Do you hang onto relationships you know are bad for you, but still hope they will work out? Do you have a habit of taking care of everyone else’s needs before your own? Do you feel like you are in charge of other people’s happiness? If so, then you might be codependent.
In 20 years working as a therapist, the most common problem I encounter with clients is the challenge and the consequences of codependency.
The term codependent has been arbitrarily used for years. In reality, codependency is a chronic and progressive disorder. It can be very difficult to treat because it disguises controlling behavior under an umbrella of help. For those people who struggle with codependency, the process of recovery can be grueling and lifelong.
Although I encourage anyone who thinks that codependency is an issue to seek professional help, there are many excellent books available to help support the process of recovery.
Cloud and Townsend’s quintessential book about emotional boundaries was one of the first books I began referring to my clients. The authors do not spend an enormous amount of time discussing codependency per se but do refer to aspects of codependency in the context of developing healthy boundaries.
I have encouraged clients to use it as a reference in determining, not only the lack of boundaries in their lives but how to begin to identify, build and communicate healthy boundaries in their relationships.
Since many codependents have come from unhealthy families of origin, they are likely lacking in the basics of healthy boundaries.
Cloud and Townsend identify the “Ten Laws of Boundaries” which help codependents recognize that boundaries are NOT about doing something to someone else, but rather about learning to protect oneself from the boundary violations of other people.
The authors also discuss common boundary myths like, if I set boundaries I will hurt other people (codependents are always worried about other people’s emotions), setting boundaries means I am an angry person (boundaries decrease anger) and if I set boundaries I will feel guilty (codependents often feel a sense of obligation to others, rather than a sense of gratitude).
Takeaway: Developing healthy boundaries allows a codependent to protect herself from the manipulative emotions and behaviors of others.
One of my top choices for codependency recovery is Pia Mellody’s Facing Codependence. Mellody looks at codependency through the lens of addiction. She pictures codependency resulting from dysfunctional family systems which makes an individual vulnerable to the pitfalls of dysfunctional adult relationships.
Mellody discusses the impact that childhood trauma has on our emotional wellbeing and our ability to have meaningful and fulfilling relationships with ourselves and with other people.
She identifies 5 core symptoms of codependency including low self-esteem, emotional dysregulation, problems with boundaries, having difficulty taking care of needs and expressing reality moderately.
As a firm believer in the belief that codependency is an addiction, I regularly recommend Mellody’s Facing Codependence for clients who are seeking help for recovery from codependency.
Takeaway: Recovery from codependence is a lifelong journey!
Hemfelt, Minirth and Meier define codependency as an addiction “to people, behaviors, or things.” In other words, the codependent is attempting to control her uncomfortable feelings by controlling other people. Of course, this results in a multitude of problems.
The authors surmise codependency can result from various types of abuse in childhood, including active abuse, passive abuse, emotional incest, unfinished business, and negative existential messages (you will have to read the book to find out more). Ultimately, there are vast portions of childhood that are lost due to the abuse.
Love is a Choice offers a 10 stage codependence recovery process. This self-help method includes exploring your past and present, taking a relationship inventory, saying goodbye to “security symbols,” grieving the loss of these symbols, reparenting and maintenance.
Takeaway: Codependency is not always the result of being a family member of an addict!
An oldie but a goodie, Melody Beattie’s 1987 bestseller and arguably the first codependency recovery book to address the issue of codependency has been a staple on clinician’s bookshelves for decades. Like Pia Mellody, Beattie defines codependency as a compulsion to controlling another person’s behavior.
Beattie offers a simple and straightforward guide to learning to take care of yourself. Beattie discusses and encourages the reader to practice non-rescuing behaviors like learning to say no, letting go of trying to read people’s minds and allowing others to be responsible for themselves.
One of my favorite sections of Codependent No More is Beattie’s comparison of loving vs. addictive characteristics in relationships. I frequently use this with clients to educate and review the differences between a healthy and unhealthy relationship. For example, a healthy relationship characteristic is allowing your partner to have separate interests and friends.
An unhealthy equivalent is total involvement in your partner and limiting your own social life. Beattie also distinguishes between healthy vs. unhealthy breakups. She points out that a healthy breakup includes acceptance, wanting the best for your partner and being able to remain friends. Unhealthy breakups leave feelings of inadequacy, worthlessness, and revenge.
Takeaway: Recovery from codependency is learning to take care of ourselves.
