And therein lies the problem.
In my practice I have found that many people are able to identify the traits of codependency that haunt and hound their relationships and their lives, but don’t always understand that the path to changing that begins within themselves. And frankly, the rest of that path to change lies within them as well, I just don’t always say that right out loud at first.
There are as many definitions for codependency these days as there are people who have it, but suffice to say for our purposes that it involves a tendency for us to put the needs and wants of others (often people with addictions or controlling personality styles) above our own needs.
People with codependency tend to focus on their significant other to the detriment of their own well being. They spend a lot of time trying to keep their significant other happy, whether it works or not, and will often lose themselves completely over time to the illusion that they are helping their loved one.
I am often able to spot codependency early in a first session when I ask the client to tell me about themselves, and then I hear a fifteen minute monologue about someone else. Clue! If you find yourself focusing more attention on another person in your life than on yourself, you might be codependent. If you allow another person in your life to make demands on you, to control you, to hurt or use you repeatedly, and, despite the pain this causes you, you continue to allow it, that’s a red flag. Not a little red flag, but one the size of those flags that car dealerships fly.
So what then? There’s good news and, let’s say, challenging news. The good news is, you can change. The challenging news is, you can change. Here’s the catch: You have to do it yourself, no matter what anyone else thinks, says, or does. If you are thinking “Oh dear, So-and-so really isn’t going to like this!” then you need this. A lot.
Here are a few guidelines for making some long-term, meaningful change so that YOUR life can be happier and more fulfilled, but remember this is about YOU. These are not “Tips For Making You Better At Making Your Significant Other Happy!” If you have read this far, chances are you are starting to figure out the Great Truth of Codependency: It doesn’t really make anyone happy, and it makes you really unhappy. It doesn’t work.
First, if you think you might be codependent, get educated. There are some great books and articles out there about codependency. In fact there are too many to name, so get online, get to the book store (there’s a good chance there is a whole section just for codependency), and get familiar with what it is, how it looks, and what other people have found helpful. Make it your mission to get educated. If you just found out you had diabetes or heart disease, you’d probably learn as much as you can about it. Treat this the same.
Second, learn a new word, or a new meaning to an old word: Boundaries. What do boundaries have to do with codependency? Absolutely nothing. The complete and total LACK of boundaries, however, has a lot to do with codependency.
My daughter taught me a great lesson years ago when I was leaning on the codependent side with a very self-involved, imposing, and somewhat narcissistic friend. This friend had called me for the umpteenth time to ask (demand) an errand of me that I really didn’t have the time or inclination to help her with, but my codependent voice was waffling away on the phone, moving me swiftly to a defeated yes after many attempts at making excuses. After I hung up, my wise and unspoiled-by-codependency little girl said simply, “Mommy, why don’t you just say ‘No, because I don’t want to.’”
Now I am a therapist, for crying out loud. My daughter was a third grader. In her innocent, rational mind she saw a person feeling one way and doing something else. She saw me selling myself out to try not to upset someone who, frankly, lived life ‘upset’ anyway.
This is one of the hardest parts of moving away from codependent behaviors. The essence of codependency is that we forsake our own needs for the want of others. Establishing healthy boundaries is a very difficult, but very necessary part of recovery.
I envision boundaries literally, as a fence. I am the house in the center of the yard. The fence surrounding the perimeter of the yard is my boundary. If that fence is too high, too rigid, or too solid, like a tall, stone fence with no window or no gate, then I will never get close to anyone else, nor will they to me. If the fence is too puny or weak, it will be trampled into the ground, out of existence, and anyone will be able to come into my yard, and my house, even with harmful intent.
The best kind of fence to have is something strong, reliable, and most importantly with a sturdy gate. And guess who is the gatekeeper? Me. Or you, if it’s your gate. Then if someone approaches you, you can determine their access to your life based on what they are bringing to the situation. Are they demanding entrance, do they threaten your well being, are they looking to drop their refuse inside your fence and leave you to deal with it?
If this is the case (and here’s the hardest part), then as the gatekeeper of your life, it is time for you to learn to say “No.” If your heart rate just went up, I am talking to you. A simple “No” is the first step. The second step is to let the person’s reaction be their business. Walk away, run away, go inside, hang up, put your earbuds in, whatever you have to do, let “no” be “no.”
I can hear what you are thinking… “But they will be so mad!” Yes, they probably will. But here is where the change occurs. If you want to keep living a codependent life, keep focusing on making them happy, not you. If you are truly ready to break free and begin to live your own life, this is where you have to decide that making them happy, or keeping them from being unhappy, is not your job. It doesn’t work (or you wouldn’t still be reading).
This is hard work, and it takes time. Be compassionate with yourself, get educated, and get some help if this is too hard to do alone. There are great support groups out there, including Al-Anon and Adult Children of Alcoholics (and no, you don’t have to have someone with addiction issues in your life to be codependent). If you need additional help, find a counselor you trust. You aren’t alone, trust me.
Chris Lewis EdS, LPC is a therapist who provides adult individual, couples and marriage counseling, and family therapy in Denver, CO through Maria Droste Counseling Center.