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Co-dependency is a personality style characterized by passivity, feelings of low self-worth, and a need to constantly “help” others, especially one’s primary partner, and especially a person addicted to alcohol, drugs or other process addictions. Co-dependent people usually put aside their own needs in order to try to meet the needs of another person or other people. Although they may report how much they dislike this role, they are actually gaining a sense of importance, relieving loneliness, and/or avoiding working on their own issues and needs. On the other hand, some codependent people will report that they enjoy their role, but in fact are chronically unhappy, anxious, or addicted to drugs or alcohol themselves. There is a great deal of literature written on this subject, as well as many support groups in most cities. Al-Anon, a 12-step model group for the families of alcoholics or addicts, is centered on the issue of co-dependency, and on helping members break their cycles of dependency.

Signs of Co-dependency

Characteristics of co-dependency may include:

  • Consistently focusing on others needs even at your own expense.
  • Being unable to receive help from others; feeling uneasy when others focus their attention on you.
  • A sense of self based entirely on being a “helper.”
  • Much of your time and energy spent taking care of someone who abuses alcohol, drugs or other process addictions.
  • Unable to be alone or not in an intimate relationship.
  • Feeling responsible anytime someone close to you suffers.
  • Seeming very competent on the outside but actually feeling quite needy, helpless, or numb.
  • Having experienced abuse or emotional neglect as a child, or having grown up with an addicted or alcoholic parent or parent.
  • Rarely expressing your true thoughts, needs or feelings because you fear they would displease others, and perhaps taking pride in this fact.

Therapy for Co-dependency

People who experience codependency benefit from treatment that addresses loss of self. Co-dependency is usually rooted in childhood. The family of origin may create an environment in which an individual first develops codependent behaviours. Children of abusive or neglectful parents may develop patterns of servitude and ingratiation in order to survive, thus sacrificing their own needs and desires. Survivors of sexual abuse may never develop their own sense of sexual identity and satisfaction, always putting the needs of a sexually manipulative and controlling partner first. Psychotherapy can help people understand why they overcompensate, fulfill everyone’s needs but their own, or put themselves last. Whatever their symptoms of codependency are, they can be discovered through therapy. Once identified, a therapist can help an individual understand why they developed these behaviours and what consequences they have had on their lives and the lives of those around them. This is the first step in transforming emotional reactions and behaviours. Cognitive behavioural therapy, trauma therapy, and other psychotherapies that aim to address both emotional and behavioural responses are highly effective forms of treatment for codependency.