Codependency Feed

"There is No Such Thing as Co-dependent Behavior"

Codependency If You Were Drowning
OK, so I may have gotten your attention with that post title. Today, I want to share with you a nuance about co-dependency that will explain my rather unconventional assertion. Certainly, I believe that co-dependency exists. Even though you don't hear about it much in the self-help world anymore, it is still a challenging aspect of personal growth and relationship happiness. It also happens to be one of my favorite workshop topics.


Codependency History Trivia
The term originates from the early days of the family treatment of alcoholism. The label, "co-alcoholic" was applied to the spouse of the alcoholic. Soon, alcoholics were identified as often being addicted to other drugs, as well, so the term "chemical dependent" replaced "alcoholic" as a much better and more inclusive term for patients in treatment. That meant that "co-alcoholic" would be changed to "co-dependent," again, to simply identify whoever was the spouse of the chemical dependent. It didn't take long before family therapists working with alcoholics/chemical dependents, started to recognize that these spouses had many compelling personality traits and treatment issues in common. A new client population was being recognized among the spouses, the co-dependents. Finally, the term, "co-dependent" came to be used to describe anyone who shared those common personality traits, whether they were spouses or not, from alcoholic homes, or not.


Co-dependency Defined

Perhaps I should first define my terms before going much further. I define co-dependency as, "the process of giving your power away because of fear." The old joke about co-dependency asserts that "you know you're a codependent if, when you are about to die, someone else's life flashes before you!" See the above image. I like this definition because it reflects the component that other people are always more important than you. Other indications of co-dependency are: extreme avoidance of conflict; compulsive need for approval from others, persistent self-doubt and low self-esteem, and fear of abandonment to the point of addictive relationships.

  Friendship Two Women Friends Hugging

The salient feature here is the emphasis that is placed on other people, a focus on their needs as more legitimate than one's own. The co-dependent person often gives to others, takes care of others' needs first, and generally acts in unselfish ways in order to 1) gain approval from others and 2) avoid conflict with others. What concerns me is that so many people are quick to observe behavior that appears kind, thoughtful, and unselfish and then assume that it is "co-dependent." If that is true, then Mother Theresa would be considered the Patron Saint of Co-dependency.


It is not the behavior that is co-dependent; it is the motivation behind the behavior that determines whether it is co-dependent.

When I observe your behavior, I can not know what the motivation is, so I am not in a position to assume that you are acting co-dependently.For example, you might ask me to babysit for your children on Saturday night. Let's say I really don't want to, but I say yes. Sounds pretty co-dependent, doesn't it? You assume that I am saying yes when I really want to say no because I need your approval or I don't want you to be mad at me. Isn't it possible that it's true that I'd really rather not babysit, but I want to do this as a gift for you because I care about you and I want to give you the gift of babysitting. My "yes" is freely given with no resentment attached to it. That's not co-dependency; that's kindness, love, and generosity.

Idea Lightbulb Color Illus

So, my assertion that "there is no such thing as co-dependent behavior" means that no observed behavior on the part of others can be assumed to be co-dependent without knowing the motivation. Motivation is the key - not surface behavior. This is why each of us needs to be vigilant in playing the game, "What's my Motivation?" as we make relationship decisions. Sometimes it can be very difficult to discern my motivations; I can easily delude myself thinking I am not carrying resentment, when I really am.

The other extreme is just as important. People who are on the recovery journey can also become too suspicious of their own "healthy" motivations and behavior. They are so used to assuming the worst about themselves, it's hard to recognize genuine kind intentions that spring from an opening and healing heart. We might benefit from trusted friends who can remind us that we are allowed to like ourselves and to recognize growth when it is there.

I'd love it if you would take a moment and leave a comment letting me know your thoughts about this topic. It is a great subject and very central to alot of people's healing. I look forward to your input. Thanks!

"Being Driven" or "Having Drive:" Are You Being Taken for a Ride?

Overwhelmed Woman Behind Stack of 3 Ring Binders

The Difference Between "Being Driven" and "Having Drive"

I am sure you have heard the enthusiastic compliment, "Oh, yes, she is really driven to succeed!" to describe that up and coming employee scrambling up the corporate ladder. We admire and trust the person who works hard to accomplish goals. Perseverence is an admirable trait and it is essential for success. Who could argue with the person who reaches for the stars and then follows through with passion and tenacity? No one. Although, their behavior does look suspiciously like that of the movers and shakers in the world, but we will forgive them for that. Sorry, I just couldn't resist.    :)

My concern is that sometimes, that drive to succeed is not a choice. It can be a compulsion - a compulsion that is fueled by inadequacy. In this case, these people are indeed, compulsively driven by a fear of being inadequate, or a fear of being exposed as a fraud, sometimes called the Imposter Syndrome. They are distinguished from people who are truly secure and self-confident, who simply enjoy "the thrill of the hunt," and the satisfaction of achieving a grand goal. For these people, self worth is not what is on the line. Failure to achieve the goal is a disappointment and only serves as a challenge to assess the difficulties, make some changes, and do better next time. For people who are driven to achieve by some nameless fear pushing them from behind, failure is experienced as a direct assault upon their core value as human beings. It is devastating and only serves to further entrench them in their compulsive need to prove their value through more accomplishment.

