Do you often find yourself worrying about everyone else and neglecting your own needs? Do you tend to become overly committed and overwhelmed? If so, you may be codependent or tend toward codependency.
What exactly is codependence? It is not, as some think, dependence on another person. Pia Mellody, a therapist who acknowledges her own struggle with codependence, describes in her book, “Facing Codependence,” its five core symptoms.
The first is difficulty with self-esteem. Self-esteem is an inner sense of worth that gives us courage to persist, even under the most difficult circumstances. With self-esteem, we can face the world feeling good about ourselves, even on a bad hair day. Codependent persons are unable to see themselves as good enough, so they experience chronic self-doubt.
Do I look good enough, am I saying the right things, will they like me? These underlying thoughts unconsciously plague codependent individuals. Usually, they are not fully aware of these concerns.
The second core symptom is difficulty setting boundaries. We protect ourselves and others through boundaries. External boundaries are the words and actions that keep people from harming and exploiting us. By means of external boundaries, we do not allow anyone to touch or treat us in ways that are inappropriate or hurtful. These boundaries also guide us in treating others appropriately.
Internal boundaries keep us from mixing our thoughts, feelings and behaviors with those of others, as well as theirs from ours. Individuals who are codependent find it very hard to keep their issues separate. Couples often invade each other’s space when they say, “I know exactly what you’re thinking.” Many times, I have witnessed major disagreements between couples that occurred only because one invaded the other’s mental space and misinterpreted their words or actions.
For example, Susie and Jack might be watching TV together and suddenly, Susie walks to another room without an explanation. Jack wrongly assumes she is angry at him, but doesn’t understand why. On her return, he gives her the silent treatment, which confuses her. The subsequent argument is vicious, with each blaming the other for what they thought was in their partner’s mind. The idea is to respect boundaries by not making assumptions. If Jack had asked Susie why she left she could have explained her reason, which had nothing to do with him. An argument would have been avoided.
Third is a problem with reality. Codependent individuals doubt themselves; cannot see their bodies realistically, are not sure what they really think, are unable to identify their feelings, or may be unaware of how their behavior affects others. A person who is drastically underweight may be convinced that he or she is fat. Some codependent individuals are so out of touch with themselves they have no idea if they are standing too close, speaking too loudly or behaving inappropriately. They may have difficulty recognizing their own feelings and wishes, and exist in a chronic state of emotional numbness.
The fourth core symptom lies in difficulty knowing what one wants and how to obtain it. Codependent persons find it difficult to make decisions. They get tangled up in their needs for approval, dreadfully afraid that any decision will bring unwanted criticism. Decision-making becomes a very painful process. They cannot differentiate between what they want and what they think someone else desires. It doesn’t feel okay to simply have and state one’s own preferences.
The final core symptom of codependence manifests as difficulty in moderately expressing one’s reality. When out of touch with self, one is unable to express emotions, thoughts and behavior appropriately. A codependent individual tends to be too withdrawn or too aggressive, out of tune with the reality of a given situation. With codependence, telling others one feels upset, sad, lonely or badly in any way presents a major challenge. This makes it difficult to connect with others, because they cannot know from where the codependent individual is coming.
Codependence develops primarily in dysfunctional families where mental illness and/or drug or alcohol addiction exist. The physical and/or emotional environment is not safe, secure or consistent. Physical and psychological traumas are common. Children from these environments learn survival skills of accommodation, self-denial and hypervigilance. These skills become ingrained and habitual into adulthood; they are the basis of codependence.
Major sources of support for codependent individuals may be found in Adult Children of Alcoholics and Codependents Anonymous groups. Numerous self-help books are available and counseling is often very helpful.
Elinor Stanton is a psychiatric nurse practitioner on Marco Island, with 33 years experience as a therapist, both in private practice and with a large health maintenance organization in Boston. She graduated from Boston College and the University of Rochester, and is certified as a clinical specialist by the American Nurses Credentialing Center. Stanton also is certified in Imago Relationship Therapy and trained in Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. Comments and questions may be submitted to firstname.lastname@example.org or 394-2861.