Robert Subby, a well-known addiction professional explained codependency as a response to practicing living with dysfunctional rules. Children who grow up around addiction learn dysfunctional rules in order to survive; it can be quite challenging to unlearn those rules as an adult. One of the “rules” that many of my clients learned is “Don’t be selfish”. This means ignore your own needs or place other’s needs ahead of your own. Growing up around alcoholic or mentally ill parents, children learn to put their own needs aside and focus on caring for their parents. Eventually this leads to feelings of anger and resentment. Subby describes it well in his book Lost in the Shuffle: The Codependent Reality- “If we believe that our own needs are wrong, we will never be able to get those needs met. What often happens in codependency is that we try to feel good about ourselves by taking care of others and eventually our self-esteem becomes dependent on caretaking. Without someone to take care of, the codependent is left with no purpose or worth. The more we take care of someone, the more we fail to take care of our own needs. In time, we start to feel resentful toward those whom we care for because they fail to recognize what we are doing for them. The result of these angry feelings is that we experience even more shame and so even more caretaking, as the pain builds in each of us, we begin to blame and point out the failings of others.” When a child grows up with an alcoholic caregiver, the only way to survive is to give up her own wants and needs to protect the attachment to her caregiver. As the oldest child of two alcoholic parents (and two alcoholic stepparents) it was my job to figure out my mother’s mood and adjust my behavior accordingly; I listened for the sound of ice cubes and counted her drinks.
Timmen L. Cermak, MD, a psychiatrist and pioneer in the field of addiction, has written several books on Codependence and Addiction. Cermak believes that codependence often precedes alcoholism. Cermak identifies five characteristics of Codependence:
1. Co-dependents change who they are and what they are feeling to please others. Most of my friends know I am an early riser, I have more energy in the morning. I like to get up early and exercise and practice meditation. My aunt and cousins like to play a card game called Hollywood Rummy, it’s a fun game that can last anywhere between 90 minutes and 3 hours. I have fond memories of playing cards with our large extended family when I was a child. One night after dinner, my cousin suggested we play cards. It was around 8:00 and I was feeling tired, everyone began encouraging me to play cards with them. I agreed to stay and play and then found myself growing resentful as it grew later in the evening. I felt sleepy and was no longer enjoying the game; I had stayed to please my family.
2. Co-dependents feel responsible for meeting other people’s needs, even at the expense of their own needs. Children growing up in dysfunctional/addictive homes learn to pay attention to any change in the emotional climate. Co-dependents may repeatedly ask their partners or friends if they are angry. For example, Mary is a wife and a financial analyst who has had a busy week at work. Sally, her wife asks her to join her at a business dinner with clients. Mary knows Sally will pout and complain if Mary chooses to stay home. Mary decides to give up her treasured time in her art studio in order to accompany Sally to the dinner. At first glance, this may look like a simple, unselfish, act. However, the driving force behind Mary’s decision is to avoid being abandoned by Sally. Growing up in an alcoholic household, Mary became very good at scanning the environment to see what her mother or brothers needed. She believed if she could anticipate her parents’ needs she could prevent them from getting angry (which felt like a form of abandonment). When I see someone struggling with a pose in yoga class I sometimes feel the urge to help them so they don’t get injured; this distracts me from attending to my own yoga practice. I have a hunch that my subconscious is trying to focus on someone else to avoid feeling the soreness in my right hamstring. Fortunately, I have learned to pause when I am feeling overly responsible and keep the focus on my own mat.
3. Co-dependents have low self-esteem; this is a by-product of having a very limited sense of self combined with the feeling of being responsible for a parent’s (or partner’s) alcohol/drug use. If we base our identity on someone else’s it’s nearly impossible to build self-esteem. There is a 12 Step phrase “If you want to build self-esteem you need to practice estimable acts”. Estimable acts are acts that are worthy of respect. In Alanon members are encouraged to set boundaries with a practicing (or recovering) alcoholic and take time to pursue their own hobbies and interests. Being honest about your likes and dislikes is a sign of self-esteem. I have a friend whose boyfriend would ask her what she wanted for dinner and she would respond “sushi” because she knew that was his favorite food (she hates sushi). Now she is in recovery and no longer eating sushi.
