Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Codependency: Quest For Identity As An Adult

October 29, 2001

Codependency exists when people depend on compulsive behaviors and approval from others in an attempt to find safety, self-worth, and identity. To counteract this feeling of insecurity, codependents often try to control others by self-sacrificing behavior and indirect manipulation in order to get feelings of adequacy and acceptance.

Many times people learn these maladaptive and compulsive behaviors as children so they can survive in a family which has great emotional pain and stress. Their families may be dealing with chemical dependency, chronic mental illness, chronic physical illness, physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, or a hypercritical or non-loving environment. Codependent behaviors can be learned in dysfunctional adult relationships as well but aren’t as ingrained.

Insecure as adults. As adults, codependent people have a tendency to get involved in relationships with people who are unreliable, emotionally unavailable or needy. The codependent person tries to control their relationships without addressing their own needs or desires and consequently live unfulfilling lives.

Even when a codependent person is involved with someone with healthy boundaries, he or she has difficulty with trust in relationships. This is frustrating to a healthy partner and puts a strain on the relationship.

Codependent people are also prone to addictions to cover up their inner pain and emptiness. Active addictions must be treated so that painful feelings can be owned, embraced and worked through. They need to appreciate or tolerate painful feelings in the moment instead of reflexively avoiding anxiety.

Recovery from addiction doesn't resolve core personality issues. Codependency and dysfunctional relationships still persist.

Treatment issues. The daunting task of treatment is trying to help people find their identity as adults, to become themselves and what they are meant to be. Before they can overcome intimacy problems with others, they first need to become intimate with themselves.

Various therapy techniques such as role-playing, family sculpting, and psychodrama create the emotional experience and insight needed to bring to closure unfinished business from the past. The emotional hurts and insecurities of childhood are brought to the surface and shared. Codependents open themselves up to their feelings of sadness, anger, and vulnerability buried under layers of denial and repression. They experience emotional relief when the emotional abscess is finally lanced.

Family secrets, however painful, finally can be talked about openly. Before people can let go of the past, they need to understand it. Harsh judging of oneself recedes when people understand, grieve, and finally let go of their dysfunctional heritage.

People come to understand the origins of their inner shame, guilt, self-defeating habits, fantasies, anger, fears, and their efforts to control others. Feelings of abandonment and violations of self are connected with what actually happened in childhood.

Changing current relationships. With renewed understanding and respect for self, boundaries in existing relationships are defined and respected. People regain their integrity because they stand for something. They begin to define their goals specifically rather than with vague generalities.

Codependents learn to communicate assertively and appropriately. They don't give themselves away in vain attempts to win approval, nor do they hide from others behind a mask of supposed inadequacy. Social skills such as boundary setting, listening, problem-solving and assertiveness are modeled and taught.

The old family rules and dysfunctional roles are reviewed in terms of their repercussions in adult life.

People become empowered to recognize and deal with destructive interactions and change their own role in dysfunctional relationships. With defining of self, they are better equipped to gain true intimacy based on equality and reciprocity.

Self help groups and counseling. Codependents, armed with a ton of self-help books, are famous for obsessively trying to figure out what is wrong without paying the price of disclosing themselves. Too much information without change causes frustration and depression.

A group experience is often the key to personal growth. In self help groups such as Adult Children of Alcoholics, Alanon, and Codependency Anonymous, people find affirmation, validation, unconditional love, safety, empowerment, information, support and social connection.

In counseling, the co-dependents experience a "re-parenting" process. The counselor is perceived as a parent figure who gives affirmation and unconditional love. Trust that grows in this relationship then can be extended to other relationships as well.

At the same time, the counselor also gives confidence that separateness is OK and that people can be different and disagree without their existence being threatened. The client is encouraged toward independence and autonomy in order to engage in healthy relationships.

Another role a counselor plays is to give encouragement to specific actions and to hold people responsible for making changes. Perhaps the most important role of individual counseling is to prepare people for group work and to help integrate the material after the group has finished. Counseling itself can be a trap when codependents use it to look for more rules to obey, more answers from others, and more people to please.

Treatment is successful when people are confident enough to look within themselves for their own answers, when they become "experts" on themselves and when they have a strong enough identity to maintain boundaries in relationships.