I’m amazed by how often codependence issues come up in my work with coaching clients – either I’m naturally attracting people who struggle with this way of being, or it’s a really widespread issue for so many women. I suspect it’s a bit of both. Almost every week, a new client says to me: “I’ve been struggling with my relationships with others my whole life, and I only just found out that there’s a name for my problem: they call it codependence. Can you help me with this?”
The term codependence was created to describe the characteristic personality and behavior of spouses and family members of alcoholics and other addicts, but we know now that many people who haven’t been affected by alcohol or addictions have still somehow managed to develop this problematic way of being. The defining characteristic? A tendency to put the needs of others first, and neglect your own self and life (in a pathological way that is harmful to both others and yourself).
I’m Christian, and part of walking that out is by following Jesus’ teachings about “dying to self” and laying your life down for others. A codependent way of life comes from a different place and has a different spirit, so to speak. It’s often about manipulating others, or controlling outcomes, or trying to meet some kind of unhealthy need or desire in yourself.
Some of the “symptoms” of codependence include:
– Focusing on pleasing others, or doing what you think will get the most approval
– Excessive self-sacrificing or being the “martyr” for others (in a way that breeds resentment or pride)
– Controlling or manipulative behavior towards others, e.g. thinking you know what’s best for them, and insisting that they follow your advice (rather than focusing your attention on what needs to improve in your own character and life)
– Trying to prevent other people from experiencing emotional pain or the consequences of their own behavior
– Getting caught up in drama or crisis going on in the people or relationships around you, and focusing on that instead of your own character, health and responsibilities
– Repeatedly entering into relationships with people who are either emotionally unavailable or unusually emotionally needy
– Needing to be needed in order to feel like a worthwhile person
Some experts argue whether there’s really such a thing as codependence, or whether it’s just a trendy pop psychology label. I can tell you from my own experience, and my work with clients, that this kind of mindset and behavior is a very real behavior.
I don’t have time or space here to go into great detail about how to heal from codependence (it does take time, lots of awareness, and consistent efforts; working through a structured 12-step program can help, such as the “Freedom Session” curriculum offered by many churches in my area).
Here, though, is a tip that can start to help you right away (after asking for help in prayer; seeking God’s help will always be my first advice in every situation):
Take your attention off other people, and what they’re doing (or should be doing or are not doing), and focus your attention on yourself, and what the next right step for you is.
In a classic example, if your husband is an alcoholic, and you’re afraid he’ll lose his job, let him be. Let him lose his job, if that’s what might happen as a consequence of his excessive drinking. You see, if you constantly protect your husband from the consequences of his actions (by phoning his employer and saying he’s sick, or by doing his work for him), he may never experience consequences severe enough to motivate him to seek help for his addiction. By “helping” him, or “rescuing” him, you may actually be doing more harm than good, over the longterm.
If you find yourself terrified by “giving up control” or responsibility for the life of another person, the way to distract yourself, and heal yourself, is to replace your preoccupation with them by doing what you need to do for yourself. Do an inventory of your own character and the changes you need to make in your behavior, attitudes and life. Make yourself something healthy to eat, go for a walk, call a friend, work on your taxes, tidy up that messy spare room that’s driving you crazy. Whatever it is that you need to do to take care of you.
The best part is, when you start to look after yourself and stop nagging, or controlling, or rescuing everyone else, it takes pressure off the other person and often removes significant strain from the relationship. Often, the other person may respect you more, and treat you differently, and maybe even start implementing some of the changes you’ve been hoping for.