Overwhelmed Woman With Sticky Notes

When Choice Gets Thrown Out the Window, We Call That Addiction

When a person chooses to drink alcohol, we call that person a social drinker. When a person chooses to drink way too much alcohol, we call that person a social drinker who is making a bad choice, but it is still a choice, nonetheless.  When a person chooses to have one drink, but then that drink compels the person to have many, many more, we call that a compulsion to drink, which is addiction.

"First, the man takes a drink.

Then the drink takes a drink.

         Then the drink takes the man."        

                                                                  Chinese Proverb

Just as people can become addicted to alcohol, they can also become addicted to achievement. It is fine to be blessed with the personality trait of being ambitious. However, when that desirable personality trait turns into addiction because it is now fueled by inadequacy, the choice, the joy, the expansiveness of accomplishment is now deadened and no amount of success will be enough to fill that hole in the soul. What is also challenging about this situation is that it can be difficult to tell the difference between the person who is acting from choice and the person who is acting from compulsion. From afar, their behaviors are virtually identical. A closer inspection, though, reveals a distinct difference between their emotional states such as spontaneity, resilience level, optimism, patience, and off-the-clock happiness.

Road Sign Dead End

So Sorry About This Schmaltzy Analogy....            

So, who is in your driver's seat? Are you driving your car from a place of joyful choice? Or has your inadequacy taken over the steering wheel and started driving you erratically into desperate attempts to prove your worth? Do you have drive or are you being driven? Take a quiet and honest look inside yourself and ask, "What is my motivation?"  How would I feel, who would I be if I didn't accomplish these goals?

If you think you recognize yourself as "being driven"  by inadequacy, then this would be a good time for more psychospiritual reflection and some attention given to improving your self worth.  If you keep trying to fill the hole in your soul with mere accomplishment, your satisfaction will be shallow and temporary, and pretty soon you will be singing along with Peggy Lee, "Is That All There Is?" (OK, so you have to be over 50 to get that; the rest of you just go Google it).

This whole "What is my motivation?" question is what underlies identifying codependency. I will be writing a new post about that in the near future, so watch for that one.  In the meantime, I'd love to hear what you think about this "being driven/having drive" distinction. Please leave a comment with your input! Thanks!

Car with Man Driving


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"I'm Codependent and Damn Proud of It!"

Codependency Man Tied Up in Rope


Codependents Unite!

Have you ever wondered about the origin of all of your "destructive" codependent behaviors? Could it be that you were just born that way? Maybe there is a genetic predisposition toward crazy-making behavior and you were just unlucky enough to inherit it.

I don't think so.  I think it is more likely that you were born just fine, with the same reasonable probability of sane adult relationships as the rest of us. Something must have happened to you sometime between the day of your birth and the day of your first date. Hmm... what could that have been? Maybe you grew up in a home where the grownups were not all that grown up, and you needed to learn how to cope with emotional upheaval. 

It Makes Sense To Be Codependent

  • If you came to believe that your misbehavior was what caused your dad to drink too much, then it made sense to feel overly responsible for everything around you.
  • Similarly, if you got in trouble for being messy, it made sense to become obsessive in order to prevent being yelled at.
  • If every time you expressed a feeling, you were told you were wrong for feeling that way, it made sense to just stop having feelings.
  • If you ever expressed a need or even a preference for something, it was probably ignored as unimportant or worse, you were made to feel wrong, it made sense to just stop having needs, let alone, expressing them.
  • If you grew up in chaos, constantly experiencing bizarre behavior, it made sense to learn how to adjust to anything and then not ever really learn what normal is.
  • If you felt like your world was unpredictable and out of control, it made sense to become super controlling of yourself and everything around you.
  • If people yelled alot in your home, with lots of arguing and verbal threats, it made sense for you to avoid conflict at all cost.
  • If you never had your world validated by anyone else, it made sense to stop trusting your own reality and then defer to everyone else.



You Were Brilliant!

