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Hello codependency, my old friend.
(Don’t) stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
You’re out there in the world, quietly celebrating your wins, feeling like you’ve defeated most of your old, terrible behavioral habits, and so, naturally, you realize that you’re solved!
You feel triumphant!
No longer do you need to be vigilant, or even moderately on top of all the things you’ve worked for decades upon decades to put into place, like boundaries, your predilection to place other people’s wants and needs before your own, your maladaptive people-pleasing pathology, and/or all the other basic behaviors that at some point made their dysfunction clear to you.
You. Are. Solved.
Basically a superhero.
You start dating someone, or you make a new friend…
Weeks, maybe months, or even a year from then…
You feel a familiar gnawing inside your chest cavity. It’s one part resentment, two parts dread.
You’ve had an emotional relapse.
And you find yourself back in the same complicated emotional dynamic from which you’d worked decades to extricate yourself.
That’s the bummer about getting better at things. You have to constantly renew and maintain it. It’s a practice. Just like yoga or eating healthy.
And if you’re wondering what this “what” is that happens, it’s the inclination to render one’s own needs and wants secondary to others; to confuse caretaking for friendship. (Caretaking is rooted in low-self esteem; caregiving is a pure expression of love.)
This dynamic plagued me in my twenties and thirties and I wound up in one co-dependent relationship after another. As I grew older, it took less and less time to be filled with resentment and then rage. And then, ultimately, I’d end the relationship.
When I learned that this dynamic had a name, I read about it extensively and worked valiantly to change my ways, first understanding why I was this way, and where it came from.
This specific equation of placing other people’s needs above your own is known by lay people as: codependence.
Clinicians would call it relationship addiction, and despite how it sounds on the tongue, it's not a mental illness; it's a psychological construct shaped by one's culture and environment. It is also not, at its core, about being in a relationship with an addict.
At its base, codependency is a dysfunctional relationship one has with themselves, and this leads to problematic imbalances in our other relationships.
Codependents were raised to believe that it’s wrong to make mistakes, to be imperfect, to show emotions, or to look different. Their environment was shame-based and they were taught to base their worth on where they fell compared to other people. The message they received was that positive external approval made them worthy and valuable.
Codependency is characterized by people who are over-caring, lack an ability to set and maintain boundaries, and have an overwhelming need for approval, affection, and acceptance.
A codependent person is frequently drawn to relationships with manipulative, narcissistic, and/or self-centered people who frequently find themselves caught up in drama and who have insatiable emotional needs.
Codependent people find their way to those who need support, and where the focus is automatically moved off them and placed onto the other person. Sometimes that other person has active addictions, addictive behavior, and/or is a narcissist. The caretaking that the codependent believes will reward them in the end never comes, because there is no end. The caretaking is nonstop.
The codependent is driven by the need for approval—and what better way to get someone to really see you, appreciate, and value you than from someone who relies on you to help them?
Ah, but therein lies the rub. You see, the codependent doesn’t understand that the approval they need isn’t from an external source; it’s from themselves. They falsely believe that their sense of self-worth comes from what others think about them, and what better way to ensure you are liked than by caring for someone?
So it’s to people who need constant tending that codependents surrender their power. The inequity inherent in these relationships causes the codependent much distress, because they feel undervalued and often disrespected.
And yet, because the codependent has signed over all their power to their love object, or friend, they have also forfeited their self-worth. The thought of leaving and being alone is terrifying to the point of feeling paralyzing. Without this person, the co-dependent feels they have no self, and therefore their very survival seems to depend on the connection they have with the unstable partner.
This paradigm can be traced back to the childhood dynamic that kids with absent, helpless, or abusive parents were forced to develop. When you are a child, you depend on your parents or caregivers for your survival—but what if your parent has a substance-use or psychiatric issue, or is violent or emotionally or physically absent?
The child’s entire focus will very likely center on making certain their parent stays alive, because if the parent dies, the child dies. This dynamic is the template that is created for the child’s future relationships, and it’s imbalanced and unhealthy.
Those who grow up as “helpers” frequently had parents who were hard to please, leading kids to believe that the only way to get approval is through helping behavior. These little helpers are disconnected from themselves and therefore don’t learn that their worth comes from their own internal value. All they know is that respect comes from external sources, and not from inside.
If a child is raised in a situation where they only receive care if they care for their dysfunctional parent then they will model their future relationships on this template.
The child grows to understand that the only way to receive care and get their needs met is to be manipulative and fueled by drama, like their parents, or they grow into a person who over-gives and never receives.
THE HISTORY OF CO-DEPENDENCE
Before the word “codependent” made its grand entrance onto the psychopathological stage, it went by a different name, one relegated to the world of addiction. Family members and spouses of alcoholics were once called (you should maybe sit for this) “co-alcoholics.”
But, once the term “chemical dependence” was coined, the word “co-alcoholic” was dropped and family members and spouses were upgraded to the newer term “codependents.”
The concept of codependency can be traced back to the German-born American psychiatrist, Dr. Karen Horney (Pronounced Horn-eye); (1885–1952). Horney was born in a small town near Hamburg, Germany. The only daughter of a sea captain and his much younger–by nearly two decades–wife. She was quite unhappy in childhood, resentful of being the less favored of the two children. Her older brother received all the shine. The disquiet between her parents also plagued her.
