Codependency is not a disease – it’s a habit! Codependency is a relationship based on a false premise or belief. The belief is that the needs and feelings of one person in a relationship are more important than the needs and feelings of the other person.
When one member of the relationship is an addict his or her needs usually take precedent. The addict is also a codependent and participates fully in the false belief system.
The best way to escape from a codependent relationship is to start acting as if your needs and feelings are just as important as the needs and feelings of your partner. In this case your partner can be your spouse, any member of your family, a friend, a coworker or anyone who shares this belief system with you.
Of course, if you’re in a codependent relationship you both may have long forgotten, if you ever even knew, how to recognize your own needs and feelings. When you can’t recognize a problem you can’t do anything to solve it. Unmet needs hurt. You each solve the problem of managing that pain in different ways.
- If you are an addict, you “use” something to distract yourself from the pain.
- If you’re the addict’s partner you use the addict’s problem behavior to distract you from what you need and feel.
Even if you come to believe that your needs and feelings (yourself) are just as important, not more important, and not less important, then the needs of your partner (himself or herself), it still will take work to change the codependent pattern. And even if you don’t believe that you and your partner are equally important. You can change the pattern by changing your behavior, one step at a time. Once you do that, your beliefs will probably change also.
You can learn to do each of these three important things a little bit at a time in no particular order.
1. Identify your emotions and use them as signals to help you discover what you need.
2. Change the stories you tell yourself about who you are.
3. Practice making healthy decisions that take into account your needs and feelings, your partner’s needs and feelings, and the realistic limitations of every situation you’re in.
Identify Your Emotions
The best way to learn the language of your emotions is to tune into the sensations in your body:
- Anger – Some people experience anger with tightening of muscles, and impulse to strike out, and sometimes a feeling of heat. To learn your own signals, notice how you feel when you are frustrated in getting something you really want.
- Sadness – This is often experienced by lack of energy, a feeling of collapse, a tightening in the throat or an urge to cry.
- Fear – some people report fear as an inability to move. Some experience
a coldness or “shaking like a leaf.” Others experience it as butterflies in the tummy or even severe abdominal distress. Some feel the physical impulse to run and hide.
- Joy – this is often experienced as a lightness, and excitement. Accompanied by an urge to move. Sometimes a release of tension leads to tears of joy.
Sometimes you get your signals crossed. You may feel an urge to cry when you’re angry, as well as when you’re sad. You might feel an urge to strike out when you’re frightened. It is important that you learn to calibrate your own impulses instead of acting on them immediately. Once you’ve learned to do this, you can use your feelings as information that you need or want something. Then you can stop and think about what would actually relieve your discomfort – or allow you to express your joy.
You’ll learn that emotions are temporary. Often they dissipate soon after you express them. Their purpose is to signal you that you need something so that you take action to take care of yourself. As you learn to think about your feelings and take action to get what you need, you won’t need to distract yourself by using substances or concern for others to ease your pain.
Change the Stories You Tell Yourself
You learn to tell stories to explain a complicated world to yourself. Everyone does this. The problem is not that you tell yourself stories; the problem is that you believe them. Once you settle on a particular story or explanation of how things happen you forget that other explanations are possible.
The story you tell yourself about who you are in the world has an enormous influence on how you approach problems. There are lots of different popular story themes that lead to different actions. An addict or an addict’s partner (both codependents) often tells stories about being powerless.
- “I never do anything right.” You notice all your mistakes, criticize yourself for having the problem, wait around hoping someone else will fix the problem, and put off any action. You may do something to help you forget the problem like take a nap, surf the web or read your junk mail. If you’re an addict, you may use your substance of choice to manage your discomfort.
- “It’s not my fault.” You notice everything that others do wrong and spend a lot of time and energy telling them about it. You’re angry that they don’t take your advice, and complain to your friends about how inconsiderate, incompetent and incapable other people are.
- “If I want something done right, I have to do it myself.” When you’re in relation with an addict, you stay on top of all the details and make sure everything is done correctly. You are super responsible, overcommitted and exhausted.
The stories you tell yourself are like old habits. They are familiar and comfortable. If you change your story, you will start to notice different things about the world, and these will lead you to take different actions. There are a couple of alternative themes that you might consider adopting.
- “I’m a competent person.” You notice the resources you have available
– money, friends, time, transportation, etc., and start using them to find a solution to whatever challenge you are facing.
- “I live in a wonderfully exciting world.” You see problems as challenging opportunities. You explore creative solutions and if they do not work out, you try new ones.
If you are living a story you do not like, choose a new one to try on and play with it. It’s a little like buying new clothes. Spend a few minutes every day, reminding yourself about your new story. Paste your new story on your bathroom mirror, your refrigerator, your desk or the steering wheel of your car. The more you practice, the easier it will be to stop feeling like a victim of your old story.
Practice Making Healthy Decisions.
If you’re in a codependent relationship you typically make decisions that count only your own needs and feelings, or the needs and feelings of your partner in the relationship. A very simple way to get out of the codependence habit is to practice making decisions that take into account both your own and your partner’s needs and feelings.
This means thinking and talking about what each of you wants, and learning to negotiate. It also means approaching the world realistically and accepting your social and financial limits so that the decisions you make together support your growth.
Breaking the codependent habit is a challenge and it’s definitely a challenge worth accepting!
Laurie Weiss, Ph.D. has been helping heal codependent relationships for over 40 years. She is an internationally known psychotherapist, coach and author of 6 books and dozens of articles. Her print and Kindle books are available at www.amazon.com/author/laurieweiss Download your Kindle edition of Emotional Self Help: I Don’t Need Therapy,.. But Where Do I Turn for Answers? for additional resources for breaking the habit of codependency. Dr. Laurie Weiss has been in private practice with her husband since 1972. John Bradshaw says “The Weisses are the best…therapists who use a true developmental approach. I am indebted to them.” www.EmpowermentSystems.com, www.LaurieWeiss.com