Develop a healthy sense of self to overcome codependency

Do you struggle with your boundaries and usually give too much to your partner without receiving back the love and respect you expect?  Are you involved with an avoidant personality type and frustrated with the level of communication in the relationship. Do you see yourself as dedicated to the welfare of others? If these questions make you answer yes, then perhaps you might benefit from reading on.

Codependency is rooted in addiction. It is about over-functioning in someone else’s life but under-functioning in your own.To have a working understanding of codependency is to see a co-dependent as someone who cannot function from their innate self and whose thinking and behaviour is instead organised around another person, or even a process, or substance.

The term is located within a systemic framework. Codependency was originally a term used to describe a particular relationship dynamic where one partner had a substance abuse problem and the other didn’t. The individual who didn’t have the substance abuse issue became caught up in a cycle of excusing, tolerating, defending and even enabling the addiction of the other. In Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) the problem became known as an issue not solely with the addict, but also the family and friends who constitute a social network for the alcoholic. Al-Anon (the sister fellowship of AA) was formed in 1951, and holds the view that alcoholism is a family illness. Al-Anon is one of the earliest recognitions of codependency.

The term codependency is not universally accepted in the therapy world. For some clinicians codependence is over-diagnosed. For them, people could be helped with shorter-term treatments instead of potentially becoming dependent on long-term self-help programmes or therapy. Such treatment, they argue, can be theoretically misplaced as the direction of the treatment can follow the disease model of addiction. For others it is a healthy personality trait, albeit just taken to excess. The key in determining whether you have a problem yourself is to assess the extent of the under-functioning in your own life as a result of caring for another. Does your own life suffer as a consequence of your concentration on the needs of another.

Clients don’t often attend counselling and psychotherapy for codependency, or other addictions for that matter, but might present with problems associated with anxiety in their lives, for example, or relationship issues more generally. Once in the process of attending therapy sessions,however, they can become more conscious of their underlying codependency issues.

In order to understand codependency it is useful to gain insight into what kind of attachment style you operate from in relationships. We develop a style of attaching that affects our behaviour in close relationships throughout our adult life. One of our prime drives, after all, is to affiliate, just like our drive for survival.  Our attachment style is largely dependent upon our mother’s behaviour, in addition to later experiences in childhood and other environmental and social factors.  For more information on this see my article on attachment styles and recovery from codependency.

Recovery from codependency, like all addictions, involves the development of a healthy self and allowing for an expansion of consciousness.  Healthy relationships are when each person can remain themselves and when the dynamic allows for change and flow. If you are in a codependent relationship a recovery path could be to detach with love, face illusions about your life and your relationship, set healthy boundaries and develop your spirituality.This can help build a healthy sense of self going forward when you learn to take care of your own needs and ultimately learn to be happy with your own company.

See also

Any book by John Bowlby
Attachment in Adulthood: Structure, Dynamics, and Change –  Mario Mikulincer & Phillip R. Shaver
Adult attachment – J Feeney & P Noller
Handbook of adult attachment – J Cassidy & R Shaver
My life as a border collie – Nancy L. Johnston
Codependency no more – Melody Beattie
CoDA UK – 12 step fellowship and a checklist for codependence



“after all I’ve done for you” Co-dependency in Therapy

Co-dependence is: ‘A painful internal state of low-grade chronic depression which is literally precipitated by intense and chronic mourning for our authentic selves’

This week’s lecture (and the final one of this term) was on codependence. The lecture series has been an interesting one this term given the focus on addictions and following on from group process and the residential earlier in the year.  Rosemary Cowan previously pointed out in a Therapy Today article that the developmental model that CCPE suggested was very helpful to her.  She notes that trainees in the first year were likened to wide-eyed, enthusiastic primary school children; in the second year, like pre-teens, they gain confidence and independence but may also be ‘know-alls’ who overstretch themselves; in the third year they reach the rebellious, argumentative, difficult teenager stage; in the fourth year, with increased maturity and stability, they become more rounded, finished characters. Not sure where I fit in that model but it is an interesting view.