She decided, at the very early age of 13, that she'd become a physician. And when she turned 21, she entered the University of Frieburg, cementing her status as one of the first women to study medicine. She became a Neo-freudian, disagreeing with his theory that psychological needs are biologically driven, and the first feminist psychologist.
She published Neurosis and Human Growth, her magnum opus, in 1950. In it she puts forth her theory that in childhood, those whose psychological needs go unmet are driven to create defense strategies against feeling unsafe and unloved. The defenses act as "solutions" and come lined with their own signature behavior and belief system. Adherence to these maladaptive strategies, they believe, will be met with rewards.
For instance, some people may try and claim their share of love and safety through being "good." They believe that if they are helpful, they will gain what they feel is missing.
This idea, that personality is shaped by social and cultural experiences and conditions, was called Psychoanalytic Social Theory. Horney believed that every human being has the capacity to self-realize, but that neurotic processes often thwart healthy development and lead people astray.
She is also the genius who coined the phrase “Tyranny of the shoulds.”
These tyrannical “shoulds” are the fuel that drive codependents, and present as a significant symptom of their maladaptive behavior. Horney recognized that the “should” divided our personhood into two selves: the idealized version of our self and our actual self.
When we fail to live up to the idealized version, we respond with irrational cognitions, able to view ourselves only in black-and-white terms, as a failure or incapable. We lose connection to nuance and have no capacity to see the gray areas.
Living life in accordance with “the should” becomes a belief system steeped in negative self-judgment. The rule we have created for ourselves is outside of all reality, and sets us up for poor boundaries.
When we live according to impossibly high standards and absolutes, we behave as though there are predetermined life paths waiting for us, and when we haven’t met them, we have failed. We wind up pushing ourselves with damaging motivational strategies all starting with “should” “have to” “ought to” we are, what the famous psychologist Albert Ellis called “musterbating.”
The more we live based on imagined “shoulds” the deeper the pathway for self-criticism, and the deeper our sense of self-worth plummets.
The locus of Karen Horney’s work was around the way social and cultural conditions shaped people’s personalities. She believed that there are ten basic neurotic needs we all share, but those who struggle the most are those who have made one or more of these needs too central to their existence.
KAREN HORNEY’S THEORY OF NEUROTIC NEEDS
Dr. Horney believed that when the needs of children are not met, anxiety rises. Children who grow up in unstable environments, ripe with addiction, emotional and physical abuse, trauma, mental or physical illness, develop maladaptive coping strategies to deal with these anxieties, and to self-soothe and to feel safe and secure.
These coping strategies fall into three basic styles that Dr. Horney called the Interpersonal Theory of Adjustment.
In the chapter titled “Moving Toward People” in The Collected Works of Karen Horney, she describes these three types as:
People who “move toward” have a “marked need for affection and approval, especially from a partner.”
The “moving against” type has a strong need to exploit and outsmart others. All relationships are transactional.
The “moving away” type is in pursuit of distance. They overly rely on their self-sufficiency and feel stable and peaceful only when avoiding others and maintaining isolation.
The root of codependency stems from the maladaptive coping strategy of “moving toward people” mentioned above.
Those who “move toward people” (a.k.a. codependent people) present as faithful and unselfish, all qualities that we consider “positive.” But codependency is not kindness. Codependents are not doing what they do to be kind, or because they find it natural and satisfying to help others.
They do it because they can’t say no and are giving from a place of guilt, fear or insecurity, not from a place of self-esteem.
They do it because it’s a maladaptive coping strategy that they’ve been using since childhood.
Because they learned that saying no wasn’t an option, they never learned how to say it, and they are giving from a place of fear and insecurity.
The person who learns that security is achieved and basic anxiety allayed by moving toward others comes to overvalue love, charity, kindness, self-sacrifice, and intimacy.
To remain an active participant in a codependent relationship, as a rescuer or helper, means you are tolerating and even enabling the partner’s unhealthy behavior. By accommodating them you are giving them a reason to remain the same, when what you really want is for them to change and grow. By continuing to help or support your poorly behaved friend, you are inadvertently thwarting any need for them to develop age-appropriate capabilities.
To wit: The codependent who aids and abets bad behavior assists in extending the lifespan of their own maltreatment.
On a (not always) subconscious level, the co-dependent desires to receive the same things she gives, but asking feels impossible and terrifying.
If you were raised feeling unlovable and of low value, you will internalize this belief and bring it into adulthood, where every interaction will give rise to whispers that your needs aren’t worth meeting.
It’s from THIS place that a codependent person gives of themself, and this place is undersupplied.
Subscribe now and receive Part 2 in your inbox next Wednesday. You’ll learn the 5 symptoms of codependency, reveal what a healthy relationship should look like, and offer some guidance on changing maladaptive coping strategies.
And you? What are your thoughts on codependency, relationship addiction and/or Karen Horney? Had you heard of her before?
Let me know in the comments!
Until then, I remain…
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