Let’s remind ourselves of the general characteristics of being codependent. As a “recovered” codependent, I recognise most of these. My own experience of being codependent has helped me to truly help others. I understand what it means to be codependent and the negative effects it has on Self. I have used this to develop a treatment method to help others. Be sure to catch my next podcast: Recovery from Codependency, The 10 step Framework, out soon.
There are generally thought to be three types of codependents:
1. Caretakers: relate to others primarily through roles that put them in a position of the giver, helper, supporter, nurturer, etc. “Everyone’s needs are more important than my own.”
2. Romance/relationship addiction: must be in a “relationship” and be “special” to someone in order to be OK with oneself; may use caretaking and sexuality to gain approval/acceptance; goes from relationship to relationship. “You’re no one unless someone loves you.”
3. Messiah complex: savior of the family, church, world; over-responsible, doesn’t ask for help, tries to make self indispensable. “If I don’t do it. it won’t get done.
The general symptoms of codependency include:
1. External-reference on other person or people.
2. Tries to control behavior of others through approval-seeking and people-pleasing behavior.
3. Experiences intimacy by discounting own feelings, and empathizing with feelings of others.
4. Loss of healthy boundaries, generally resulting from doing things for others that violate one’s values, and from accepting unacceptable behavior from others.
5. Frozen feelings, numbness with regard to one’s own feelings. Depression may also result from repressed anger.
6. Low self-esteem. Self is valued according to others’ opinions. Uses martyr, victim, and messiah role to bolster self-esteem.
7. Generalized anxiety, related to lack of control of one’s life.
8. Mental preoccupation. Racing thoughts. Inability to enjoy mental silence and serenity.
9. Lack of assertiveness: inability to ask directly for one’s true needs. Inability to confront unhealthy behavior in others.
10. Narcissism. In the absence of healthy, legitimate boundaries, others are seen as for or against self.
Wow, what a list, full of dysfunction, external reference and a lack of loving of self! However, one of the biggest issues highlighted in the types of codependents is “people pleasing” and this is linked to nearly all of the general symptoms listed. Codependents need everyone around them to be happy (especially their object of codependency) before they can be happy themselves. They will go to great lengths, through sacrifice, martyrdom and anguish to make that happen. This is very much tied into their inherent need to fix their environment, often rooted in childhood. It generally leads to disappointment and the beginning of a negative cycle of emotions.
Using my own personal experience, let me example how this works. At one time in my life, I was involved with a group of people who had very strong narcissist tendencies. This ran through the whole family from top to bottom. These people were self-centered to the core and empathy was in short supply. Narcissism was conveyed from the covert narcissist father to the “golden child” and consolidated by the overtly narcissist mother. For a codependent such as I, it was fertile ground and my codependency raged and thrived. I felt totally insecure in this environment and set about fixing it in true codependent style by trying to make myself indespensable to nearly everyone around me. I did this despite recognising major red flags and identifying the fact that I was in the typical three stage relationship cycle (illusion, criticism, discard) with a covert narcissist. Everyone’s needs were more important than mine. I made major decisions in favor of other people despite knowing it was not right for me. I even anticipated others’ needs before they did. I became totally enmeshed, when they were happy, I was happy. The more I gave, the more they gratefully took!! I did everything I could to be accepted and in the end (thankfully), to no avail. I learnt the hard way that narcissists do not and cannot change.
However bad that story sounds, I don’t see myself as a victim. I failed to make the clear and decisive choices that I needed to make. I was working with emotion, not reason and that lead me to use dysfunctional methods when things did not go my way, as they usually never did. Distancing, silent treatment, victim mentality were all used in large quantities fuelled from a keen sense of resentment gained from my lack of control. I stayed in that situation until someone made a decision (a very sudden one) for me.
I see my story as very typical of many I hear in my practice. I consider myself very lucky to have been pushed out of that situation even though it was not by design. It has opened up mental space for more compatible people. However, there are many who are still stuck in that very situation without the help or knowledge to do what is best for them. Hard as it may seem, there is a far better place after recovery.