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  • Dr. Sarah Davies

What is codependency? And ways you can help yourself.

Codependence (or codependency) is quite a broad subject, but fundamentally codependency is about dysfunctional relationships - with yourself and others. A person who is codependent will, to an often extreme extent, rely on other people to gain or experience a sense of identity, to help manage their own emotional issues, to feel OK or in order to devise some sense of value or purpose.


It is a term that was originally related to alcoholism and addiction as many people who struggle with these issues are also codependent, although this issue is often present in the family, partners or others around those in active addiction. Traits and behaviours of codependency were first observed in clinical work of 12-step addiction treatment as enabling or reinforcing actions in relation to the alcoholic or addict. Despite attempts to help, these factors only usually maintain or exacerbate the persons addiction, including issues of personal responsibility. Codependency then describes certain patterns of behaviour that are dysfunctional and unhealthy; negatively affecting not only the codependent individual, but those around them too.


Some people argue we are all codependent - and we possibly are to some small extent. However, if the level in which your happiness, self worth or emotional wellbeing is so dependent on how another or other people feel or behave, to the extent that it negatively impacts on your mental health, this may then indicate a problematic level of codependency.


Many people with issues of codependency struggle with a sense of their own identity outside of certain relationships. So, without being the responsible one, or the long-suffering partner, family member or 'victim', the fixer or caretaker, they may struggle to feel like they can cope on their own. They also tend to struggle to identify how they are feeling or what they may need for themselves. Codependents confuse their sense of happiness, peace or self-worth as being dependent on how the other person (or people) are doing. This can be a family member, partner, their child, etc. They become highly sensitive and attune into others needs and wants effortlessly, whilst struggling to identify those things for themselves. Often the ‘other’ becomes a focus for their thoughts, feelings, attentions and efforts. One of the reasons that this dynamic can become so unhelpful and unhealthy is because all the whilst you are taking care of another persons wants and needs you are a) not taking care of your own, b) not allowing others the opportunity to learn how to take care or responsibility for themselves. Expecting others to know how we feel without being able to communicate it clearly also breeds resentment.


Codependency often also includes:

Having an over-sense of responsibility about the other person and/or their actions/issues.

An excessive worry or preoccupation with a person, others people or their problems.

Obsession and control. Attempting to control other people and/or their problems - whether invited to or not.

Complaints of fatigue or illness as mental, emotional and physical energy is drained by codependent ways of being.

Emotionally dependent on another or others.

Being caretakers, people pleasers, rescuers or enablers to other people and any other their destructive actions; such as alcohol or drug use, addictions, gambling, irresponsibilities, abusive actions, etc.


You can view a fuller list of traits and characteristics of codependency from the coda website here: http://coda.org/index.cfm/meeting-materials1/patterns-and-characteristics-2011/


Codependency is defined as being about unhealthy, dysfunctional relationships - with yourself first and foremost. More specifically, core issues tend to include: issues with appropriate levels of self-esteem, difficulties identifying and/or managing our own emotions and feelings, difficulties with identifying own individual wants or needs as well as issues with communicating these and personal boundaries.


It's nice and admirable to care for others - healthy human connection is pivotal for our wellbeing - however, relationships becomes unhealthy and destructive when there comes a sense of ‘losing him/herself’ in relation with another. This can include being unable to identify, or losing a sense of what it right for yourself first and foremost. If one starts to lose their ‘voice’, or struggles to identify how they are feeling, or what they need or want - as well as being able to hold healthy boundaries and communicate this to others - it can mark the beginning of unhealthy relationships. This is often the case in toxic relationships like those experiencing narcissistic abuse or others kinds of abusive relationship. Sometimes it’s the aspects of codependency that play a key role in being trapped in destructive, unhealthy relationships; such as clinging onto trying to control something or someone that you can’t, in losing your sense of self, too much focus being on the other person and not on yourself, or for whatever reason not being unable to communicate and maintain healthy boundaries.


