Dr. Irene Matiatos
of the nicest people I know are codependent. They always smile, never
refuse to do a favor. They are happy and bubbly all the time. They
understand others and have the ability to make people feel good. People
So, what is wrong with this?
Nothing, really, unless the giving is one-sided and so
excessive that it hurts the giver. Then, the giver is showing the
signs of codependence.
Partners who go out of their
way for each other are interdependent. Only relatively
healthy people are capable of interdependent relationships, which
involve give and take. It is not unhealthy to unilaterally
give during a time when your partner is having difficulty. You know
your partner will reciprocate should the tables turn. Interdependency
also implies that you do not have to give until it hurts. By comparison,
in a codependent relationship, one partner does almost all the giving,
while the other does almost all the taking, almost all of the
By giving, codependent people
avoid the discomfort of entitlement. Giving allows them to feel
useful and justifies their existence. Rather than simply approving
of themselves, codependent people meet their need for self-esteem,
by winning their partners approval. Also, because they lack
self-esteem, codependent people have great difficulty accepting
from others. One must feel deserving and entitled in order to accept
what is offered.
Codependent behavior is not
easy. It requires a lot of work. It hurts. These individuals typically
suffer with low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and especially
guilt, as well as other painful thoughts and feelings. They judge
themselves using far stricter criteria than they use to measure
the performance of others. While they are brutally critical of their
own misbehavior, they are very good at justifying and excusing the
misbehavior of others.
Codependent people misplace
their anger. They get angry when they shouldn't, and don't get angry
when they should. They have little contact with their inner world
and thus very little idea about how they feel. Usually, they don't
want to know because it gives rise to painful emotions. It is easier
to stay on the surface and pretend things are peachy keen, rather
than deal with the stuff going on inside.
If they were to look inside,
they would find their emotional starvation. They are busy taking
care of others. Yet, they do not meet their own needs!
They may put
up with abusive relationships or relationships that are not
fulfilling because any warm body beats (gasp) no warm body.
Being alone is perceived as scary, empty, depressing, etc. After
all, who will deliver their emotional supplies? Who will distract
them so there is no time to deal with their inner life? Even an
abusive relationship is better than no relationship.
These loving, giving people
find interesting ways of explaining their behavior to themselves.
Loyal to a fault, a codependent individual is likely to rationalize
a loved one's disrespectful behavior by making excuses for them.
"He doesn't mean it." "It was not done with malice."
"It is the best he can do." "She had such an awful
childhood." Etc., etc., etc.
The central concept is that
the codependent individual "takes it" and "understands,"
despite feeling hurt. Waiting for brownie points in heaven,
or for a loved one to be magically healed through their persistent
love and care taking, they accept disrespect from others. It does
not occur to the codependent person that it is not OK to
"take it" and "put up" no matter what!
Much of this abuse acceptance
occurs without the codependent individual feeling abused!
More accurately, these individuals do not feel OK enough to expect
respectful treatment at all times, and to notice when it is not
forthcoming. Having grown up in a home where a parent or sibling
demanded inordinate attention (due to addiction, illness, anger,
or other problem), the codependent person is trained to care for
others. Having grown up in a difficult environment, a negative emotional
climate is experienced as normal and familiar. This is why there
is often little recognition of disrespect. If their partner is angry
or upset, the codependent individual will implicitly assume that
they did something to cause the anger. It does not occur to them
that it is their partner's responsibility to deal with their problem
and to treat others respectfully. It does not occur to them that
it is their responsibility to themselves to stop another person's
demeaning behavior toward them. But, how can stop disrespect when
misbehavior is not perceived as disrespectful or abusive? Disrespect
An unfortunate side effect
of the codependent person's willingness to ignore, excuse, or otherwise
allow the partner's abuse or disrespect, enables the misbehavior
directed at them to continue and intensify. Implicit or explicit
permission to continue misbehaving is granted since the codependent
Because codependent individuals
are approval-driven, they cannot stand it when others are angry
at or disappointed with them. As such, they unwittingly place themselves
in a position to be taken advantage of. The more approval is needed,
the less likely is the individual to realize the extent of their
self-sacrifice in favor of tending to the needs of the other. This
hurts ("Ouchhh!"), and
creates or maintains depression and low self-esteem, in a vicious,
While abuse, disrespect, or
unrequited sacrifice angers them, as it should, codependent people
do not realize how angry they are and at whom they are angry! Targeting
the appropriate person may jeopardize a source of approval and self-esteem.
To avoid facing reality, they distort it. Codependent individuals
are likely to somehow blame themselves and rationalize their "over-sensitivity."
They justify the other person's behavior by thinking they must deserve
the treatment they are getting. This is preferable to facing the
possibility that an individual who provides a measure of their self-esteem
is hurting them.
a signal that something is wrong and needs attention".
Anger is healthy. It is a signal that something is
wrong and needs attention. However, if the source of anger is not
articulated, how can it be fixed? Codependent people are expert at
denying anger and turning it against the self - into sadness and
depression. Instead of asking themselves why are they are putting up
with… (fill in the blank), they ask themselves how they could have
behaved differently - to obtain a more favorable reaction from their
Unarticulated anger is often
misdirected and expressed inappropriately. Anger may be experienced
as resentment, expressed as an aggressive blow-up, or in passive-aggressive
acting out. The cognitive and verbal skills to appropriately assert
oneself are lacking.
Since codependent people are
experts at controlling other people's thoughts, feelings, and behavior,
they feel hurt that others don't reciprocate and "know"
what they need. "If they really loved me, they would know."
