Codependency is a sensitive issue, as it involves feelings of insecurity, low self-worth, shame, and guilt. Approaching the topic of codependency with friends and family can be incredibly difficult since the loved one most likely already feels ashamed, unworthy of love, and a disappointment. Allowing a codependent relationship to continue, however, will only exacerbate the problem and may do more harm than good. When it’s time to take action to resolve a codependency issue, it is vital to learn how to do it with tact and care.
Understanding Codependency as an Issue
Understanding why someone develops a codependency issue allows you to deal with the problem effectively. Codependent relationships are dysfunctional and are defined by one person supporting or enabling another person’s problems. These problems can be related to mental health, irresponsibility, under-achievement, or addiction. Codependency occurs when someone relies on another person excessively, to the point of needing the other person to provide approval or a sense of identity.
The phrase “codependency” originally arose from an individual’s dependence on friends or family in prolonging a problem, typically having to do with drugs or alcohol. Founders of Alcoholics Anonymous realized that a person’s addiction was not solely the problem of the addict, but also the problem of his or her network of friends and family. Since then, the meaning of codependency has broadened to encompass any situation in which one person is fixated on another for sustenance, approval, and beyond.
Adverse Childhood Experiences
In most situations, codependency stems from childhood. A child growing up with a parent addicted to alcohol or drugs or who experienced emotional or physical abuse/neglect is likely to learn how to suppress his or her own needs in order to give care to the parent. The role reversal between child and parent can lead to a child developing codependent behaviors in his or her adult relationships.
Shame is often at the core of a codependency issue. Shame is a strong physiological response within the nervous system, causing a person to feel inadequate or inferior. It can translate into self-loathing and low self-esteem, making the person want to hide or run away from others. Shame can make a person feel naked, humiliated, and exposed – afraid that everyone can see his or her flaws.
For most people, shame is fleeting and will eventually pass once a situation resolves itself. However, for addicts and codependents, shame is residual, leading to anguished feelings and eventually relationship issues. Codependent people are afraid to speak their minds, take initiative, and get close to someone.
How a Therapist Can Help the Healing Process
Most codependent people must revisit, explore, and talk about events in their past that led to the problem. For example, if a boy grew up taking care of an alcoholic mother, he may have to reevaluate his childhood from a new perspective. He may be haunted by feelings of a lack of control and inadequacy. Exploring shame-inducing scenarios of the past can help a person let go and move on.
Healing someone with a codependency issue typically requires the attention of a professional therapist or counselor. An experienced therapist can create a safe environment for the person to recount past experiences, explore current emotions, and address the problem at its roots. Often, a codependent person needs regular therapy to incrementally self-reflect on feelings of shame and self-loathing until these feelings dissipate.
Treatments for Codependency
Codependency problems generally start in youth and are reinforced over the years. Thus, resolving codependency can be difficult to overcome. However, psychotherapy can help people understand why they adopted certain behaviors in the first place, i.e., why they tend to overcompensate, why they feel the need to fulfill others’ needs before their own, and how to develop self-compassion. Psychotherapy sessions can ultimately help a codependent person improve relationships, control anxiety, overcome depression, and boost self-esteem.
Consider introducing your friend or family member to group therapy sessions for codependents. Group therapy or support group settings such as Codependents Anonymous (CoDA) can go a long way towards healing someone with ongoing feelings of shame or self-doubt. CoDA has a similar program to that of AA, with a 12-step model for healing. Al-Anon is a group therapy that supports the friends and families of alcoholics and helps people break habits of dependency.
Once an understanding of the beginnings of codependency is achieved, the root cause of the problem can be resolved. Above all, codependents require love, care, acceptance, and empathy. If you or someone you know is dealing with codependency, it might be time for an intervention. Do not let the problem grow any longer.