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Doc@DrIrene.com


 

Just Exactly What is Codependence?

by Dr. Irene Matiatos

Some 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 like them!

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 time.

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 partner’s 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 is normal.

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 partner "understands."

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, downward spiral.

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.

"Anger...is 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 partner!

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 approval.

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 over: themselves. Read an example of taking control here.

 Why Be Codependent?

by Dr. Irene Matiatos

Why 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!

The codependent-in-training 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 OK.

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.

 Help! Can I Fix it?

by Dr. Irene Matiatos

Good news! You certainly can! You can get control over your life! You can stop trying to control the lives of others and take charge of yourself!

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.

I find 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 codependent behavior.

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.

Suggested Reading: Codependent No More and Facing Love Addiction both available at amazon.com. Click the title to get the book.

 

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