Codependency is a silent epidemic. If you’re like most people, you’ve probably never even heard the term. For many individuals, worldwide, it is a way of life. At its core, codependency is a dysfunctional relationship with the self.
Codependency occurs in families where one or both parents are emotionally abusive, where children are made to feel unwanted, unloved and unimportant. A parent that is an emotional manipulator is accustomed to getting their needs met at the expense of their family. In this atmosphere, a child learns to suppress their own needs and to focus on the needs of others.
Melody Beatti, author of Co-Dependent No More, says, “There are rules that you are brought up with in your immediate family, rules that prohibit discussion about problems, open expression of feelings, direct and honest communication, realistic expectations, such as being human, being vulnerable or imperfect, selfishness; trust in other people and one’s self; playing and having fun; and rocking the delicately balanced family canoe through growth or change—however healthy and beneficial that movement might be.”
Codependency sufferers believe that they do not have value. From childhood they were given messages that attacked their self-esteem. They were made to feel insignificant and their only value was in what they could do for others.
They are taught that love and attention are conditional upon the mood of their caregiver. Children born into this type of environment develop a radar system, which allows them to pick up on the body language, tone and other non-verbal cues of people. It teaches them when to approach, and when to be invisible. They are compelled to become experts at this, because their safety and need for love and attention is entirely dependent upon their ability to pick up these signals.
The relationship that we have with our parents is the prototype for the relationships we have in adulthood. Often, we choose partners that mimic the dysfunctional behaviours of our abusive parent. That way we are able to keep playing out the same scripts we learned in childhood, because they feel normal and familiar.
The relationship that we have with our parents is the prototype for the relationships we have in adulthood
This creates adults who are, in laymen’s terms, doormats—individuals who do not know how to love and protect themselves. They grow up to be people pleasers, believing that their only value is in giving, that they aren’t good enough, and that they are unworthy of love.
Symptoms of codependency
The symptoms of a codependent relationship include:
- Becoming romantically attached to dysfunctional people and becoming their rescuers and fixers
- Suppressing and neglecting your own needs and interests for the sake of your partner, to the extent where you have no identity outside of the relationship
- Accepting blame and responsibility when it is not yours
- Minimising and rationalising serious relationship problems
- Believing that you deserve, or become accustomed to, receiving poor treatment from your partner
- Having terrible communication skills; having problems speaking up, or voicing displeasure
- Passive and submissive behaviours; tendency to fear or avoid conflict
- Derive your sense of self-worth externally, often by helping or fixing others
- Have few or no boundaries
- Low to no self-esteem or self-worth
- Caring is to an extreme, too nice, too giving to the point of exploitation.
The key to breaking free of codependency is a multi-step process. It’s about teaching yourself as an adult the things that you should’ve been taught as a child.
Step 1 – Recognise the pattern. Recognise when people are using you and when you are giving too much, when a relationship feels like it’s draining you and when you are being treated poorly.
Step 2 – Eliminate toxic people from your life. You have to realise that you can’t change or fix other people. You and you alone are responsible for your happiness. This means knowing that certain people aren’t going to change and they don’t belong in your life.
Step 3 – Create and enforce boundaries. Boundaries are essential to having a healthy relationship with yourself. It shows other people where you stand on you. It’s your way of teaching people how you expect to be treated. It’s your line in the sand and it’s up to you to enforce it. Unhealthy people don’t respect boundaries. If you express your wishes and someone continually busts your boundaries, then it becomes your job to eliminate them from your life.
You have to realise that you can’t change or fix other people. You and you alone are responsible for your happiness
Once you’ve set the bar, if people continue to cross your line, it tells you all you need to know about them. These are things that may not feel natural at first, but healthy people know where their own line is, and they try really hard to respect and not cross other people’s.
Step 4 – Learn to communicate properly. Get in the habit of saying exactly what you mean. Stop hoping that other people can read your mind, or guess what you want. Practise being direct by saying exactly what you want and don’t back down when it comes to defending yourself, or your boundaries. Being direct and sticking up for yourself are how healthy people communicate. Codependents learn early to be quiet, and not upset people. But you’re an adult now, so you have to learn that healthy people aren’t afraid to say what they mean and mean what they say.
Step 5 – Start expecting more from yourself and others. If you’re codependent, you’ve probably had very low standards when it comes to the people you’ve let into your circle. If there are people that don’t add value to your life and don’t make you feel good, then it’s time to start cleaning house and opening up some spaces. Sure, making new friends is hard, giving up a family member might be difficult, but what’s more difficult is being the recipient of abusive and disrespectful behaviour. If you want a better life, then you have to have higher standards. Raise your bar.
Practise being direct by saying exactly what you want and don’t back down when it comes to defending yourself, or your boundaries
Step 6 – The final step is about self-esteem. It’s about changing the way you feel about you and seeing yourself as a person of value. Figure out what your interests are, what makes you happy and do those things and keep doing those things. Pay attention to your feelings. They are your radar system, letting you know when something is off track. Developing self-esteem is a process, a decision that you have to make every day. When you start to see yourself as a person of value, others will pick up on that vibe and follow your lead.
Fix your foundation
Leaving co-dependency is a journey. Trying to change the way you were taught to behave, communicate and feel about yourself is a difficult process, but it’s time to accept that what we were taught as children was wrong and unhealthy. As adults, it’s our job to fix our own foundation, because the quality of our life starts and ends with us.
Anthony Robbins always says, “Success leaves clues.” So understand that people have overcome this and so can you. Set your plan in motion, create your list of boundaries, raise your standards and get into the habit of expecting more from yourself and others. Practise feeling good about yourself. Take the time and put in the work, it’s worth it—because you’re worth it.
This was first published in the July 2015 issue of Complete Wellbeing.
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