You may have heard the word, “Codependent,” but do you really know what it means? Definitions and descriptions of a codependent person can be expansive. Occasionally, I hear people mistakingly believe this term applies to only those who are within some type of addicted or chemically dependent relationship. They aren’t completely wrong. In fact, the original term for this concept was “co-alcoholic,” as researchers initially examined settings where addiction was present and they found a variety of behavior patterns in the family members of these chemically dependent people. In looking closer, they noticed a range of emotional, mental, relational, and spiritual issues in these family members and loved ones. As the concept continued to expand, it was not long before we realized that these patterns continued even after a relationship with an addicted person ended. What’s more, these things were also being exhibited in non-addicted relationships and families.
There are numerous definitions of codependency, but certain characteristics often include obsessive “helping” or “fixing,” caretaking, low self-worth, controlling behaviors, self-repression, communication problems, and intimacy problems. I often work with people who feel a “need to be needed,” have a difficult time saying “no,” even when they want to, or experience a sense of emptiness when they don’t have someone to help, a problem to solve, or a crisis to which they must attend. Many times, people derive good feelings about who they are only when they feel they are liked and accepted by others. Or, they describe themselves as sort of a chameleon, feeling that they change themselves based on their setting, often in order to fit others’ expectations, behaviors, or preferences.
Similarly, a codependent relationship is one in which you might find yourself making a lot of sacrifices for your partner’s happiness, often at the expense of your own fulfillment and needs. You might sense a general feeling of one-sidedness in your relationship(s) or feel that you equate yourself with the other person. This other-centeredness results in an abandonment of self and can have deep and long-term implications. Self-worth can become diminished. Personal identity becomes lost.
Less known about codependency is the different forms it can take. Some codependents are more consumed by controlling other people in their lives, which hinders not only personal growth, but also the growth of their loved one. Others might feel they are more controlled by their loved one. At times you may be both, depending on the situation or particular relationship.
The good news? These patterns, just as they were learned and practiced over time, can be unlearned. New ways of being and relating with yourself and others can occur. This might begin with learning new communication skills and assertiveness training. Practicing self-care and efforts aimed at self-awareness, exploration, and cultivating a new (or renewed) sense of self are also helpful.
It is a move from Jerry Maguire’s, “You complete me,” toward something resembling more like, “You compliment me, but I am complete within myself.” It is learning to appreciate yourself as being a worthy and complete individual with your own personal identity outside of the context of your relationships.
Approaching change with a gentleness and genuine curiosity toward yourself is important. Lastly, seek support from a therapist and others who will uplift and encourage you along this journey. Happy discovering!