Melody Beattie’s book of daily meditations is intended to encourage recovering codependents to take a few minutes each day to reflect on their recovery. Much like the 12 step feature of taking daily inventory, Beattie encourages recovering codependents to let go of controlling patterns of behavior.
She uses examples from her book Codependent No More as well as Beyond Codependency to aid in the process of self-care and recovery.
The book is laid out like a calendar, starting with January and continuing through December. The reader can pick any day for reflection or can follow along with the current date. For example, February 14 (Valentine’s Day) is sometimes a reminder of love lost, or love unreturned. Beattie suggests that we reflect on our journey of learning to love ourselves.
Takeaway: Recovery from codependency requires a daily commitment!
Melody Beattie is at it again with her guide on how to find the right recovery program for the codependent. She explains each of the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and applies them to the addiction of codependency.
Beattie guides the reader through each of the 12 steps and relates each step to codependency giving examples both from her recovery journey as well as the journey of others. She also adds activities at the end of each step discussion for the reader to apply to his/her personal journey of recovery.
Beattie also reviews the process of working a recovery program. She describes what it means to “work” at recovery, addresses the importance of family-of-origin work and discusses the importance of sponsorship. She offers tips on how to choose a 12 step group, how many meetings to attend and even addresses some of the problems that might occur in recovery groups.
Takeaway: Letting go is a language we teach ourselves!
Ross Rosenberg’s book, The Human Magnet Syndrome convincingly discusses the dynamic between the codependent and the narcissist. Rosenberg describes how our childhood experiences set us up for an attraction to chaotic, abusive and toxic relationships with manipulative personalities.
It is a critical resource in a journey of recovery for the codependent. Rosenberg effectively highlights how unhealed childhood wounds point us directly toward toxic relationships.
What I have found most interesting and a belief that I subscribe to as well in my practice is that the healing of codependency occurs only after we have discovered how we became codependent. This requires an examination of our family of origin issues as well as education about how our family of origin issues might affect our self-love.
Rosenberg purposefully uses the term “self-love deficiency” instead of codependency because he believes at the core that codependency is caused by deficits in our self-love.
Consequently, he believes that the cure for codependency or in his words Self Love Deficiency Disorder is self-love abundance. He outlines a 10 stage Self Love Recovery Treatment Model which includes education about the problem, developing healthy boundaries, resolving childhood trauma and ultimately practicing self-love.
Takeaway: Codependents are particularly vulnerable to narcissists!
Ah, the big book of codependency! Having worked In addiction and codependency recovery for close to 20 years, most programs, theories, and treatment have some element of a 12 step program influencing it in some way. The 12 steps of Codependents Anonymous is no exception.
Codependents Anonymous or CoDA for short began back in 1986. Until that point, people with codependency issues relied primarily on 12 steps programs such as Al-Anon or Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA). Although these programs are well regarded, they focused primarily on the relationships that people have with someone who is an addict or alcoholic.
Codependency can develop even without an addict or alcoholic around. CoDA relies heavily on helping people identify patterns of living that are unhealthy and harmful and identifies 5 categories of patterns and characteristics that aid in helping a person in recovery assess themselves.
As with any 12 programs, CoDA suggests a program of recovery to follow, which includes following the 12 steps of CoDA, working on a definition of spirituality and engaging in service work. Of particular help is the book’s discussion and defining of common issues that codependent people are baffled by, including enmeshment, detachment and the shame spiral.
Takeaway: Codependency is a cunning and baffling disease!
Beattie, M (1992). Codependents’ Guide to the Twelve Steps. New York: Fireside.
Beattie, Melody. (1992). Codependent no more : how to stop controlling others and start caring for yourself. [Center City, MN] :Hazelden,
Beattie, M. (1990). The language of letting go. Center City, MN: Hazelden.
Cloud, H., & Townsend, J. S. (2004). Boundaries. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Codependents Anonymous, Inc. (2016). Codependents Anonymous. Denver, NC: CoRe Publications.
Hemfelt, R., Minirth, F. B., & Meier, P. D. (2003). Love is a choice. Nashville, TN: T. Nelson.
Mellody, P., Miller, A. W., & Miller, K. (2003). Facing codependence: what it is, where it comes from, how it sabotages our lives. New York: HarperSanFrancisco.
Rosenberg, R. (2013). The human magnet syndrome: Why we love people who hurt us. Eau Claire, WI: PESI Publishing & Media.