Do you say yes when you really want to say no? Do you “walk on eggshells” around certain people, believing you can control their emotions? Do you think you must have solutions for other people’s problems?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may be codependent.
Codependent literally means “dependent with.” People can become “dependent with,” or on, a substance, such as alcohol or drugs; a behavior, such as irregular eating or compulsive shopping; or other people, such as a spouse or adult child.
How does codependency develop?
All humans are born with basic needs. Our physical needs–food, water and shelter–are obvious. Our emotional needs–love, acceptance and significance–are less apparent but just as important to our development. If we are deprived of these basic love needs, we are affected for the rest of our lives.
If you were born into an emotionally healthy family, your love needs were probably met. However, if you were born to parents who themselves were deprived of love, it’s very likely your needs were not met, either.
Alcohol- or drug-addicted parents, for example, are often unavailable to their children both emotionally and physically. The parent who is not addicted is so immersed in the addict and his problems that she has little ability to meet the love needs of the children. The emotionally deprived children often become codependent adults, struggling through life with what Hemfelt, Minirth and Meier refer to in their book Love Is a Choice as an “empty love tank.”
“In a normal, functional family,” they write, “love is transmitted from generation to generation, poured down from parents to children.” If this does not happen, codependency, “a condition that results when love tanks are running on empty,” can occur.
THE CODEPENDENT RESPONSE
How can you tell if you, or someone you love, is codependent? There are a variety of behavioral patterns you can watch for.
Codependents try to fill their emotional voids with people, behaviors and things. Feeling empty inside and unhappy with their lives, codependents use people, behaviors and things to control or medicate inner feelings such as fear, unresolved anger or loneliness.
In a family in which one spouse has an alcohol or drug addiction, the other spouse is frequently dependent upon the person with the addiction. The non-addicted spouse sees the addict as “needing to be taken care of” and assumes responsibility for the addict’s feelings, thoughts and behaviors.
Codependents have a tendency to control. In an effort to control their own emotions, codependents try to control the emotions and behaviors of those around them. What they can’t control, they worry about.
Codependents are motivated by the idea that if they could only get their partners to change, their problems would be solved. Their belief is that others have the ability to “make” them angry, happy or sad.
Accompanying the need to control is the feeling of fear.Codependents often fear another’s retaliation physically, emotionally or mentally. They also are paralyzed by thoughts of being abandoned and left alone to handle life’s issues. They minimize their problems, trying to believe the lie that “things aren’t really so bad.”
Codependents become so enmeshed in another’s life and problems that they lose their own sense of identity and self-worth. Constantly looking to others for validation, codependents seek approval at all costs and will do whatever is necessary to please others. The wife of a sex addict may be extremely cautious about crossing her husband, for example, because she fears that if she makes him mad, he’ll look at pornography.
Codependents often lack the ability to set clear boundaries–not knowing when to say yes and when to say no to themselves and others. Fuzzy boundaries are a symptom of low self-esteem. They stem from negative thought patterns such as “If I say no, they won’t like me.” Such constant devaluing prevents an accurate assessment of true strengths and weaknesses, which is the basis for healthy self-esteem and the key to setting healthy boundaries.
Codependents excuse, tolerate and cover up the bad behavior of the person they are dependent upon, even when it is habitual or extreme. Have you ever known a wife who “calls in sick” for an alcoholic spouse with a hangover, or a husband who continues to make the payments on credit card accounts for a spouse who’s a compulsive shopper? Codependents enable rather than help correct the bad behavior.