Codependency & Substance Abuse

What Is Codependency?

Co-dependency is living the myth that we can make ourselves happy by trying to control people and events outside ourselves. Put another way, co-dependency may be broadly defined as “an addiction to people, behaviors, or things.”

A sense of control, or lack of it, is central to everything a co-dependent does and thinks.

Co-dependency is an epidemic. Roughly 100 million Americans suffer the effects of codependency today. We can gain better insight into how co-dependency operates in our lives by examining the trait of co-dependent individuals.

Co-dependency is a learned behavior that can be passed down from one generation to another. It is an emotional and behavioral condition that affects an individual’s ability to have a healthy, mutually satisfying relationship.

It is also known as “relationship addiction”because people with co-dependency often form or maintain relationships that are one-sided, emotionally destructive and/or abusive.

The disorder was first identified about ten years ago as the result of years of studying interpersonal relationships in families of alcoholics. Co-dependent behavior is learned by watching and imitating other family members who display this type of behavior.

Who Does Codependency Affect?

Co-dependency often affects a spouse, a parent, sibling, friend, or co-worker of a person afflicted with alcohol or drug dependence.

Originally, co-dependent was a term used to describe partners in chemical dependency, persons living with, or in a relationship with an addicted person. Similar patterns have been seen in people in relationships with chronically or mentally ill individuals.

Today, however, the term has broadened to describe any co-dependent person from any dysfunctional family.

What Is A Dysfunctional Family And How Does It Lead To Codependency?

A dysfunctional family is one in which members suffer from fear, anger, pain, or shame that is ignored or denied. Underlying problems may include any of the following:

  • An addiction by a family member to drugs, alcohol, relationships, work, food, sex, or gambling.
  • The existence of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse.
  • The presence of a family member suffering from a chronic mental or physical illness.

Dysfunctional families do not acknowledge that problems exist.

They don’t talk about them or confront them.

As a result, family members learn to repress emotions and disregard their own needs.

They become “survivors.” They develop behaviors that help them deny, ignore, or avoid difficult emotions. They detach themselves. They don’t talk. They don’t touch. They don’t confront. They don’t feel. They don’t trust.

The identity and emotional development of the members of a dysfunctional family are often inhibited.

Attention and energy focus on the family member who is ill or addicted. The co-dependent person typically sacrifices his or her needs to take care of a person who is sick.

When co-dependents place other people’s health, welfare and safety before their own, they can lose contact with their own needs, desires, and sense of self.

How Do Codependent People Behave?

Co-dependents have low self-esteem and look for anything outside of themselves to make them feel better. They find it hard to “be themselves.”

Some try to feel better through alcohol, drugs or nicotine – and become addicted. Others may develop compulsive behaviors like workaholism, gambling, or indiscriminate sexual activity.

They have good intentions. They try to take care of a person who is experiencing difficulty, but the care-taking becomes compulsive and defeating.

Co-dependents often take on a martyr’s role and become “benefactors” to an individual in need.

A wife may cover for her alcoholic husband; a mother may make excuses for a truant child; or a father may “pull some strings” to keep his child from suffering the consequences of delinquent behavior.

The problem is that these repeated rescue attempts allow the needy individual to continue on a destructive course and to become even more dependent on the unhealthy care-taking of the “benefactor.”

As this reliance increases, the co-dependent develops a sense of reward and satisfaction from“being needed.”

When the care-taking becomes compulsive, the codependent feels choiceless and helpless in the relationship, but is unable to break away from the cycle of behavior that causes it.

Co-dependents view themselves as victims and are attracted to that same weakness in the love and friendship relationships.

Characteristics Of Co-dependent People Are:

  • An exaggerated sense of responsibility for the actions of others
  • A tendency to confuse love and pity, with the tendency to “love” people they can pity and rescue
  • A tendency to do more than their share, all of the time
  • A tendency to become hurt when people don’t recognize their efforts
  • An unhealthy dependence on relationships. The co-dependent will do anything to hold on to a relationship; to avoid the feeling of abandonment
  • An extreme need for approval and recognition
  • A sense of guilt when asserting themselves
  • A compelling need to control others
  • Lack of trust in self and/or others
  • Fear of being abandoned or alone
  • Difficulty identifying feelings, Rigidity/difficulty adjusting to change
  • Problems with intimacy/boundaries
  • Chronic anger, lying/dishonesty, poor communications, difficulty making decisions

We can gain better insight into how codependency operates in our lives by examining 10 Traits of codependent individuals.

