SOURCE: Adapted from Your Family Voyage by P. Roger Hillerstrom
Codependency is sometimes defined as a tendency to have compulsively unhealthy relationships. Originally the term was used to describe the condition of spouses of alcoholics. These people had developed a living pattern that was not only unhealthy for themselves but actually promoted the alcoholism. They were obsessed with “fixing” their partners; without someone to rescue, they had no direction or purpose in life. Being emotionally dependent on their chemically dependent partners they were “codependent.”
Today we have a much broader understanding of this condition. The term codependent is used to describe an individual who is so preoccupied with others that his or her own life suffers or becomes unmanageable. Codependency is a futile attempt to deal with internals – fear, hurt, anger, insecurity – by trying to control externals – people, events, objects.
Compulsion is an old, familiar term rooted in the verb compel. A compulsion is a behavior we feel compelled to perform, repeated behavior patterns that are extremely resistant to change even though they cause numerous personal difficulties. Symptoms of an internal, emotional struggle, compulsions may take a variety of forms: gambling, criticizing, excessive shopping, nail biting, arguing, excessive hand washing, and lying are some examples.
Characteristics of Codependency. Having these problems does not mean we’re bad, defective or inferior. Some of us learned these behaviors as children. Other people learned them later in life. We may have learned some of these things from our interpretations of religion. Some women were taught these behaviors were desirable feminine attributes. Most of us started doing these things out of necessity to protect ourselves and meet our needs. We performed, felt, and thought these things to survive – emotionally, mentally, and sometimes physically. We tried to understand and cope with our complex worlds in the best ways. We have done the best we could.
However, these self-protective devices may have outgrown their usefulness. Sometimes the things we do to protect ourselves turn on us and hurt us. They become self-destructive. Many codependents are barely surviving, and most aren’t getting their needs met. These characteristics are typical of codependency:
1. Discontentedness. The codependent lives with the sense that something is missing in his or her life. This chronic discontentment is the driving force behind much of his or her behavior.
2. Blame. The codependent consistently looks to others as a source for his or her own happiness. The resulting unmet expectations amplify discontentment. The codependent often feels like a victim and blames others for his or her circumstances.
3. Guilt. The codependent is inwardly self-critical and frequently feels guilty. Never feeling quite “good enough”, he or she minimizes or rejects compliments or praise. Nevertheless he or she has a low tolerance for criticism and is defensive when corrected. The codependent attempts to bolster his or her low self-concept by helping others.
4. Over-responsibility. The codependent takes unreasonable responsibility for others and feels compelled to solve other people’s problems. He or she is attracted to needy people and often feels empty without a problem to solve or someone to rescue.
5. Control. The codependent is consistently worried about and preoccupied with situations beyond his or her control. Control is a major motivation in the codependent’s life, and he or she attempts to control others through manipulation, blame, guilt, helplessness, threats, coercion, or directives. The codependent feels frustrated and angry when his or her attempts to control fail, and he or she in turns feels controlled by others.
6. Approval. The approval of others is very important to the codependent. He or she has a deep fear of rejection and abandonment and as a result says yes when meaning no, over commits and neglects his or her own needs. The codependent may compromise his or her values and preferences to avoid disapproval.
7. Extremes. The codependent’s lifestyle and relationships are a series of extremes, frequently involving other compulsions. He or she vacillates between love and hate, hoarding and spending, hot and cold, up and down. He or she may lack a sense of healthy balance in one or more life areas.