by Stephanie Tucker, MDAAC, M.Min.
If you are like me, you may feel confused by the term codependency. I know I certainly was at one point in my life. When I was confronted with my codependent behaviors, I reasoned it was simply a part of my personality. When I became a Christian, however, I was forced to face that my relational skills were unhealthy. As much as I desired to change, I found myself “stuck” in old mentalities and a way of functioning that crippled me from growing spiritually or emotionally. Eventually, through a variety of circumstances that took the very things and people out of my life I depended on, my eyes were opened. I understood that above all, God wanted a full surrender. When this happened, He taught me how I needed to let go of people and let Him alone change them and me. He taught me this change happens only through Him, and striving and efforts to change myself or others will always fail. He taught me to focus less on helping others to satisfy my own needs, and focus more on being like Jesus so He could help others through me (the people HE chose me to help!). What a journey it has been.
Today, God has called me to teach and counsel in the area of codependency . I am amazed by how many people are completely paralyzed by its effects. These are often “good people” who sit in church pews every Sunday, and people who would never appear to have any problems in the world. One of the biggest problems with codependency is that it disguises and hides itself very well. That is the reason for this article, to begin to face and understand the nature of codependency.
How about you? Do you understand codependency? Let’s start by taking a look at some of the common symptoms. Check to see if these apply in your life.
- Feeling personally responsible for the way others feel and act
- Needing to be loved by another person in order to feel validated and significant
- Believing with enough effort, love can be earned
- Losing own interests and identity in close relationships. Defining sense of self through another person, with no separation of emotions, feelings and attitudes (happy if they are happy, sad if they are sad)
- Changing self (becoming a chameleon) to fit in with peers, friends, and family members, even if it means compromising moral and spiritual convictions.
- Compelling fear of being alone or abandoned; or, isolating from close relationships to avoid rejection altogether
- Overly caring for other people to the neglect of own needs.
- Tolerating mistreatment or abuse from people while excusing their behavior (he didn’t mean it, he’s just having a bad day)
- Avoiding conflict with other people to the point of being unable to speak true feelings or directly ask for legitimate needs.
- Covering up for irresponsible people in life by lying or “filling in the gaps” to “help” them.
- Doing for others what they should be doing for themselves, while neglecting own responsibilities or needs in the process
- Telling frequent “white lies” out of fear that truth might not be accepted or will lead to some sort of rejection. These “white lies” can come in the form of exaggeration and covering up things that aren’t necessarily wrong in order to feel accepted.
- Becoming an enabler by protecting a person from emotional pain or consequences of their unhealthy behaviors, such as using drugs and alcohol.
- Directly or indirectly attempt to fix, manage or control another person’s problems, even if it was meant in a loving way.
- Living in constant crisis. Feeling empty, bored or unimportant when not helping someone or responding to a crisis situation
- Trying to please people by going out of the way to be helpful, thoughtful or caring, and then becoming angry or discouraged when they don’t respond a certain way
- Migrating towards people who need help, yet having a difficult time receiving help from others.
- Having a difficult time saying “no”, even when it causes compromise
- Worrying about other people’s feelings so much that their problems affect own feelings significantly.
- Feeling responsible for others emotional, spiritual and physical needs; feeling the need to “save and rescue” people from bad feelings even when the situation may be very unhealthy and dangerous.
If you can identify with two or more of these, there is a good chance you have codependent tendencies.
So What Exactly is Codependency?
The term codependency was originally created to describe the significant other of an alcoholic/addict. This is because it became evident that just as the alcoholic had addictive symptoms and behaviors, their family member/partner also shared behaviors that were addictive in nature (the codependent is addicted to the alcoholic/addict). However, codependency is much broader then simply being involved with a substance abuser. In fact, that is a symptom, not the actual problem at all.
There are many definitions and understandings of codependency, but I define it as a series of adaptive relationship skills used to function in relationships that are unhealthy and lack genuine love, relationships that do not have God at the center. Codependency reflects an inner brokenness and a foundation that is people-based rather that God-based. This foundation drives a codependent to find someone or something outside of themselves to meet their deepest emotional and spiritual needs. It puts people in the place of God.
