Understanding Codependent Behavior Assignment

How to identify when you’re caring too much — and what you can do to break codependent behaviors and cultivate healthier, more satisfying relationships.

Dave is his son Jack’s biggest soccer fan — you can tell by his boisterous presence on the sidelines. A former player, Dave knows what it takes to perform well, and he makes sure Jack never misses a practice. He runs drills with him on nonpractice days and monitors his diet to make sure he’s avoiding junk. After a bad game, Dave points out missed opportunities and revisits problem plays. Jack is a decent player, but his dad worries he won’t win a college scholarship if he doesn’t knuckle down.

If you ask Dave why he’s so involved with Jack’s soccer career, he’ll tell you it’s because he loves his son and is willing to do anything to help him succeed. What Dave doesn’t realize is that his sense of self-worth, his very identity, has become linked to Jack’s success on the soccer field. Worse, Jack’s own sense of self-worth is slipping, becoming tied less to his own performance than to how his dad sees himself in him.

Dave and Jack are fictional, but their stress-inducing dynamic is all too real. Experts call this type of relationship “enmeshed,” “fused,” “poorly differentiated,” or “codependent.” No matter what role a person plays, it’s as confusing as it is common.

The oft-loaded term “codependence” originated in recovery circles, where it’s used to describe enabling and other maladaptive behaviors people use to cope with emotional pain, such as a loved one’s alcoholism. But it isn’t just an issue for people involved with addicts.

“Emotional fusion fits everyone to greater or lesser degrees,” says Ruth Morehouse, PhD, codirector of the Marriage & Family Health Center in Evergreen, Colo. And these dynamics pervade all kinds of interactions, from casual encounters to long-term professional and family connections. Sooner or later, however, they can lead to relationships that are unfulfilling and dishonest — even, and sometimes especially, with the people who are most important to us.

“People treat you the way you teach them to treat you,” says Julie Sullivan, LCMFT, founder of Looking Glass Therapy and Mediation Center in Leawood, Kan. “You’ve put yourself in a certain role in a relationship, and then when you’ve had enough, you’re stuck in this role.”

Codependent behavior is tricky to identify, however, because it’s often disguised as a willingness to adapt to others’ needs or a selfless desire to help. We all see ourselves through the eyes of others occasionally, but trouble starts when we overidentify with how we’re seen (“I’m the reliable one!”) or become overly invested in how we see others (“What you should do is . . .”). We get confused about where we stop and other people begin.

And when we haven’t developed a strong sense of self — our place in the world, our boundaries, our values — and haven’t learned the skills to communicate wants and needs directly, we’re more likely to bend and fold ourselves to accommodate what we think others want. Or to manipulate situations and people to get what we want from them.

People consciously or unconsciously assign everyone else in their lives a role, explains Lauren Zander, cofounder and chairman of the Handel Group, a corporate consulting and private coaching company. They then devise strategies for dealing with people based on their presumptions about what these people want from them.

“You are conducting a puppet show in your life with the people around you,” Zander says. “You don’t realize that you are the director, manipulating people and situations based on your opinion of them in your head.”

The specific roles we play in this “puppet show” are typically passed down from generation to generation, says Jamie Huysman, PsyD, LCSW, a certified addictions professional based in Orlando, Fla. The roles we take on as children are replayed when we’re adults, and rare is the family that is immune to less-than-healthy dynamics.

“On one end of the continuum, you see the families of enmeshment where everybody has their spoon in your soup,” says Huysman. “On the other are the families of total detachment.”

Meanwhile, plenty of us land somewhere in the middle, neither smothered nor ignored, but having nonetheless acquired a set of self-limiting beliefs about our place in the world and our expectations of others. We all fall somewhere, as Huysman puts it, “along the bell curve of codependence.”

The point is, most of us could learn a thing or two about setting healthy boundaries. To that end, here are some of the most common codependent roles (don’t be surprised if you see yourself in more than one) — and some suggestions for how to change the script.

The Martyr

To suffer is virtuous, especially when you put others’ needs ahead of your own. At least that’s the message you may have received from your family, religious institution, or cultural heritage. At work, you’re always the first to pick up an extra project and the last to leave the office, deciding to skip the gym when a friend wants company. You pick up the tab, unasked, even when you’re broke.

