What is Codependency and Why is it Dangerous?

Is codependency bad for you? This author explains what it is and why it can be harmful.

I started going to counseling several years ago. What first brought me there was a troubled relationship — a negative situation that, of course, I thought I bore no responsibility for. I didn’t know how wrong I was, and how much learning I had ahead of me.

I know it might sound utterly ridiculous, but I really thought I was doing okay. The other person I was dealing with was the one who “had all the problems.” I thought I had it all together and did not have any work to do on myself. 

Within the first six months of working with a therapist, I found myself engrossed in a topic that had been 100-percent foreign to me: codependency. What I learned opened doors for me to take responsibility for myself, which was a huge step in my journey toward personal growth.  

What is codependency?

A number of people could have their own unique definition to capture what codependency is, but no one captures it as well as leading author Melody Beattie. She explains, “A codependent person is one who has let another person’s behavior affect him or her, and who is obsessed with controlling that person’s behavior.”

The important thing to remember about this definition is that it is focused on our own behavior, not someone else’s. Beattie explains that though a relationship might seem to be outward-centered, codependency “lies in ourselves, in the ways we have to let other people’s behavior affect us and in the ways we try to affect them: obsessing, the controlling, the obsessive ‘helping,’ caretaking, low self-worth bordering on self-hatred, self-repression, abundance of anger and guilt, and communication problems.”

Codependent tendencies are often found in people who are dealing with a person who is struggling with an addiction. In some sense, a codependent uses these unhealthy ways of coping to deal with the chaos they find themselves in.

A codependent may actually think they are “helping” the other person by trying to control them. In actuality, they are taking responsibility for someone other than themselves; and that is always a dangerous role to undertake.

But when we know better, we can make better choices.

How does codependency negatively impact us and our relationships?

My own counselor has shared this analogy with me: people who wrestle with codependency are reactionaries. They react to the problems, pain, trauma, struggles, sorrows, and behaviors of others. These reactions are ways of dealing with stress and the uncertainty of living or growing up with alcoholism or other addictions. 

We all react to stress in our daily lives — it is a part of the human condition. But sometimes we don’t always respond or act in healthy ways. Some of us have healthy coping tools, while others don’t even know where to begin. There is a huge personal benefit in learning how to react in a more stable way.

Codependency may not be like a physical illness, but it can make you emotionally sick and stunt your growth. It has the potential to bleed energy out of us and affect other areas and relationships. It can make the people around you remain sick (or stuck) and prevent them from taking responsibility for themselves.

Early in her popular book Codependent No More, Beattie writes, “These behaviors can sabotage relationships that may otherwise have worked. These behaviors can prevent us from finding peace and happiness with the most important person in our lives — ourselves. These behaviors belong to the only person each of us can control — the only person we can really change — ourselves.”

We all want healthy relationships with others and ourselves. Working through codependent tendencies will help each of us become more free, whole version of ourselves.

What can we do about codependency in healthy ways?

Just because things have always been a certain way does not mean it has to stay that way forever. Our situation can change, if you are willing to change. Here are two strategies to begin reframing your experience:

Healthy detachment: You cannot work on yourself or live your own life until you detach from the object of your obsession. It is a simple fact — you have to first disentangle yourself from the other person. Otherwise, you will continue to step through the same unhealthy dance together.

Beattie says that detachment involves “present-moment living — living in the here and now.” We can do this by allowing life to happen instead of forcing it and trying to control it. It’s a call to be detached from the outcome of something you want to happen, and instead living wholeheartedly in the present moment. We can make the most of each day, without regrets over the past or fears about the future. Present-moment living keeps us focused and grounded in reality.

Own your feelings: Part of the problem with codependency is taking responsibility for another person’s feelings. 

Your healing journey begins when you start naming and owning your own feelings. Codependents are often heavily focused on fussing over or fixing other people’s feelings. We may try to fix, control, or manipulate someone else’s emotional state. When you spend so much emotional energy on other people’s feelings, your own feelings get lost in the shuffle.

Feelings are not the end-all, be-all to living, but we cannot ignore them either. Our feelings are an indicator that something deeper is going on. They provide us with clues to ourselves — our desires, wants, ambitions, fears, insecurities. They illuminate deeper things going on inside of us.

My counselor always reminds me that feelings are just feelings. They are not bad, good, or indifferent — they are just feelings. And when we feel them and own them, it takes away some of that power and space we often give them. So just feel them. Your feelings won’t hurt or overtake you. 

Healing from codependency means owning your feelings and refusing to take responsibility for others’ feelings. A professional therapist can help guide you on this journey. 

There are a lot of great tools and books to help you do your own work when it comes to codependency. You can change and grow. It doesn’t always have to be this way. We cannot grow and become a stronger person if we are unwilling to take responsibility for ourselves. Taking personal responsibility is the first step on the journey.

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