4. Co-dependents are driven by compulsions. Individuals who grew up around addictive family members feel a compulsion to rescue their family members from addiction. Since this is impossible, that compulsion often gets channeled into other areas like: overworking, debting, being the perfect parent, keeping the house perfectly clean, etc. The drama is addictive and these compulsions provide a distraction from unpleasant feelings. One of my greatest challenges has been letting go of the need to be busy, I have been trying to out-run my feelings my whole life. I over-studied in college and overworked during my career in technology. When I was a teenager, I swam hundreds of laps in our pool. Although I didn’t know it at the time, this was a great way to regulate my nervous system, it was also a compulsion. I have recovered from being compulsively neat and have even grown comfortable with leaving a few dishes in the sink at the end of the evening (this took a while!). Many of my clients have difficulty slowing down and having fun, I call it an “addiction to busy”. The Alanon program has a great pamphlet called the “Do’s and Don’ts” one of the “Do’s” is that we play, find hobbies and recreation. It also says “Take it easy, tension is harmful”.
5. Co-dependents have the same use of denial and distorted relationship to willpower that is typical of alcoholics and drug addicts. Some co-dependents believe that if they just explain things using the right words the addict will stop drinking. Or maybe if they are the perfect partner the addict will not lose his temper the next time he uses drugs/alcohol. I wasted time suggesting (lecturing) to a former boyfriend that he might feel better if he went to more AA meetings. Of course, this made things worse as he felt judged and criticized. I was trying to use my own willpower to get him to change so I wouldn’t have to look at my own feelings about our relationship. This was an attempt at trying to change my mood using something outside of myself. It’s quite similar to the way an alcoholic tries to regulate his nervous system by using alcohol. I explain to my clients who are non-addicts that the addict is addicted to the drink while those around him are addicted to the “think”. There is certainly nothing wrong with trying to help someone who is suffering from addiction; the problem begins when you stop focusing on yourself and start basing your self-worth on your ability or lack of ability to help someone stop.
What is the solution?
12-Step Programs- When recovering from co-dependence it’s important to remember that you don’t have to do it alone. I highly recommend finding a 12 Step group: Alanon, ACA, SLAA, CODA, etc. 12 Step meetings offer a great place to connect with people who share a common problem and solution. It’s important to try six different meetings so that you experience a variety of meeting formats and groups before deciding if a 12 step program is for you. To find meetings, simply enter the meeting type and your city in the search field on your browser.
Writing- Sometimes it’s easier to write our feelings down than to express them verbally. Journal writing is a great outlet; treat yourself to a new journal and spend some time writing during the day. Pia Melody, a pioneer in the field of codependence suggests writing down your personal history from birth through age seventeen. In your history include experiences that were abusive and the people who were abusive to you. It’s not about blaming the people you identify it’s about recognizing what happened to you and holding these people accountable for what happened. Melody does not recommend confronting these people. If you are in a 12-step program it’s suggested that you share this history with a sponsor, therapist or trusted friend (these are the fourth and fifth steps in recovery).
Psychotherapy-Find an individual therapist. Get some recommendations from friends and call a few therapists; pay attention to the way you feel on the phone. Ask yourself, what is it like talking with this person? Do I feel comfortable? When you meet with a therapist, notice your internal experience, do you feel anxious or relaxed? Do your surroundings feel comfortable?
Group Therapy- Group therapy is a good place to explore the experience you had in your family. Group members often remind us of our family members. Sometimes the therapist resembles your mother or father and group members might represent a sibling or another parent. Group provides a safe environment where you can learn to process and identify your feelings in the moment. It is usually more affordable than individual therapy. To find a group near you check the GPALA (Group Psychotherapy Association of Los Angeles) website .
Relax and play-Make a list of everything you like to do for fun and schedule those activities in your calendar every week. If you find this task challenging, you may want to call a friend and brainstorm together. A long time ago, a mentor asked me what I liked to do for fun and I responded by saying how much I enjoyed the gym. Although she supported my commitment to health and fitness she encouraged me to try some more playful activities that included other people. My list has gotten a lot longer since that conversation, I hope you find fun in your recovery journey.