The Problem: When sacrifice is a way of being, you neglect your own need to receive love and care. Yet, paradoxically, that’s precisely what you are trying to get by jockeying for others’ appreciation or indebtedness. The approach usually backfires: Not only do you begin to resent those you’ve helped (who never seem to return the favor), but your so-called beneficiaries either take your suffering for granted (you’ve trained them well!) or begin to resent you right back.

A Healthier Choice: Self-Care

Understand the difference between selfishness and self-care. It’s not selfish to leave work on time, or to meet your friend after your workout. It’s not rude to split the check if you can’t afford to foot the bill. In almost every case, no one will go without if you tend to your own needs.

“It’s the same concept of the oxygen mask in the airplane,” says Sullivan. “If you don’t put your emotional oxygen mask on first, you can’t help anyone. You’ll be passed out in the aisle.”

The Savior

The world is a dangerous place! Fortunately, you are here to save the day. When your child has a conflict or faces a consequence at school, you are at the principal’s office first thing the next morning to negotiate a solution. When your friend is short of rent money (again), you float her a little cash (again) so she can make ends meet.

The Problem: Everyone needs help sometimes. But when you feel personally responsible for another person’s comfort and well-being, you strip her of the opportunity to create her own comfort and well-being. You enable self-limiting behavior and effectively tell someone she is helpless without you. In time, she may even come to believe this.

A Healthier Choice: Empowerment

Ask yourself what you really want for your loved ones. Do self-reliance and competence appear anywhere on the list? If so, you have to step back and create the space for them — and occasionally refuse to step in.

Or maybe you realize that what you really want is to feel needed and valued in your relationships. Once you acknowledge this underlying motivation, take steps toward finding a more direct approach to feeling valued. An outside perspective can help, especially when it’s hard to imagine yourself outside the savior role.

“When you’ve found that you’ve forgotten yourself in this whole process, transformation may be about getting yourself a therapist,” suggests Huysman.

The Adviser

If you were a character in a Peanuts comic strip, it would be Lucy, sitting behind her makeshift desk offering advice about anything for a nickel. Indeed, you may have an uncanny ability to see straight into another person’s problems and offer clear counsel. Or you may just think you have great insight. Listening might not be your greatest strength.

The Problem: This is a case where it truly takes two to tango: We may think of the person who constantly seeks advice as the one who lacks self-esteem. But people who feel compelled to perpetually advise and control others are equally insecure.“We call this ‘borrowed functioning,’” Morehouse explains. “The one who’s taking charge or telling someone what to do — that person is just as needy. They need someone who will let them be in charge to artificially bolster their self-esteem. The dependency is equal.”

A Healthier Choice: Better Boundaries

What if you let your partner decide how to handle an argument with his parents? What if a colleague comes to you with a problem, and instead of giving her advice, you just listen?

In Facing Codependence (Harper & Row, 2003), author and recovery expert Pia Mellody, RN, CSAC, describes boundaries as “invisible and symbolic ‘force fields’” that “give each of us a way to embody our sense of ‘who we are.’” If you are overly invested and involved in the decisions another person makes, you have breached his force field (and he has allowed you to do so). By setting and respecting healthy boundaries, perhaps with the help of a therapist, you can reframe your relationships around mutual respect.

The People Pleaser

You enjoy volunteering at your neighborhood school and helping your neighbors with their fixer-upper. You don’t mind making the Friday coffee run for your colleagues. It’s especially nice when you feel the love, basking in the attention and praise that come with your generosity. But being nice can have a dark side.

The Problem: You know you’ve found that dark side when you feel that your gifts aren’t adequately appreciated, or when the thought of hosting another dinner party seems more chore than joy. You really know you’ve found it when you use your people-pleasing skills to control others, believing they will like you for the favors you do rather than for who you are. “People pleasing is a very passive form of manipulation,” says Marc Hertz, a St. Paul, Minn.–based consultant in the addiction and recovery field. “We often do things for others to get what we want or need from them.”

A Healthier Choice: Say No

When you are about to volunteer yet again, ask yourself some questions: Does this choice feed me or deplete me? Will these people really reject me if I don’t do what I think they want me to do? How does my body feel when I imagine committing to this — and when I imagine saying no?

“Every time you say yes to the small things, it prohibits you from saying yes to the big things,” Sullivan says, suggesting that more-conscious choice-making frees you to do the things that truly energize you.

“Learn to say no,” she says. “Practice it. Learn it.”