There is a saying in codependency recovery that I really like and think that it sums up the essence of codependence recovery and healthy, interdependent relationships and that is; if theres any trouble on a plane, you must attend to your own oxygen mask first, before you assist with anybody elses.

ie. Learn to take care of yourself first and foremost. Then you are in much more of a position to care for others. With this, there is much more chance of enjoying a healthy, interdependent relationship with two healthy adults, with healthy boundaries and communication. For many people with codependency issues, they feel this balance point is selfish. It's not. Taking responsibility for yourself and your own wellbeing first and foremost is good self care and essential to positive mental health.


Codependence Recovery - Ways to help yourself with codependency


Become aware of where your focus, effort and attentions are. If you notice it is too much on a particular person, ex, family member on somebody elses problem... just notice this, in a non-judgemental way... then... bring it back to you.


12-step recovery. You might like to try attending ‘coda’ meetings. These are 12-step based codependency anonymous meetings available in most towns and cities across the UK.


Working on your need to control. Often codependents have issues of control. Learning to recognise this and learning healthy ways in which you can let go is key. Coda support can be a huge help with this as its a way of finding support from others with this. Professional help and therapy may also be important to work on the reasons relating to codependency. It can often stem from earlier childhood experiences and family dynamics.


Detach with love. Detachment is not about abandoning or rejecting the person who you care about. More so, it’s about letting go of the agony of the involvement and letting go in the knowledge that the obsession and over-focus is unhealthy for everyone involved. Detaching with love is about letting go, focusing on your own self-care and gently returning your focus to you.


Writing / Journalling. Writing and journaling can be a helpful way to express your thoughts and feelings. It can help things become clearer and helps us to process feelings and to get this out of your system to some extent. Write about your thoughts, feelings, fears, hopes. Some useful questions to ask yourself include:

If I wasn’t so preoccupied with this person/problem, what might I be doing with my time?

Also,

If I really loved myself, what would I do?


Develop emotional regulation skills. Grounding can be helpful. Mindfulness too. Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT) includes some useful practical techniques for helping to manage overwhelming emotions and to develop good self care.

People who struggle to identify their own feelings and needs are more likely to react rather than respond. There is a key difference.

The more you can become aware of your feelings, you can become more aware of your reactions. Breather, slow down and take time to think things through and sit with how you feel - rather than springing into knee-jerk reactions.


Breathe…

Learn to recognise what you are feeling, how are you reacting and why?

Learn to recognise your triggers.

Learn to self-care.


Recognise your feelings, perhaps label them and then turn your attention to how you can soothe these feelings for yourself.


Mindfulness is a great practice where you can learn to recognise your thoughts and feelings without reacting to them.

Try to take a step back and consider what has happened more objectively. It might help to talk things through with an understanding person who is removed from the situation, eg. counsellor or friend.

What would you say to somebody else in a similar situation? What might you advise?


Bring your attention back to you…

One of the surest ways to drive yourself crazy is to get over-involved and over concerned with other peoples business and to be overly-responsible for control other people and their issues! The more direct way to sanity and happiness it to tend to your own affairs and learn to look after yourself first and foremost.

Live and let live.


Get into the habit of checking in with yourself and asking; How am I feeling? What do I need - that is a healthy and loving thing to do for myself?


Practice acceptance. Accept the situation, the limits, other people for how they are, your feelings and so on…


Get present. A lot of energy and effort can be wasted mentally time travelling - either going over and over things that have happened in the past or imagining all that might happen or not happen in the future. You miss the joy of the present when you mentally time travel. Connect with the present.


Set yourself goals. Pick up hobbies and interests. Think more about what you might like to do and what might be good for you. Do more of what is good and enjoyable for you.


Learn to be kind and love yourself. I truly believe that by working on having a healthy, supportive, loving relationship within yourself and with yourself first and foremost is an incredibly important protective factor to healthy relationships. If you have this, then all other relationships become a lot easier.


For more practical pointers on codependency recovery, healthy relationships and self care check out the self-help book by Dr. Sarah Davies; https://www.troubador.co.uk/bookshop/self-help/never-again/


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