There is no consensus for the definition of codependency. The concept has been evolving over the past several decades from the self-help culture to the treatment industry. Some people find the use of the term codependency enlightening. However, lack of agreement on the definition and overgeneralized use of the term has caused some to determine that codependency is not a legitimate concept; they completely object to its use. How someone develops codependency can be a mystery. Codependency may emerge in the family of origin or adulthood. Another confusing factor is that many chemically dependent individuals are also codependent. So don’t worry if you are confused. You are in good company.
M.K. O’Regan developed a succinct and practical working definition of codependency early in her career as a counselor for chemically dependent individuals and loved ones. It was necessary to develop a pragmatic definition which appealed to clients who were identifying issues of codependency for the first time as well as those with previous knowledge. This working definition is: “Codependency is when I focus so much on another person, I lose the ability to take care of myself.”
There are several advantages to this brief working definition:
• The essential problem is defined: A person’s attention is hyper-focused on others. They cannot focus on themselves long enough to discover their true thoughts and feelings.
• A solution is implied: Flexibility of focus allows a person to focus on self, in order to do the “Feel, Deal, and Heal” work required of recovery.
• The definition is skill based: Flexibility of focus is an essential skill in recovery. A person must know where his/her attention is, on self or on other.
• The definition is constructed as an “I statement”: Many people are skilled at focusing on others and overuse “You statements”. Use of the first person singular, I, clarifies exactly where the focus is.
• The definition is not black and white. Ask an addict if they have had a good day and they will answer according to whether or not they used, Yes or No. Ask a codependent the same question and the answer is not so simple. They may know what their loved one’s day was like, but be oblivious to their own conditions.
There are many behavioral styles of codependency. The common thread linking them together is that some developmental or relational need has not yet been met. This may lead to unresolved fear, and shame based psychological, social and spiritual problems. A recovery program such as the 12 step programs of Al-Anon, Alateen, Adult Children of Alcoholics and Other Dysfunctional Families (ACA), and Co-Dependents Anonymous (CoDA) address the holistic nature of the healing. Recovery is acknowledged as a process, not an event.
The rewards of recovery are transformational. As often stated in the 12 step rooms of recovery, “We learn to live life on life’s terms.” Al-Anon, the 12 step program for family and friends of alcoholics founded in 1951, identified two of the family system roles- the Chemically Dependent person and the Enabler. Al-Anon describes an enabler as someone who becomes over responsible for the progressively under responsible alcoholic. Typical behaviors of the Enabler are fix, rescue, protect, control and hyper-focus on the alcoholic/addict. Al-Anon does not use the label codependent. The term had not yet been created when Al-Anon was established.
Family System theorists expanded the understanding of codependency as they compiled information about children of alcoholics. Children of alcoholics exhibited certain characteristics as a result of living with overwhelming stressors. Raised with the spoken/ unspoken rule of a dysfunctional family system of “Don’t Talk, Don’t Trust, Don’t Feel”, the children took on specific survivor roles in the family system. Trapped in their roles, children of dysfunctional families learn to stuff their feelings. Unless the child is fortunate enough to experience a therapeutic intervention, the problems associated with stuffed feelings are compounded during adolescence and adulthood.
Added to the roles of the “Chemically Dependent” and “Enabler” are the: “Hero”, “Scapegoat”, “Lost Child” and “Mascot”. Despite differences in outward appearances, all the roles have something in common. Due to stuffed feelings of fear and shame, each of these types of children are hyper- focused on the external world.
The Hero child becomes aligned with the Enabler and learns to be over responsible. They become experts at getting positive attention. Hero children exercise a high need to control in order to feel safe and cope with their fear of failure. These children become the family’s socially acceptable representative to the outside world and are high achievers. The Scapegoat child does not compete with the Hero Child for positive attention. They become experts at getting negative attention. They are rebellious and frequently get into trouble. The role of these children is to be the new family problem. They take the focus off the adults’ dysfunction.
The Lost child appears independent and learns to survive by becoming virtually invisible. They become experts at getting no attention. However, avoidance is not autonomy. These children require little of the family’s already limited resources of attention. As one mom said, “That’s my no sweat kid!”
The Mascot child breaks up the tension in the family. They become experts at getting positive attention. These children have an unusually well-developed sense of humor and provide distracting entertainment to the family. Despite a high level of sociability, the Mascot desperately requires approval. Adult Children are adults who internally carry the dictates of their childhood roles, “Don’t Talk, Don’t Trust, Don’t Feel”. A person who has chronically focused on others, has stuffed their own emotional energy.
However, recovery is possible. For instance, once the codependent gains some recovery skills, they realize the value of identifying their own feelings. Dealing with feelings is a big deal! Feelings are E-motions, energy that needs to move. Recovering codependents learn to move emotional energy rather than stay stuck in old feelings.
Recovering codependents have learned, “Do Talk, Do Trust, Do Feel”. Self-worth improves and authentic relationships with themselves and others blossom. CoDA (coda.org) identifies 12 promises for the recovering codependent. Three of these are:
• “I overcome my fears and act with courage, integrity and dignity.”
• “I am capable of developing and maintaining healthy and loving relationships.”
• “I gradually experience serenity, strength, and spiritual growth in my daily life.”
The definition of codependency is still nebulous, however, it is amazing how many lives are saved and improved due to recovery from codependency.
Jacqui Jarzab EdD, LMHC, CAP began her career as a
hypnotherapist for the systemic desensitization of early trauma. As
an Adult Child she began recovery through the Anon Anew treatment
center. She remains passionate about 12 Step recovery work.
M.K O’Regan MS, MCAP began her career after completing the
Chemical Dependency Counselor Trainee Program at Hazelden
in Minnesota. She has a private practice as a Life Coach and
conducts psychoeducational groups at her office in Jupiter, Florida.