The Yes-Person

You say yes to a colleague when you mean no, then resent it. You smile in faux agreement with your friend rather than say what you feel. You maintain détente with your partner, but you never admit when you’re upset.

The Problem: “[Couples] tell me ‘We never fight’ and look at me like they want my approval,” says Sullivan. In her opinion, a total absence of conflict means an erosion of honesty.

Zander takes a similar view of artificial peace. “When I go into a corporation, the reason half the people don’t tell the boss what they’re thinking is because they’re worried about their jobs,” she says. Still, stuffing your honest feelings — rather than finding a gracious way to express them — will cost you over time.

A Healthier Choice: Speak Your Truth

If you don’t speak directly about problems because you believe your directness would cause trouble, Zander suggests rethinking your motives: “You don’t want to do damage, but all you’re doing is damage. The truth gets to the underlying problem. If you don’t express the truth, the issue or situation will never be resolved.”

It takes courage to speak truthfully and risk contradicting someone else’s viewpoint, but being honest doesn’t have to mean being confrontational. Let an aversion to conflict motivate you to find the most gracious, open-minded way to bring up thorny issues. As Sullivan asserts, “Conflict does not equal fighting. There are healthy ways to bring issues up and talk about what you’re feeling.”

If you see yourself in any of these roles, a hearty congratulations. Awareness is a critical first step to growth. “We think these are normal struggles,” says Morehouse. “You have to go through them and recognize them and see if you can develop a better way of relating.”

In her view, it is by the gradual process of differentiation — learning to hold on to yourself while maintaining relationships with others — that all human beings evolve and grow. When you set boundaries and acknowledge your own thoughts and needs, relationships become more honest, exploratory, and, ultimately, far more fulfilling.

Changing enmeshed relationships won’t happen overnight. When one person changes his or her role, others will shift accordingly — but not always willingly. As you start to shed codependent behaviors, expect some pushback. Learning to handle it gracefully is just another step toward more-satisfying relationships.

Or as Hertz succinctly puts it, “Do you want to pay the price for a bad relationship, or the price to maintain a good one?”

Illustrations by Gracia Lam

Codependency For Dummies Cheat Sheet

From Codependency For Dummies, 2nd Edition

By Darlene Lancer

If you wonder whether you may be codependent, you’re not alone. Different types of people may behave in a codependent manner, and codependence manifests in varying degrees of severity. Not all codependents are unhappy, while others live in pain or quiet desperation. Codependency is not something you heal from and are forever done with, but you can enjoy yourself, your life, and your relationships. Should you choose to embark on recovery, you’re beginning an exciting and empowering journey.

Determining If You’re Codependent

If you’re wondering if you’re codependent, take a look at the following list of symptoms. You don’t have to have all of them to be codependent, and there are degrees of severity of codependence. If untreated, codependency gets worse over time, but with help you can recover and be much more effective in your work and relationships. Here are some common traits:

  • Low self-esteem

    • Not liking or accepting yourself

    • Feeling you’re inadequate in some way

    • Thinking you’re not quite enough

    • Worrying you are or could be a failure

    • Concerned with what other people think about you

  • Perfectionism

  • Pleasing others and giving up yourself

  • Poor boundaries

    • Boundaries that are too weak and there’s not enough separateness between you and your partner

    • Boundaries that are too rigid and keep you from being close

    • Boundaries that flip back and forth between too close and too rigid

  • Reactivity

  • Dysfunctional Communication

    • Difficulty expressing thoughts and feelings

    • Difficulty setting boundaries — saying “No” or stopping abuse

    • Abusive language

    • Lack of assertiveness about your needs

  • Dependency

    • Afraid of being alone or out of a relationship

    • Feeling trapped in a bad relationship and unable to leave

    • Relying too much on others opinions

    Intimacy problems

    • Avoidance of closeness

    • Losing yourself

    • Trying to control or manipulate others

    • Feeling trapped in a dysfunctional relationship

  • Denial

    • Denial of codependency

    • Denial about a painful reality in your relationship

    • Denial of your feelings

    • Denial of your needs

  • Caretaking

  • Control

    • Controlling your own feelings

    • Managing and controlling people in your life; telling them what to do

    • Manipulating others to feel or behave like you want (people pleasing is a manipulation)

  • Obsessions

  • Addiction to a substance or process

  • Painful emotions

    • Shame

    • Anxiety

    • Fear

    • Guilt

    • Hopelessness

    • Despair

    • Depression

Reducing Stress through Relaxation

The key to overcoming codependency is relaxing and building a loving relationship with yourself. At Harvard Medical School, Dr. Herbert Benson developed a type of relaxation that doesn’t require any spiritual beliefs, but was very effective to reduce stress, anxiety, depression and anger. It’s called the Relaxation Response. Try it and if you like it do it every day.

