Understanding Codependency

Understanding Codependency

by Stacy Donn Cristo, LMHC

I find that codependency is often misunderstood, even among well-educated colleagues. Perhaps because it's not part of training programs? Perhaps because it is still associated with 12 step programming rather than mental health? It wasn't something that was addressed in my training 17 years ago; it was something I had to learn about on my own, something I had to detangle over the years in my own personal growth work and the work of my clients. Understanding codependency is something that I see as having moved well beyond 12 step programming and into the general understanding and practice of relationships and mental health. 

Codependency is a relationship paradigm that goes hand in hand with trauma, abuse, and substance abuse as it inherently involves an imbalance of power and a forfeit of personal power. Codependency almost always walks in the door with a new client. Codependency is almost always there with suffering, depression, anxiety, and sexual assault to name a few.

Codependency doesn't know the word "no." "No" is seen as selfish, it is taken personally, it is accompanied by shame and guilt. Interdependency is the relationship paradigm we are working in within the therapeutic alliance; it is what we are training for in communication and self-care in relationship with self and others. In interdependency, "no" is a word that simply expresses—it expresses a need, a desire, personal power; it’s a word of self-advocacy. Where in codependency, boundaries are seen as mean, in interdependency they are seen as essential for the survival of peace of mind, safety of body, and security of spirit.

In the codependent paradigm, the sense of self and individuality has been chipped away at through the methods of guilting, shaming, and boundary violation. In interdependency, there is a reverence to self and other, a deep respect for difference.

I first heard about codependency from my husband. At the time we were only newly dating, I was in my training program at Lesley University, he a young and progressive community minister. He was also in therapy and codependency was something he talked a lot about in relationship to his upbringing. He was fiercely trying to avoid it in intimate relationships. This was attractive! I allowed myself to date him as I was in recovery from too many of my own toxic, and what I now know to be, codependent relationships. However, I knew none of this at the time. I just liked that he was in therapy, looking at his upbringing, and looking not to repeat the same mistakes. From the wise advice of Eleanor Roosevelt we hear,"Learn from the mistakes of others. You can't live long enough to make them all yourself."

Like all of us learning something new, he knew how to identify it and he knew he suffered from it, he knew the rancid stink. I knew of suffering. I had been in therapy for about three years, but I did not know of codependency. For the first time, the elephant in the room was being addressed and if I'm being honest, I didn't even know it. And so, we continued dating and we continued talking about this thing called codependency that I didn't think I had much to do with but it was sexy and offered a sense of security, a man in therapy addressing relationship problems. I'm in!

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Over the years, I became the one who recognized the stink and even an impatient intolerance for it within my most intimate relationships. I sadly lost a friend because I became her codependency coach and radar machine. I was so intolerant! It was as if it were threatening to take me over and I was fighting to breath!  With my mother and my husband, when it rears its ugly head I will still grumble but hopefully have softened a bit. You see—as I was trying to escape codependency and developed a strong distaste for it, I was still operating within the system. In interdependency we do not manage others—and with that there is freedom, sweet freedom! Sing your praises!

It took losing my friend and almost my mother to see this. I thought codependency was my husband's thing? Clearly not!

For sometime now I've even recognized American culture as codependent, involving ourselves in the business of other nations while our own crumbles; children keep killing each other, there are messages everywhere that it's not okay to be you, protect you, be respected as you. So, it is virtually impossible to escape this paradigm growing up in this country but this is not an excuse from addressing this within you. It is at the core of EVERYTHING!

You have the right to live freely. You have the right to respect yourself, your needs, your desires.  You have the right to live your life—to marry (or not marry) who you love, to choose the career that makes your heart sing (not the one you are told is going to bring security), to say NO!

Some signs that you are living your life within a codependent paradigm: 

  • You feel resentful of others, especially when they take care of themselves!
  • You feel guilty for asking for your needs! 
  • You feel obligated to do things for others. 
  • You feel mean when you say no. 
  • You are unable to or don't know that you can take part in self-care. 
  • People accuse you of being a 'control freak!' 
  • You feel very out of control in your life. 
  • You feel unloved and uncared for. 
  • You are depressed.  You are anxious.  You are unable to see your future. 
  • You feel that other people own your life.  You feel stifled, smothered…You suffer from FOMO. 

These are just to name a few!

You don't have to live your life this way. And you most definitely do have the right to be happy and to live a life that is yours! In interdependency, we recognize this as a powerful influence not as the harming of others, most especially those we love. In interdependency, we know that we don't have to leave the ones we love behind, but take them with us as long as they are willing.

Read more on reclaiming your inner power on Stacy's blog.


Stacy Donn Cristo, LMHC

Stacy Donn Cristo is a holistic psychotherapist in Providence, RI who specializes in working with students, young adults in their 20s, artists, and adults navigating midlife changes. She is passionate about helping clients heal painful past events and move forward to build meaningful relationships with themselves, their bodies, and their loved ones.