Codependent behaviors are usually formed as coping mechanisms in a dysfunctional family system (a family operating outside of God’s plan). In this environment, the codependent is usually the “good one” trying to make up for what is lacking. The codependent appears caring, concerned, loving, responsible and will continually attempt to solve the problems of the family. The codependent role in the family unit/relationship is to care for the needs of others, but in the process will neglect self. A codependent appears very healthy, strong and without need of assistance to the outside observer. Their problems, which in actuality are quite extensive, appear to extend to other people in their life that struggles with addiction, violence, mental illness, etc.
Let me use “Mary” as an example. Mary was not in an addictive relationship, so it was difficult for her to come to a place where she even saw she had anything wrong with her. In fact, she wasn’t even getting counseling for herself! She was looking for a solution to everyone else! When I first met with her, she had whirlwind of activity in her life. She spent a significant amount of time describing the people in her life with problems and what she felt those people needed to do. She talked about her endless attempts and efforts to make these people change. She felt discouraged and hopeless that her attempts hadn’t gotten the results she wanted. By now, she had become downright angry and bitter. She was blaming how she felt on the unhealthy people in her life. When asked if she thought those people changing would affect her, she immediately said “yes”. She felt that if they changed, it would actually solve all her problems. It is her belief system that the people in her life shaped and defined who she was as a person.
Mary had a hard time talking about herself, and continually fixated on the people in her life she was struggling with. If she did talk about herself, it was awkward for her. Deep down, she felt victimized that she has been required to do so much in her relationships, yet her efforts weren’t reciprocated. She felt she had no choice but to compensate for people in her life who were irresponsible or unavailable. She felt she was by design made to help people. She felt she was strong. Yet at the core, a gnawing, nagging loneliness existed that she couldn’t quite describe. In all her busyness, her life was empty.
What is going on here? Mary is a typical codependent. She is consumed in the problems and needs of others around her. She directly links herself to them, and believes her entire sense of worth, value and purpose rests in what they do or say. She is detached and disconnected with herself. She doesn’t know who she is, so she obsessively focuses on the others in her life
This is a truly tragic place for a person to be, yet it can happen so easily before even recognizing there is an even larger problem. At first, anyone with Mary’s tendencies will insist on continually focusing on those “other people”. They will insist that their only real problems are other people’s problems. But deep down, there is much more going on. A person with these behaviors is yearning for love and acceptance, and has developed a belief system that doing for others will be rewarded with a sense of validation and usefulness.
To take a person from this place of codependency through the journey of healing requires some important ingredients. In other articles, we will discuss more specifically some of the attributes of codependency and the significance of the recovery process. But for now, I’d like to introduce a preview of the solution.
Recovering from Codependency:
My personal experience with recovery was not found in a 12-step meeting, it was entirely through an encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ. However, I believe these types of groups are healthy and essential for recovery. The 12 steps are a practical, yet biblical formula for genuine change. Yet the major roadblock that prevents a codependent person from healing is when a person or group of people is placed before God. Sometimes, a time of aloneness in recovery may be necessary in order for God to get our attention and learn how to place Him first. That is in no way meant to discourage from reaching out to others. Isolation is also a dangerous place to be unless God orchestrates it to teach you the lesson of depending on Him alone. There is a healthy need for other people. God’s long-term plans are always for us to be in relationships.
With that being said, let’s take a look at some of the key aspects of genuine recovery in codependency:
Coming out of denial: A person with codependent behavior needs to confront reality and admit there is a problem. (Step 1 of the 12 step program) Often, codependents are covered in thick layers of denial that prevents them from seeing what is really happening. After all, they appear to the healthy one in relationships, it’s everyone else that is sick, right? Wrong!!! Codependency behavior is very sick – it can drive us to insanity literally. Admitting that we have a problem is absolutely necessary in order for true change to occur.
