Nature of Codependency

When people are codependent, they need approval from others in order to feel safe and worthy; this results in displaying compulsive behaviours in order to gain other people’s approval.

For example, a codependent person might feel they have to arrive absolutely on time, to be in a certain place or to wear certain clothes, in a desperate attempt to fit in with others and so gain their approval.

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Whereas – in most relationships (of whatever type, not just romantic) – people are still able to see themselves and function as individuals (for example, expressing their own needs), a codependent person experiences an emotional bond to another so they see themselves as part of them, and are unable to separate psychologically from them.

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Signs of Codependency

Signs that a client may be codependent include:

  • low self-esteem (as the person doesn’t have a sense of their own identity – this can sometimes be seen in gang members)
  • people-pleasing (wanting to make everybody feel good, or even tolerating abuse, because they need people around them)
  • poor boundaries (since they lack a sense of self, meaning that their boundaries may be managed by someone else)
  • obsessiveness
  • fear of abandonment
  • feelings of emptiness (which may relate to a lack of personal identity)
  • difficulty in identifying own feelings
  • need to control others (so that they can meet the expectations of the person who’s controlling them
  • dishonesty (having an underdeveloped sense of right and wrong)
  • chronic anger (due to the frustration of not being able to pursue their own desires)
  • lack of creativity, spontaneity and flexibility.

As a counsellor, you need to be vigilant for signs that a client may become dependent on you, transferring their codependency from the person who’s controlling them onto you.

Common signs that a client is becoming dependent on their counsellor include:

  • saying that they couldn’t manage without their counselling sessions or asking for your phone number for between-session contact
  • coming for therapy but not engaging in personal change, instead wanting to use the time just to be with and chat to the counsellor
  • bringing up big issues that they’ve previously never mentioned just as their fixed-term therapy is due to end (as a way to prolong contact with you)
  • asking a lot of personal questions about you
  • saying that you remind them of someone close to them (so exhibiting transference)
  • acting out in the therapy room by reacting in a childlike way (trying to get you to act as parent)
  • becoming manipulative.

Origins of Codependency

Codependency may derive from experiencing abusive relationships – as abusers often undermine the other person’s confidence to the point where they cannot make their own decisions.

This is sometimes known as trauma bonding or Stockholm syndrome.

Addiction can also lead to co-dependency – for example, in people who do sex work because they need the money to fund an addiction to drugs or alcohol.

There’s evidence to suggest that people who have experienced childhood neglect or abuse by – or extended separation from – a primary caregiver can be left with a kind of hunger for love.

An physically abused woman crying - Codependency may derive from experiencing abusive relationships.

This may manifest itself as co-dependency in adulthood. Conversely, co-dependency can occur in young carers, who are tied in this way to their parents.

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Codependency-Related Theory

Codependency links to Carl Rogers’ concepts of conditions of worth and introjected values, meaning that codependent people are working to an external (as opposed to internal) locus of evaluation. In transactional analysis theory, this relates to injunctions and drivers.

It is the self-actualising tendency that leads to the link between codependency and anger, as the person naturally strives to actualise yet is held back by their participation in being controlled by someone else.

Other relevant theory here is separation–individuation theory, developed in the late 1960s by Hungarian medic Margaret Mahler as part of object relations theory.

She believed that children go through stages of ego development, allowing them to separate gradually from their primary caregiver. The development of ego here relates to the child becoming an individual and forming their own personality.

The individual’s sense of self and others affects all subsequent interpersonal relationships. In other words, how comfortable you feel in your own skin affects the relationships you have with others.

To be balanced in the world, we need emotional balance, through having a well-developed sense of self. But sometimes, a person can become stuck in the symbiotic stage of development, meaning that they cannot separate themselves from others.

Working with Codependent Clients

When working with clients who seem to be codependent, various aspects of our approach are important:

  • Compassion: the client may not have received the core conditions of empathy, congruence and unconditional positive regard in their early development; doing so now will be very nurturing.
  • Assessment: for example, if a client is dependent on drugs and alcohol, they may need additional forms of s
  • Patience: changing habits and behaviours of a lifetime can be frightening and time-consuming. For clients who have historic or situational codependency, therapy is a process, not an event. Long-term therapy is usually required.
  • Challenge: you will need to gently challenge the client on their irrational beliefs, e.g. that they cannot survive on their own or that they must adhere to rigid patterns of behaviour.
  • Boundaries: because part of growing up is acting out, codependent clients who are now starting to find their own identity may, for example, arrive late for appointments, become angry with you or act in other childlike It is important to be strong as a therapist to deal with this, making sure that you hold firm boundaries. In this way, we are being adult so that they can replicate that in their own life.
  • Attention: being an adult includes being fully present; to receive this full attention may be new for the client.
  • Self-awareness: it’s important to ensure that you avoid transference by questioning who you are to the client. This is an important area to discuss in clinical supervision.
  • Encouragement: remember that what seems like a small step to you may be huge for the client.

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