The greatest hallmark of codependence is that someone else decides how you feel about yourself. This perhaps accounts for the high burn-out rate for therapists when clients are used as a source of personal gratification. The challenge is how to survive using your own self-esteem and to be able to set boundaries. Boundaries in counselling and psychotherapy are critical.   Indeed, the biggest boundary in any relationship is the ability to say no. If you are codependent, then you are not independent or interdependent.  You are either a love addict or a love avoidant.

how many times have you heard someone say in an argument with their spouse “after all I’ve done for you”

As a child, the love addict might have had to give attention and love to someone in their family who needed help. The child received good feedback for this and the subsequent receipt of positive brain chemicals set off a pattern of behaviour for life.  The codependent will always be helping people irrespective of whether those people have ever asked for their help.  However, the codependent is not giving unconditionally. Rather, the codependent will be expecting something in return.  How many times have you heard someone say in an argument with their spouse “after all I’ve done for you”. Often the person in receipt won’t have asked for the codependent’s help in the first place. The codependent is addicted to giving.  Healthy giving is not expecting anything in return,

The core of co-dependence is toxic shame.  It is a dis-ease of lost self-hood. It is the addiction underlying all addictions. A dis-empowerment that creates a final alienation from all that gives life meaning.

All demands made upon the love avoidant as a child were excessive. There was emmeshment in the family of origin.  Of course it can a fluid situation when the love avoidant becomes the love addict if the love addict gets burned out. In terms of transactional analysis this is the adaptive child of “being too good”.

Outlined below are further sets of information  and resource links:

Codependents have difficulty:
1. Experiencing appropriate levels of self-esteem better or lesser than
2. Setting functional boundaries too vulnerable or invulnerable
3. Owning and expressing their reality bad/rebellious or good/perfect
4. Taking care of their adult needs and wants too dependent or anti-dependent
5. Experiencing and expressing their reality moderately extremely immature or over-mature which creates STRESS

This manifests in:
1. Negative Control
We give ourselves permission to determine someone else’s reality for our comfort or let someone else determine ours
2. Resentment
Need to get even or punish for perceived blows to our self-esteem that cause us shame
3. Distorted or non-existent spirituality
Difficulty experiencing connection to a Power greater than ourselves
4. Avoiding reality
We use addictions, physical or mental illness to avoid facing what is going on with us and others
5. Impaired ability to sustain intimacy
We have difficulty sharing who we are with others and hearing others without interfering with the sharing process or what they share

INAPPROPRIATE PARENTING Child abuse is anything that is less than nurturing:
PHYSICAL Not treating a child’s body respectfully – slapping, etc.
SEXUAL Physical: penetration, oral, anal, fondling, kissing, hugging inappropriately
VERBAL: no or distorted information, exposure to ‘over-sexual’ language
INTELLECTUAL Tell them that they are stupid, can’t think, their ideal are silly. Child’s ability to think is attacked
EMOTIONAL Demanding perfection, over-controlling, name calling
SPIRITUAL A major care giver demands to be a ‘higher power’ to a child

So what is love?*

Eros – a passionate physical and emotional love based on aesthetic enjoyment; stereotype of romantic love
Ludus – a love that is played as a game or sport; conquest; may have multiple partners at once
Storge – an affectionate love that slowly develops from friendship, based on similarity (kindred to Philia)
Pragma – love that is driven by the head, not the heart; undemonstrative
Mania – obsessive love; experience great emotional highs and lows; very possessive and often jealous lovers
Agape – selfless altruistic love

* Lee JA (1973). Colours of love: an exploration of the ways of loving. Toronto: New Press. ISBN 0-88770-187-6.


Am I in a codependent relationship?
John Bradshaw’s resources
Symptoms of codependency
How to raise emotionally healthy children
Psychotherapy resources and links