I'll bet it never occured to you to think of yourself as brilliant. You came up with all of those creative ways to take care of yourself, to protect your sense of sanity, emotional safety and self worth. You survived that experience. Sure, you came out of it a little battered and bruised, but you deserve to be congratulated for all your strategic reactions that brought you to today. Congratulations!


The Bad News is...Codependency

The bad news is that what was once adaptive in the war zone is now maladaptive during peace time. All of those defensive strategies that protected you while under attack are now destructive traits that prevent you from enjoying intimate relationships. You are so well defended, people can't get close to you. You are so reactive, it is difficult for you to respond. You are "loaded for bear" in relationships when all you will probably ever run into is a raccoon. Your solutions from the past are now the problems in the present. 


Let's End With the Good News...

The good news is that you can reframe your experience and recognize that these problematic codependent tendencies you have today originated in some pretty brilliant maneuvering. You are not just "an unhealthy person with alot of work to do." Before you go trying to stop being codependent, give your inner child a hug and a congratulatory "high five" for getting you here today.  You can remind yourself that that was then and this is now. You can heal your emotional pain and relax those automatic reactions into thoughtful responses.  You can grieve the losses, understand all the dynamics, forgive what needs to be forgiven, and finally enjoy the freedom to make a different choice.

Now, say it with me, "I'm Codependent, and damn proud of it!"



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"I Wonder If You Could Help Me With Something..."

Friendship Two Women Friends Hugging

Do you need to say something to someone that might be hard for her to hear?

Do you need to ask someone to change her behavior for you?


These can be awkward situations. It is difficult to break disappointing news or to communicate any kind of message that might result in the receiver feeling embarrassment, guilt, conflict, or anger. Yet, sometimes, honesty requires it and healthy relationships demand it.


I recall a man who did a beautiful job of this. I had just moved into my first house and I was in the backyard with the gate open to the alley. My new neighbor approached me and I felt a little apprehensive for some reason. My guard was up as I anticipated what could possibly be the problem. As he neared, he smiled and said, "I wonder if you could help me with something." I instantly melted; my heart opened up, and I could feel myself being receptive to whatever he was going to say next. He then explained, "When you dump the concrete water here in the alley, it pools in this spot right in front of my garage and then I end up tracking it into my garage floor.  I wonder if you could just dump it a little closer to the fence." "Sure,"  I happily replied as we introduced ourselves.  As I walked back to the house, I reflected on how badly that whole incident could have gone if he had just yelled at me for being so careless and inconsiderate.


I think that many of us are good people. We identify with being generally helpful, kind to others, and responsive to their needs. Even the nicest people, though, will probably contract into a defensive posture when threatened. If you want others to be open and responsive to you, don't give them any reason to feel defensive. Be respectful and validate the legitimacy of their position. This can be very disarming and it helps them to feel emotionally safe. By validating the other person's reality, you increase the likelihood that they will be able to validate yours.

Man & Woman At Odds
"We Need to Talk"

Of course, never ever start a conversation with "we need to talk." Nothing good ever comes after that phrase. As soon as we hear it, we shut down in preparation for some kind of attack. We become well defended and resistant, ready to attack back. This will make it much less likely that you will get your needs met. So, it serves your interests much better to use a gentler introductory statement that leaves the listener more likely to stay or even become open to hearing whatever you say next.


I suggest you put the phrase, "I wonder if you could help me with something" in your back pocket and try it sometime. It is an "I" statement, which is the gold standard in the communications and counseling worlds. It implies ownership and self responsibility which helps the receiver to not have to feel confronted or attacked. Did you notice that my neighbor's last sentence was also an "I" statement?, "I wonder if you could just dump it closer to the fence." That is much better than "You should" or "Why don't you."



Of course, here is the small print. All of the above is all very nice. And, you need to know that it may not work at all. It is so frustrating when you do everything right and then the other person doesn't cooperate with the reaction the self-help book said they would have.  This leads me to another topic that we will get into sometime: We cannot change or control anyone. Using the above suggestions will do only two things. 1) It will increase the likelihood of a positive response, and 2) You will know that you conducted yourself with kindness and class. And that is priceless.


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"Guilt or Resentment: Hmm... Which Shall I Choose Today?"

Road Signs No Right Turn and No Left Turn

Do you ever feel like you are caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place? Someone has just asked you for a favor and on this particular day, you want to say "no."

"Can you watch the kids for me this Saturday night?" 

You really don't want to. You like this person alot and you think it is a reasonable request. It doesn't matter what your reasons are; they are legitimate and you just don't want to say "yes" today. But, if you say "no," you will feel guilty. And, on the other hand, if you say "yes," you will feel resentment. You can't win. Guilt or resentment are your only options. I remember a client who once lamented, "Geez, I have to pick between those two every day!" So, what do you do?

