Simply stated, co-dependency describes a dynamic in which one person enables and supports another person’s dysfunctional behavior or poor emotional health like alcohol or substance abuse, immaturity, irresponsibility, and under-achievement.
It’s important to acknowledge that having dependency needs is healthy and normal. In mature and healthy relationships, people are able to comfortably rely on one another for support, understanding, and help while–at the same time–retaining a sense of independence and autonomy. This dynamic is reciprocated, not just one-sided. Healthy dynamics between people fosters independence, resourcefulness, and resiliency, while co-dependent dynamics stifle and limit growth.
Recently, psychologists and other mental health workers have learned that co-dependent behaviors can also contribute to the formation of dysfunctional families, in general, not just families struggling with addiction or substance abuse. Therefore, addressing co-dependency behavior in treatment is crucial for a healthy family dynamic.
Dr. Paula Durlofsky is a psychologist in private practice in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. She specializes in psychoanalytic psychotherapy and treats a variety of disorders. Dr. Durlofsky has a special interest in issues affecting women throughout the lifespan. In addition to her practice Dr. Durlofsky is a workshop facilitator and blogger. She treats couples, families and individuals from age 18 and older as well as facilitates group therapy. Through a combination of psychoanalytic-psychodynamic and cognitive-behavioral therapy.
Editor: Arman Ahmed
Common behaviors and signs associated with co-dependency include:
- Need for excessive approval from other people.
- Organizing thoughts and behaviors around others’ perceived expectations and desires.
- Overly defined sense of responsibility of others’ happiness and emotional well-being.
- Inability to express one’s true thoughts and feelings for fear it will upset others.
- One’s identity and self-esteem is dependent on other’s approval and assumed expectations.
Fortunately, co-dependency is a learned behavior and can be changed. Below are a few ways in which you can begin to change co-dependent behaviors:
- Awareness: Keep a journal for writing down co-dependent behaviors and the situations in which they are most prevalent. For example, when someone appears to be struggling, do you automatically jump in to help or rescue? Do you help to the extent that your own emotional and physical needs are put on the back burner? Co-dependent behaviors, in part, are normal feelings of responsibility and compassion gone awry.
- Boundaries: Setting healthy boundaries is crucial for changing co-dependent behaviors. Being able to say no without feeling guilty, anxious or afraid is what having healthy boundaries feels like. This is challenging for co-dependent individuals. Since pleasing others is crucial to their sense of self, so saying no is scary and anxiety-inducing. Have a clear sense of the boundaries that feel right to you and write them down. Place this list in an area of your home where you can regularly read it. This will help reinforce your boundaries and make them more conscious to you. Be prepared by knowing that upholding your boundaries will be difficult, at best, in the beginning. Have a plan in place for coping with these difficult feelings by making sure you’re making time to take care for yourself during this transition.