else's feelings.

Believing that someone "made me feel guilty" is among the most common refrains to surface in therapy sessions. No one can MAKE you feel anything you choose not to feel. True, you are always entitled to your feelings, no one can take them away from you, and we can be affected by what others say and do to us, but if you decided you weren't guilty in a particular situation, then you don't have to feel guilty. And if someone is mad at you, it doesn't mean you are "bad." It just means the person is angry. The emotion belongs solely to the person in whom it arises. That person is entitled to it, and also responsible for it.

This is a very tough concept to accept. It's so easy to think that someone else made you feel as you do. But the first step in having healthy, interdependent relationships is being willing to be responsible for your own (and only your own) emotions. Learning to use true "I" statements (as in "I feel guilty about..." instead of "you made me feel guilty about" or "I was made to feel guilty about...") will be crucial.

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Origins, Balance & Boundaries

Understanding the origin of your unhealthily dependent relationships also figures high in dismantling them and steering you towards a mutually satisfying connection to someone you can trust and who can trust you. Sometimes this means looking into the past at the family situation in which you learned this behavior. And sometimes that's painful. But like with any emotional injury, it won't heal until you explore and understand its origin.

Learning to balance give and take, developing a sense of autonomy, and being able to set limits or boundaries is a critical part of a successful and rewarding relationship. If you are someone who thinks you can't get through without someone else helping you, discovering that indeed you can will be liberating. There are several ways to get there that we can explore.

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Helping & Asking for Help

If you are someone who is too eager and ready to "help" someone else (a partner, a child, a friend) because of your experience and knowledge about what's best for them, you can start by pulling back and allowing others to make their own mistakes. You won't save them from themselves by always coming to the rescue. When you find yourself becoming resentful about all the help you're giving (at your own expense), you can learn to say no.

Being withdrawn or detached, or being with someone who is withdrawn or detached, presents its own set of challenges. If you never ask for help, you can come to understand that doing so does not mean you are helpless, and does not cast shame on you. It doesn't mean you're weak or bad or unaccomplished. It just means that in this particular situation, you could use a little help. No one is perfect, we're just human. Being with someone who is unconnected and not able ever to ask for help will require a lot of patience and understanding on your part of just how difficult and shameful that feels. You might be inclined to take it personally, but once you can see what it's about (and what it's not about – you), maybe you won't have to.

Being able to feel, and honestly and openly express your emotions, as well as take responsibility for them will enrich your personal relationships beyond measure. Being able to lean on someone else yet know you are still yourself with your own desires and capacities is a goal to aspire to. Balancing closeness with independence, trust and vulnerability with confidence and commitment will make for rewarding relationships. If you keep finding yourself in situations like those just described, those patterns are probably pretty ingrained. Turning them around won't be quick or easy, but it can happen. Therapy can help.

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