What co-dependency is, is a question often raised for self-clarification or to self-diagnose another person or oneself. Sorry to say, this question does not hold one simple answer, but can in fact lead to further questions.
Co-dependency affects a person’s ability to form equal and healthy relationships. Co-dependent relationships can often appear to be one-sided, controlling, or abusive with no intention of change.
According to Gabor Mate: “Children that fear being their “true” selves with parents shows up later as complex trauma in the form of addiction, mental illness, co-dependent or toxic relationships, physical illness, etc.”
Predisposition to be co-dependent is very often formed in the early childhood years and can be due to past traumas or through imitating family members who have displayed these behaviours in the past. Children that are required to suppress or disconnect from their emotions show up as adults that do the same.
Co-dependency can be seen when someone forms their identity and self-worth through helping others and helping others as a confirmation of value. Almost hand in hand with co-dependency, comes dysfunctional family roles, self-sacrifice and low self-esteem. Find out more about these factors and how therapy can help in this blog.
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Dysfunctional family roles
A family comes with many separate roles. These roles can have positive and negative knock-on effects throughout the entire family and can be considered dysfunctional. See the examples of dysfunctional roles that can have an unhealthy effect on others below. We should all appreciate that no family is perfect and whilst not all of the below will be relevant, some may apply to particular people and families.
- Co-dependency: Feeling needed and worthy because they feel other family members cannot survive without them and will never leave them. Desperately seeking love and approval whilst ignoring other people’s negative habits towards them.
- The Caretaker: Constantly on alert to deal with any family issues and conflicts even when their own personal needs are neglected. Often and unasked for, trying to rescue everyone and protect them from themselves.
- The Clown / Mascot: This is someone who often lightens the mood to prevent conflict and avoid confrontation, using humour as a defence mechanism.
- The Golden Child: This is commonly an idealised person who is portrayed as the perfect child who can do no wrong – even if they have.
- The Lost Child: A child who attempts to stay out of the unhealthy family dynamics at all times and prefers to deal with things on their own and as much as possible.
- The Scapegoat: Someone who is always blamed for problems. Commonly only getting attention when they do something that causes a problem. So, the problematic behaviours continue.
- The Addict: The Addict may be addicted to alcohol, drugs and/or behavioural addictions, such as work, sex, food, gambling and others. This is often something that can affect their mood and invite negative behavioural patterns that have negative knock-on effects within the family.
Sacrifices are typically called for when there is a conflict in values and one thing has to be given up for the other. It is important to know that not all sacrifices are self-sacrifices. This is seen when someone gives something up that results in even better benefits, such as leaving a job they love, for a job that requires less travel or better income.
What does self-sacrifice look like?
- Sacrificing something that benefits or matters more to that person than the person for whom it is sacrificed.
- A sacrifice made for the sake of another person.
- Giving up one’s own interests or dreams in order to help another person with theirs.
Self-esteem is in other words an opinion of yourself and refers to one’s overall perception of self-value. Factors associated with self-esteem are self-confidence, feelings of competence, how a person identifies themselves and self-respect.
Self-esteem is an important part of how people allow themselves to be treated and what they are willing to accept from others. Self-esteem plays a significant role in how we cope with relationships – this can be a partner, friend or family member. Although self-esteem can appear to be about loving yourself in general, it also refers to if a person values their own thoughts and feelings and whether they consider themselves deserving of love and respect.
What does low self-esteem look like?
Low self-esteem implies not thinking of themselves as deserving of basic moral standards. It can also mean a person constantly talking negatively about oneself and putting themselves down. It can have a knock-on effect and begin to have a damaging impact on a person’s mental, emotional, and social well-being.
Signs of Co-dependency
“False self-confused identity. Your self-worth depends on your partner’s success or failure. When you’re not in a relationship, you feel an inner void. You feel responsible for making your partner happy. You take care of people to give yourself an identity. You wear masks, calculate, manipulate and play games. You act out rigid family roles and/or sex roles. When your partner has a stomach ache, you take the antacid.” John Bradshaw
Familiarising yourself with the symptoms of co-dependency can be one of the first steps in recognising and understanding co-dependency to be an unhealthy behaviour and taking the first step to making change. A person who struggles with co-dependency may show signs of:
- Low self-esteem
- Dysfunctional family dynamics
- Experiencing a tough time with boundaries
- Difficulty saying “no”
- Emotional unavailability
- Overthinking small incidences
- Responsible for taking care of others
- Needing to be liked
- Being unable to detach from unhealthy people
As well as the above, other symptoms encompass intimacy issues, fear of abandonment and confusing being in love with pitying someone.
Therapy for Co-dependency
A great option when trying to cope with and receive help for co-dependency is therapy. This includes individual therapy if the individual feels this is something they would prefer to discuss alone with a therapist, couples counselling and family therapy if they feel the family displays dysfunctional traits and could use the support of a therapist.
How can therapy help co-dependency?
- Helping to identify co-dependent tendencies
- Learning to recognize and accept repressed emotions
- Help with understanding why co-dependent patterns have developed in their past
- Help understand how these patterns have transferred to other relationships
- Learning self-compassion
- Practice being kind to oneself and showing self-forgiveness
- Guidance on how to support others without enabling bad behaviours
- Practise being assertive
Co-dependent people can also benefit from group therapy and a variety of support groups.