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Tuesday, 27 February 2018 14:29

Codependency: What’s it All About?

The word codependency clearly touched a nerve when it first plowed its way into our common vernacular. Initially it grew out of the twelve step term co-addict, which was a way of describing the spouse of the addict; however as it didn’t really didn’t tell the right story, it morphed into co-dependent. It was a kind of grassroots way of naming the situation that a spouse found themselves in when they were connected in every way possible to an addict, married to them, having children with them and living their daily lives or trying to live them together.

Now picture the mid-1980s when people were streaming into conferences and twelve step rooms or buying books on codependency because they had a somewhat nebulous sense that whatever this word meant, it applied to them. Those of us in the addictions field recognized that people were identifying with the kinds of family dynamics that surrounded addiction; the inter-personal fusion, the blurred boundaries, the sense of a loss of personal identity. And from codependency grew the adult children of alcoholics/addicts phenomenon. But codependency was taken up by all sorts of people for all sorts of reasons.

Tongue in cheek (sort of) it became difficult to know if codependency applied to addicted families or just anyone who grew up in the 1950’s. Did all of those pre-packaged ways of living life …. followed by the kind of social upheaval, the sixties, that made everyone’s heads spin cause some identity disorder? Were all of our parents alcoholics?

Was this vague sense of not having a consolidated sense of self something that everyone felt, or were there reasons it existed that could be understood and worked on?

Let’s Think….

Codependency as a term has obviously somewhat lost its original meaning.

It’s come to refer to a wide category like neurotic, to be thought of as a set of behaviors, “I was being so codependent last night, sort of thing, or I’m codependent with my daughter”. But using the word as this sort of catch-all descriptor does remove it from its more serious roots. Codependency has become the new neurotic, neurotic perhaps referring to a way we are within ourselves while codependent, a way we are within relationships.

So should we leave the term there and just accept that there is so much social identification with it that its meaning has just had to stretch to encompass all of it? Or is it useful for a moment, to deconstruct it, strip it back to its original intent and grow it again from there. To clarify from a more shall we say researched point of view as to how it began and how it has grown?

A Deeper Look….

The research on attachment and trauma that has emerged over the last two decades allows us to trace a path for codependency, that provides a window into its evolution, at least within the recovery and mental health fields. From the trauma perspective, I see codependency as a form of hyper-vigilance, based on feeling anxious around deep, relational connection. In my book Emotional Sobriety in the chapter “Codependency Revisited”, I put it this way,

“When we get scared, our left brain, the language part of the brain, becomes overwhelmed and shuts down…. What remains very active, however, is the emotional scanning system in our right brain. The part of our brain that scans and remains hypervigilant is, in fact, working overtime when we are scared — codependency in the making. Children who regularly experience relational trauma often learn that they can fend off trouble if they can stay hyperfocused on reading the other person’s emotional signals (van der Kolk, 1997). They can become very adept at reading other people’s moods, often to the exclusion of their own. They become more in touch with what those around them are feeling, than what they are feeling. They become habitually outer-focused and may lose touch with what is going on inside of them.

But here is the key in terms of developing a sense of self: The very fact that when frightened we lose access to our thinking function, where we make sense of what’s happening, think through and integrate our emotions, and consolidate our sense of self-in-relation-to others, is why being in a chronic state of fear interferes with our ability to develop a sense of self.

Codependents spend a lot of time managing the world around them so that they can feel less anxious.” But at the expense of learning to manage themselves and the ins and outs of their own, inner world.

Here’s More On The Family Connection

From the attachment point of view, babies come into this world needing to literally fasten themselves onto their caregivers, not only because it feels good or calms them or makes them happy which of course it does, but because they need to survive. They’re like turtles on their backs, limbs flailing. If they cry out and no one comes, they experience it as life-threatening, they are alone in the world and no one can hear their wail. That’s the very beginning.

So codependency in its deepest sense can begin very, very early. It’s fear based, a terror that our overpowering need to attach to our primary caregivers, will not necessarily be met with an equally powerful urge to connect with us. And this creates deep anxiety. Babies look into the faces of their parent to see if they are OK. OK with the world (because their parent is their world) OK with themselves (because what their parents think and feel toward them is what they think and feel about themselves) and OK with life, (because their parents are the gatekeepers of life and all it holds). If when this child looks into their parent’s face for reassurance and love, they instead find rejection and disinterest, the child will feel disheartened to their very core.

And here it all begins.

This disheartened child may set about a lifelong repetitive pattern designed, at its roots, to turn their parent’s sour face into a happy one. They will craft their behavior to get that face to smile back at them, to gaze at them with affection, to register approval. Their attention will become outwardly focused. Their first thought will be to study the face of someone else, so that they can alter their own behavior to minimize rejection and maximize acceptance. They will by extension learn to scan other people and situations for signs of acceptance or rejection and they will adjust their own inner compass to fit in.

And that’s codependency.

It is a perversion of a very natural desire to adapt our own behavior to fit into the group. We are pack animals and we naturally want to vibrate in tune with those around us. But when those around us cannot attune themselves to us, when they cannot be pleased or when our primary caregiver’s mood rules the environment, then what’s a kid to do?

So What’s Next?

Seeing codependency as a set of behaviors tends to mean that we think that changing our behaviors is the solution to becoming less codependent.

And there is one more problem that I see a lot in recovery and therapy and that is that we over-correct. Once we decide we’re codependent (or worse once a therapist tells us we are) we think that pulling away from the natural and caring behaviors that accompany connection and intimacy and constructing a slalom course of boundaries that virtually no one can jump, is the solution. But it’s not. This is not an intellectual fix. Its origins are deep and its healing needs to be deep. No one in our fast-paced world really wants to say that. However, the slow way is the quick way. If we start a true healing process each day becomes a quiet celebration, not only because we feel the cumulative nature of our healing, but we’re not wasting time just repeating what isn’t working.

Although behavior changes are always a part of change and recovery, it may be useful to reexamine the roots of codependency in light of neurological findings. It might be healing to examine the parenting styles that we grew up with in order to understand how we got the way we got, were we scared all the time and that fear triggered us to please others instead of tuning in on ourselves? Everyone does this to some extent and needs to in order to swim with the shoal; it is when we tune into others at the exclusion of tuning into ourselves that it can cause a problem.

Really it’s a gradual rebuilding of our own sense of self within in the context of relationships that creates long-lasting healing. It is knowing that pathologizing other people is not the answer, nor is pathologizing ourselves. It’s healing that yearning child a day at a time, crying the tears, giving shape and voice to the rage at feeling hurt, and forgiving ourselves for being human and others for being human too. And daily learning to let caring and goodness into all those secret places that need it and, dare I say it, being grateful for the wonderful life we have that allows us to examine these sorts of issues that are far beyond survival of the body and much more a survival of the spirit.


Dayton, Tian, 2007, Emotional Sobriety: From Relationship Trauma to Resilience and Balance, Deerfield Beach, Health Communications, HCI.

van der Kolk, B. A. 1987. Psychological Trauma. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press.

Written by Tian Dayton, PhD.

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