Surrender of Self and Others to God: We need a power Higher than ourselves to be restored to sanity (Step 2 of the 12 step program). This Higher Power is our Creator, Maker and Redeemer, Jesus Christ. Without Him in the process, we could never find true Solution or wholeness. In fact, it is Him MISSING that has set the wheels in motion for our dysfunctional behaviors. So when we invite into our lives AND surrender our will to His (Step 3), we are guaranteed to be on the road to healing. How exactly do you surrender? Simply pray and ask for the ability to do so. God will move heaven and earth to answer that prayer, but be prepared for serious changes as a result.
Cease Control: We must acknowledge that we are unable to see ourselves when we are fixated on others. We must detach and learn to let go. We have had people on the throne in place of God. We must stop allowing others to influence and affect the way we think, feel and act. These other people may not have even asked for that, but in an effort to please them, we allow it to happen. Furthermore, we must stop believing we have the ability to change others with enough efforts, we do not. We must cease control and give it over to God.
Face Self: Codependents are normally very detached from who they really are and the inner pain that is driving them. They have been so busy “doing”, they lost their true identity along the way. There are a series of deeply rooted issues and sin that takes a person to this place. All these issues must be addressed. (Steps 4-7). It is important to rid toxic thoughts and beliefs. In the healing process, we learn to forgive people who have violated us, but we also learn that we do not need to accept wrongful behaviors. We learn to establish healthy boundaries. We learn to receive forgiveness from God. We learn to forgive ourselves. (Steps 8-9)
God doesn’t call us to walk the journey alone. If we allow Him, He will hold our hand, guide us and show us the areas in our life that need correction. This can be a painful process. But most importantly, He will give us unconditional love, acceptance and peace as we go through recovery.
Align our Identity and Value with Jesus Christ: As we experience more of Jesus, we will begin to learn how to see how valuable, precious and loved we are. This is how healthy self esteem is established. We will see ourselves as God sees us. People will be small, and God will be big! We will begin to understand God’s perspective of us matters far more than anything or anyone else. When we experience the love of Jesus, it will change our outlook on everything. We will understand that mere humans could never, ever have the power to change us, and therefore, we will also understand that we could never have the power to change them! We will further understand that human love could never replace the love of God. (Step 11)
Restore Relationships Properly – In codependency, we have been consumed in helping and fixing others. It may seem that many of those acts of kindness were Christian-like, but usually the motivation behind them was wrong. In fact, many times codependents are enablers and encourage and reward negative behavior. It’s one thing to do things for others to gain a sense of validation and approval, or simply to feel better about ourself. It’s something altogether different to help others through the power of Jesus Christ for no other benefit then to be obedient to Him. Genuine love is something we need to get from God in order to give to others.
We must remember that it is not our efforts, but our dependence on Christ Jesus, that gives us the ability to truly help others (Step 12). God is not requiring we give up relationships, in fact He wants our close relationships restored (if they are proper). He is simply requiring that we no longer place people in front of Him. Once that is done, relationships stand a chance of getting on the right track. Remember, however, it is not up to us to change others. You can be a living testimony, but your efforts to make someone change will always fail. Learn to pray for them instead, because God DOES have the power to bring change into their lives.
Establish Health Boundaries – As we learn to be more healthy, we must protect ourselves from allowing unhealthy people and beliefs in our life. We must stand against abusive or negative behavior while loving the people in our life. Boundaries give us the ability to let in or keep out these negative behavior. Having the courage to make a stand in this area can be difficult. Finding a sponsor or mentor is an important step to maintain healthy boundaries.
As we take gradual steps towards walking with God, over time, our entire belief system about love and relationships will change. We will learn to let people go. We will learn that we do not control the world, but God does. We will not feel overly responsible for others.
But above all, the only way to truly understand and heal from codependency is to know and encounter the love of God. It is literally an antidote for all the insanity behind codependency. When we reach our hands out for the Lord and ask Him to be put first, in the very place He was designed to hold, an entirely new world is awaiting us. We learn to see ourselves as He sees us, love ourselves as He loves us, and receive all that He has for us to give away to others.
Stephanie Tucker is the codependency and family counselor at New Life Spirit Recovery