In his book, Codependence: Healing the Human Condition, Charles L. Whitfield calls codependence a “disease of lost selfhood.” He says that we become codependent when we turn our responsibility for ourselves over to someone else. Our attempts to be what others want us to be cause us to lose sight of who we really are and what we really want.

Whitfield calls it an “addiction” – to look outside ourselves and to others to fulfill our lives and make us happy. He says that it is the basis on which all other addictions are supported. The need to look outside ourselves to find what we need is exactly what other addictions, such as drug, alcohol, or sex addictions, do.  Our inability to feel whole just as we are requires us to find it somewhere else.

Wikipedia describes codependence as a type of dysfunctional helping relationship where one person supports or enables another person’s drug addiction, alcoholism, gambling addiction, poor mental health, immaturity, irresponsibility, or under-achievement.

Interestingly, research shows that codependence can be passed down through generations. We learn how to relate to others through our family of origin. It’s very common in families where a family member is alcoholic for at least one member to refuse to acknowledge the problem and to sacrifice themselves for the one who is sick. Children in those families learn to avoid emotions and to define themselves through others. When asked about it, as adults they will deny that there was anything wrong in their family.

Codependency Symptoms

There are several signs of codependence to note. Pia Mellody, in her books Codependent No More and Facing Codependence identifies 14 characteristics of codependency. Here, in abbreviated form, are 12 of those:

  • Care taking

Codependents feel responsible for others – their feelings, thoughts, actions, choices, etc. and feel compelled to help that person solve the problem. They feel angry when their suggestions are taken. They feel safest with needy people, and uncomfortable when others try to give something to them. They are often overcommitted but will abandon their own routines to help others. They are often resentful that others don’t do the same for them, but will never admit it. They often feel bored or empty if they don’t have a crisis to avert or someone to help.

  • Low self-worth

Codependents have a sense that they are not worthy. They are not good enough. They long for compliments, but when they get them, they reject them. They feel like to world is against them. They blame themselves for everything, and think their lives are not worth living. They don’t believe that they deserve good things, and they pick on themselves for everything.

  • Repression

Codependents are often rigid and controlled. They are often afraid to be who they really are for fear of judgment.

  • Obsession

Codependents worry about everything. They become enmeshed with others, and are often anxious about other’s problems. They focus all their energy on someone else.

  • Controlling

Codependents have lived with people who were out of control and it has created disappointment (witness the out-of-control alcoholic father). They try to control people by threatening, manipulation, helplessness and guilt. In return, they often feel manipulated and controlled.

  • Denial

Codependents pretend that things aren’t as bad as they seem. They go to doctors for tranquilizers; they become workaholics or spend money compulsively. They overeat. They wonder why they feel crazy sometimes.

  • Dependency

Codependents are unable to find peace within themselves. They are always looking outside themselves for happiness. They don’t believe that others can love or approve of them. They often feel unable to care for themselves. They will stay in relationships that are abusive because they believe that is the only way others will love them.

  • Poor communicators

Codependents often don’t communicate properly. They threaten, beg, coerce, blame others, and don’t say what they mean or mean what they say. They often talk too much and gossip frequently. They have trouble saying no. They believe that everything is their fault and that nothing is their fault. They often feel that they are bothering others.

  • Weak boundaries

Codependents have trouble establishing healthy boundaries. They allow others to violate their boundaries and so they make their boundaries more flexible in order to tolerate the violations. They become angry and intolerant.

  • Lack of trust

Codependents lack trust in themselves, their feelings, and decisions, and they don’t trust others. They think that God has abandoned them.

  • Anger

Codependents often feel very scared, hurt, and angry and they often live with others who are the same way. They cry often, get depressed, overreact, get sick, and have violent temper outbursts. They often punish others for making them feel angry.

  • Sex problems

Codependents believe that they have to have sex in order to be loved, and will have sex even when they don’t want it. It’s often an attempt to feel loved. They may withdraw from their partners by abstaining, making up reasons not to have sex, or feel revolted by the idea of sex with a partner. Sex is something they have to do, and they refuse to enjoy it.

The above is not a complete list, but you may recognize yourself or someone you love in the list above. Eventually, codependency in an unhealthy environment can produce a whole host of illnesses, depression, hopelessness, and cause withdrawal from family and friends. In an effort to cope with this, codependents can turn to alcohol, drugs, food, sex, and thoughts of suicide.

There is help for you. A licensed mental health counselor can help you navigate issues that have created the problems.

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