1. Co-dependents are driven by one or more compulsions.

Compulsions are easy to identify if they are considered bad, such as addictions to drugs, alcohol, sex, physical abuse of others, or eating disorders.

Other compulsive behaviors, though equally real, are difficult to identify: workaholism, spendaholism, success addiction, compulsive neatness, compulsive overachievement in school, and so forth.

The people who do engage in these behaviors are rarely seen as addicts; they are praised and admired for their actions.

Few people would rank any of the seemingly positive addictions of these people alongside drug abuse or sex addiction, but the root causes of all these addictions are much the same. Compulsive and addictive behaviors are largely rooted in codependency.

2. Co-dependents are bound and tormented by the way things were in the dysfunctional family of origin.

No one grows up in a home where all needs are met all the time. But in more severely dysfunctional families, the pain is increased and it is likely to pass from generation to generation, though it often takes a different form.

One person may be a compulsive drinker; the child of that person may grow up to be a compulsive rescuer and volunteer.

3. Co-dependents typically have very low self-esteem.

They have received few, if any, affirming messages from their parents or primary caregivers during childhood.

They see themselves as empty and inadequate, as if they are missing something that everyone else around them has.

Co-dependents look to others for approval, thinking (usually at an unconscious level), If only I could get other people to approve of me, then maybe I would start to feel good about myself.

4. Co-dependents typically feel that their happiness hinges on the behavior of others.

They unconsciously strive to fix the unhappy aspects of their past and present lives by manipulating people and events.

If they felt unloved and abandoned as children, they may be compulsively perfectionistic as parents to compensate for the unresolved pain of the past.

Emotionally healthy people accept the past as it is, recognizing that it is futile to try to control other people or change events that have already taken place.

5. Co-dependents feel inordinately responsible for others.

Many try to avoid their own pain by taking on other people’s problems.

If a best friend’s marriage breaks up, the codependent thinks, I should have been able to help my friends solve their problems. Codependents can’t manage their own lives successfully, much less everyone elses, so they end up feeling guilty about everything.

6. Co-dependent’s relationships with spouses or significant other persons are marred by a damaging, unstable imbalance between dependence and independence.

God created us to be both dependent and independent. In the end we are ultimately responsible for our own welfare.

No other person can be expected to care for all of our needs. On the other hand, God created within us the need for companionship, both with Him and with friends and family.

Co-dependents constantly find themselves at extremes in their relationships. It’s either “I can’t live without you” or “I don’t need you or anyone else.”

7. Co-dependents are masters of denial and repression.

Counselors never cease to be amazed at how effectively denial works. One of the first questions put to patients is, “Could you please tell me about your childhood?”

People invariably respond with words such as, “I grew up in a pretty good home.” Then they proceed to describe some terribly abusive home situation. The denial that helped them survive childhood almost always stands in the way of their healing as an adult.

8. Co-dependents worry about things they can’t change and often keep struggling to change them.

Co-dependents cling to a strong set of “if only’s”. If only I could have managed the children better, my husband wouldn’t have blown up like that.

If only I could make my wife love me, she wouldn’t run around with other men. Codependents just don’t buy the truth that we can’t control other people.

9. Co-dependents’ lives are punctuated by extremes.

Codependents may be highly respected and considered wise and spiritual in public and raging, verbally abusive, demanding tyrants in private, like in the workplace or in the family.

Those who see only one side of a codependent’s life might find it hard to believe that the other exist in the same person.

10. Co-dependents are continually looking for the missing ingredient in life.

The message of worth and dignity they missed in childhood have left a big empty space. In despair they look outside themselves to find meaning and purpose in life.

Please note that only a qualified professional can make a diagnosis of codependency; not everyone experiencing these symptoms suffers from co-dependency.

How is Codependency Treated?

Because co-dependency is usually rooted in a person’s childhood, treatment often involves exploration into early childhood issues and their relationship to current destructive behavior patterns.

Treatment includes education, experiential groups, and individual and group therapy through which co-dependents rediscover themselves and identify self-defeating behavior patterns.

Treatment also focuses on helping patients getting in touch with feelings that have been buried during childhood and on reconstructing family dynamics. The goal is to allow them to experience their full range of feelings again.

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