It is normal and healthy to want the best for those we love. But when we identify so strongly with someone else’s struggles and challenges that we no longer recognize and assert our own needs, we may have crossed the line between a healthy, caring relationship and a state of “codependency.” Codependency is a type of “dysfunctional helping relationship,” according to Shawn Meghan Burn, Professor of Psychology at California Polytechnic University. Codependent behaviors include “rescuing” significant others from self-created crises, tolerating and enabling unacceptable situations and behaviors, and sharing loved ones’ problems and issues to an unhealthy degree, Burn explains in an article for Psychology Today. It is possible to regain health and equilibrium by understanding the root causes of codependency and addressing the specific issues caused by the dysfunctional mindset.
Understanding the Cause
Codependency issues often have roots in childhood, a critical time for the development of a strong sense of self and self-worth. Although codependency frequently arises from families in which one or both parents had a substance abuse or addiction problem, the codependency trait can be the result of any situation in which childhood needs for empathy, understanding and love were not met, according to Dr. Rama Rao, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Alabama Medical School. In attempting to correct the low self-esteem and dysfunctional need to “rescue” loved ones that are typical of codependency, it is important to examine the family of origin and to recognize the ongoing negative impact of those harmful relationship patterns. Once acknowledged, faulty self-perceptions rooted in the past can be put into a more realistic perspective, paving the way for greater health in the present and future.
Openness and honesty about true feelings and genuine needs are essential to recovering from codependency, and so is the willingness to assert one’s self when those needs are disregarded. A healthy degree of self-esteem and self-respect can be nurtured by challenging negative self-talk and practicing self-forgiveness and self-encouragement, according to the Mayo Clinic. Engaging in self-nurturing activities such as exercise, meditation and enjoyable activities with friends can further strengthen self-esteem and aid in recovery from codependency, according to Rekha Shrivastava, a certified rehabilitation therapist.
A person with codependency has trouble distinguishing a loved one’s problems and issues from his own. In order to recover from codependency, a healthy degree of detachment must be achieved. This detachment need not be cruel or harsh, but clear boundaries must be established. Shrivastava refers to this as “compassionate detachment.” Maintaining firm boundaries and relinquishing the need to control or manipulate the other person does not preclude emotional availability, nor does it rule out supportive behavior, as long as the boundaries between self and the other are maintained.
A healthy alternative to codependency is “interdependency,” according to the University of Alberta’s health and wellness newsletter, Life Lines. Interdependent people care about others without feeling overly responsible for them, maintain healthy personal boundaries, share their own feelings openly and realize that they cannot control anyone else's behavior. Replacing codependency with interdependency involves letting go of the past, seeking outside help and support, taking care of oneself physically and emotionally and being willing to leave dysfunctional relationships when and if this becomes necessary for one’s own well-being.