  1. Sit in a relaxed position, and close your eyes.

  2. Starting at your toes and progressing to your face, relax each muscle, and keep them relaxed.

  3. Breathe normally through your nose, and repeat “one” silently with each inhale and again with each exhale. Do not control your breath.

  4. Do this daily for 10 to 20 minutes, and take a few minutes before returning to normal activities.

Turning the Focus onto Yourself

Focusing on someone else is a real problem for codependents. Letting go isn’t easy. Turning that around so that your focus is on you doesn’t make you selfish; in fact, it’s showing respect for someone else’s autonomy and boundaries. Here are some practical things you can do to:

  • When you’re together, remember not to watch the other person.

  • Don’t obsess or worry about him or her. Imagine putting the person in God’s hands or surrounded by healing light. Send them love.

  • Don’t judge others, just as you don’t want to be judged.

  • Don’t have expectations of others; instead, meet expectations of yourself.

  • You didn’t cause someone else’s behavior. Others are responsible for their behavior, and you’re only responsible for yours.

  • Write about your feelings in a journal. Read it to someone close to you or a therapist.

  • Practice mediation or spirituality.

  • Pursue your own interests and have fun.

  • Remember you cannot change or “fix” someone else. Only he or she has the power to do so.

  • Take a time out. If you’re starting to react to someone or are in an argument, it’s a good idea to step away and take some time to think things over. A good idea is to write in your journal.

  • Write positive things about yourself in your journal every day. Look for things you did well or like about yourself, and write them down.

  • Take the labels off. Sometimes, you can have expectations and make assumptions about someone very close to you which you wouldn’t of a friend. Ask yourself how you would treat the other person if he or she wasn’t your partner or parent.

Getting Help for Your Codependency

If you think you may be codependent, you need help to change your behavior. Here are some sources of help for those suffering from codependency:

  • Read all you can about codependency (but reading alone is insufficient to change).

  • Go to a Twelve Step meeting for codependents, such as Codependents Anonymous, called CoDA, or Al-Anon for family members of alcoholics. There are other Twelve Step groups for relatives of other addicts, such as for relatives of gamblers, narcotic addicts, and sex addicts. You can look on the Internet or in your phone book to find out where there’s a meeting near you.

  • Get counseling from someone familiar with codependency. It’s preferable that they are licensed in your state. They may be marriage and family counselors, social workers, addiction specialists, psychologists, or psychiatrists.

You will probably find it hard to focus on and discipline yourself to make changes without the support of a group or therapist. If you’re practicing an addiction, stopping that should be your first priority before tackling codependency. Here’s a list of things you can do on your own to get started:

  • When you’re tempted to think or worry about someone else, turn your attention back to you.

  • Pay attention to how you talk to and treat yourself. Much of low self-esteem is self-inflicted. Train yourself to speak gently and encouraging rather than telling yourself what you should or shouldn’t be doing or what’s wrong with you.

  • Have some fun and pursue hobbies and interests of your own.

  • Start a spiritual practice where you spend time alone with yourself. Meditation is an ideal way to help you become more calm and self-aware.

  • Start looking for the positive in your life and what you do. Make a grateful list each day and read it to someone.

  • Stand-up for yourself if someone criticizes, undermines, or tries to control you.

  • Don’t worry! That’s not easy, but most worries never come to pass. You lose precious moments in the present. Mediation and talking things out with someone who knows about recovering from codependency can help you.

  • Let go of control and the need to manage other people. Remember the saying, “Live and let live.”

  • Accept yourself, so you don’t have to be perfect.

  • Get in touch with your feelings. Don’t judge them. Feelings just are. They’re not logical or right or wrong.

  • Express yourself honestly with everyone. Say what you think and what you feel. Ask for what you need.

  • Reach out for help when you feel bad. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you’re self-sufficient and can manage alone. That’s a symptom of codependency, too.

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