Pick guilt. Seriously. I know it would be better if you could make a choice and not feel either of these. But you are not quite that evolved yet (keep reading this Blog; you will get there!), and you are realistically going to have to choose between these two unpleasant and frustrating feelings. Pick the answer that leaves you feeling guilty rather than resentful. In this case, say "no." Then swallow hard and resist the temptation to fill the awkward space with all kinds of real or contrived excuses that will legitimize you and your "no" answer.

Why? Because it is easier after the fact to deal with your guilt and let go of it than it is to deal with your resentment and let go of it. Guilt is a burden. But resentment is a bigger burden. You can deal with both of them and eventually let go of them (stay tuned; we will be covering how to do that in later posts). It is just that resentment is more insidious and difficult to untangle. A good talk with a good friend can reassure you and often help you let go of your guilt. A good talk with a good friend does not do much to help you release the resentment you have been carrying around.

So, go call a friend and ask him to remind you that you have a right to say "no" and that you are still a good and kind person.  You have a right to take care of your needs, and that means that you will sometimes have to say "no" to others, even though it is hard to do.

Oh, and by the way, can you watch the kids for me this Saturday night?

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The Eight Year-Old's Combat Field Manual for Surviving the Family War Zone

Military Child and Adult Color Illus
If you grew up in a home where your parents were strained, or worse, at a complete loss as to how to adequately provide a safe and nurturing home, you might have experienced inconsistencies, unpredictability, perhaps neglect, or even emotional and physical abuse. You might have intuitively known to follow these steps in order to protect yourself:

  1. Stop feeling feelings, especially the feelings of being carefree, happy and hopeful. Better yet, dissociate from yourself and "go numb."
  2. Start being hypervigilant. Watch very carefully, observe inconsistencies between words and behavior, analyze the true motivations behind everything you see, and definitely read between the lines when someone makes promises.
  3. Stop trusting. Do not trust your own feelings and don't trust others' words or promises.
  4.  Become suspicious and anticipate what is coming next; always be braced and ready for the worst.
  5. Never, ever relax and believe that a period of relative calm will last. It won't.
  6. Don't tell anyone what is going on in your home. It's too embarrassing and besides, we don't air our dirty laundry in public.
  7. Stop needing. Decide that you don't need anyone or anything; convince yourself and convince those around you. Today's need is tomorrow's disappointment.
  8. Start controlling. Control your feelings, your body, and your environment. Start to have obsessive-compulsive tendencies like counting or other ritualistic behaviors. Control others around you, become a perfectionist and feel responsible for everything that happens. Even the illusion of being in control is helpful.
  9. Avoid conflict. If anger or rejection is imminent, become a people pleaser.
  10. Rescue others. This makes you feel special and increases your self-esteem. When you are drawn to rescue wounded people, you are really just seeing yourself in them and trying to rescue yourself - the way you wish someone would try to rescue you. Maintain your victim status; others will feel sorry for you and this will feel like love.

These survival techniques will serve you well while you are in the family war zone. However, you may find that once you have left the war zone - gone away to college, moved to another town, or just otherwise left that family system - these defensive strategies become a bit problematic. When applied during peace time, with people who are open, trustworthy, and loving, you may find them complaining that they can't achieve intimacy with you. How in the world could they? You are so heavily defended by this point, authentic emotional sharing is pretty impossible. But at least you are safe from feeling pain.

Codependency SCUBA Crisis at 60 ft Under Water

At no time during my SCUBA training did they talk about the possibility of dying from SCUBA Two SCUBA Divers Underwater
codependency while SCUBA diving. I think they need to make a national curriculum change to include this very real threat to diver safety. Someone notify the authorities.

It was my very first dive after getting certified. We dove from a liveaboard dive boat in the waters near Catalina Island, off the coast of California.  That's very cold water, so full wet suits were required. If you have never worn a full wetsuit, imagine Nanook of the North bundled up tight and thrown into freezing water.  The tightness of that full body wetsuit is enough to trigger a claustrophobic panic attack while you are still on the boat! When you secure your buoyancy compensator vest, you can only exhale. No inhales, just exhales. Try being relaxed when you haven't been allowed to inhale for 45 minutes.

I was paired with an experienced diver who was mostly into spear fishing. A nice enough guy, but not interested in being anybody's "buddy." We scissor kicked off the boat into the freezing water, signaled the "OK" sign, and dropped down into the kelp forests. The post-dive banter indicated there were lots of amazing fish that everyone saw. I wouldn't know anything about that. All I remember seeing was my air pressure guage, which

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