Not so! Since codependents do not have the self-esteem to ask for
what they secretly want, they are unlikely to get it. If they do
make a request, it is often a roundabout hint. If their partner
cannot decipher the request, they feel hurt and unloved. They believe
they conveyed their desires, when, in fact, they have not!
Because most codependent individuals
are control-oriented, they are very responsible. They are great
employees. Tasks are done thoroughly and on time. Even parts of
the job that are not theirs get picked up if coworkers are neglectful
or slow. They try to control outcomes, whether those outcomes are
completed job tasks or reactions from other people. Anything for
However, some codependent individuals
are very irresponsible, in select or diverse life areas. They don't
know how to or don't feel the need to take care of some of their
own basic needs, especially if there is another person to care for
instead. Why spend the time trying to figure out what the self needs,
when the self doesn't really matter anyway? It is far more preferable
to be out avoiding one's own issues: out having fun, hunting for
a partner, or self-medicating feelings.
Codependent people are addiction
prone. They may drink too much, shop too much, eat too much, etc.
Dulling the senses is a great way to avoid knowing yourself and
dealing with your feelings. Intimacy is avoided. Intimate behavior
requires familiarity and comfort with one's internal world. Since
the codependent person regards ordinary human needs as shameful,
embarrassing, dangerous, or otherwise uncomfortable, meeting basic
needs are often dismissed.
Any relationship that ignores
the self is superficial. Unfortunately, superficial relationships
are safe...but empty and unfulfilling.
Control is central to the "MO"
of the codependent person. They control their self-esteem by catering
to others' needs. They control by their over-responsible performance,
picking up where others leave off. They control by avoiding intimacy
or by clouding the mind. They control by advising others on what
to do. These individuals work very hard to control everything and
everybody. Yet, they neglect the one person they do have control
Read an example of taking
Dr. Irene Matiatos
would anybody spend time and energy to control outcomes, while actively
neglecting the inner self? How
can they do this and not realize they are selling themselves short?
The Why: they know no
other way; the How: they received very good training early in life.
Any dysfunction in the family
predisposes a child to codependent behavior. Children are biologically
programmed to seek love and approval. They have to be cared for
or they will die. When a parent or family member is dysfunctional,
the child tends to focus on this person--rather than on enjoying
a carefree and joyful kid existence. The child has to worry: if
the caretaker does not care take, the child dies. For example, in
an alcoholic home, little Sally has to worry about whether she can
bring friends home - because daddy may be in a bad mood and embarrass
her. Such events are training her in codependent thinking, the art
of anticipating the other person. If mom is physically ill, Teddy
has to worry about exerting her. Who would care for him if anything
happened to her? If daddy is angry and controlling, Timmy needs
to worry about pleasing him to avoid punishment and humiliation
- and to get his conditional love and approval.
Children are naturally egocentric.
That means that they see the world revolving around them. If mom
and dad fight, children feel that it is somehow their fault. Julie
may try to make her parents happy by getting straight As in school
in an attempt to keep the parental marriage together. Another child
may have an abusive, or simply overactive older sibling. Since the
parents cannot be there at all times to police the situation, the
younger sibling may learn to anticipate the sib's moods and to behave
in ways that might increase the probability of "safety."
Or, perhaps daddy is depressed. Jennifer may tiptoe around him wondering
if he is unhappy because she is not good enough. And so on. In sum,
codependent thinking tends to develop any time a child is growing
up in a home where life is not care free. Often, addiction
can be traced in the family tree of these dysfunctional families,
whether there is an active addict in residence, or not. Nevertheless,
these kids have an adult they have to worry about!
is taught to walk on eggshells. To ensure survival, the child learns
to be extraordinarily sensitive in reading the moods and thoughts
of others. The child learns very early to pay attention to and tiptoe
around the dysfunctional family members - at the child's expense.
These interactions take place silently, implicitly. The child learns
to ignore the self's inner needs, instead pretending that all is
When I tell my clients that
codependent adults were once children who had an adult to worry
about, some sharply disagree. They tell me about the loving families
they came from and insist that their family members were "wonderful,"
etc. As denial melts and self-awareness develops, they begin to
recognize the failings in a caregiver that spawned their selflessness.
Sometimes, both parents were codependent, modeling no other behaviors
for the child to learn.
Can I Fix it?
Dr. Irene Matiatos
news! You certainly can! You can get control over your life!
You can stop trying to control the lives of others and take charge
While children are truly not
responsible for their actions, adults are. To experience a more
satisfying life, it becomes incumbent upon the adult to take control
of the unavoidable childhood or present-day scars they
experienced. Parent don't set out to hurt their children; neither
do abusive partners! We get hurt and we in turn hurt others because
we are imperfect. We may never achieve perfection, but we can improve.
It is important to remember
that we are in part a product of our environment. If we mis-behave,
we have learned to do so. The good news is that what was learned
can be unlearned or modified. The best news is that, in my experience,
codependency issues are in most cases not particularly difficult
problems to deal with.
a blend of cognitive behavior therapy with an emphasis on cognitive
and verbal skills training combined with a 12-Step approach very
effective. Many self-help resources are available from books
to support groups, as well as professional guidance. "Codependence"
is cocktail party talk. Walk into your local book store's self-help
or psychology section and look around. Melodie Beattie and Pia Mellody
are two of my favorite authors in the field. Also, check out some
of Albert Ellis' cognitive-behavioral work that helps in stamping
out irrational codependent thinking. Self-help groups such as ALANON
and CODA are 12-Step programs that have their own formula help change
So, go to therapy. Read, get
to a meeting. Get yourself evaluated for medication if you are depressed.
Do whatever you need to do. As an adult, you have options. You
can take control of your life! You are the only one who can take
control of your life.