Even the word is off-putting, isn’t it? But I am going to show you how to overcome co-dependency within the next ten minutes.
‘Co-dependency’. It has too many syllables for one thing, the truth it is trying to convey buried in an unnecessary complexity, which can have even the most willing reader falling at the first hurdle.
But don’t despair, hope is at hand. Let us simplify this modern dis-ease by going back a stage and place it in a context which may help things make sense.
For there is bound to be confusion as many cultures, particularly in the west, are so mired in co-dependency that we cannot even see it – it flies beneath our radar.
Co-dependency is a post-industrial word for a pre-industrial problem – although the industrialisation which separated people from nature was pivotal in the escalation of co-dependent traits and behaviours.
For at the root of co-dependency is what earlier cultures would have called soul loss. We can get an inkling of soul loss from reports of NDEs – or Near Death Experiences and other traumatic events – where people seem to leave their bodies, often hovering above the scene. You’ve seen that film with the person hovering over their own hospital bed, right?
Anything Less Than Nurturing
This dissociation, or leaving of the body by the soul, is how the soul or essence of a person protects itself when the body is under threat. Although reports of such cases are rare, we have all heard of them and many of us have experienced a lesser version of this dissociation in childhood.
Co-dependency expert Pia Mellody tells us that trauma can be caused ‘by anything less than nurturing.’ By that definition, radical as it may seem, we are all, traumatised.
To understand that you have to comprehend the delicate and refined nature of the human soul or essence, which is not at home in this dense physical plane and will escape when under threat. You may have been called ‘a sensitive soul’ yourself.
This most often occurs through the defence mechanism of repression, which is particularly common in childhood when we are still innocent of the ways of the world and more easily shocked.
Loss of soul can happen in numerous ways. Here are some:
- Abuse of any kind – physical, sexual, mental or emotional.
- Neglect and abandonment
- Rejection – often the trigger for obsessive relationships in later life
- Having to prop up an impaired parent
- Death of a sibling and its after effects
- Unhealed trauma in earlier generations
- Your soul remaining unseen and unrecognised – all too common in post-industrial societies where the notion of soul has been lost
The origins of co-dependency
Co-dependency then is the child of soul loss and represents a rupture of the relationship with our self. The more trauma we experienced in childhood together with that which remains unhealed in our lineage, the more co-dependent we are likely to be.
If your soul has been invalidated and unseen and you have absented yourself in order to survive then it makes sense to reach outside yourself, most often to another, for security, survival and satisfaction.
Many of us emerge from childhood deeply confused about our identity and seek ourselves through processes that can easily become addictive – sex, food, relationships, work, gambling, drugs, alcohol.
Often, we feel worthless and try to manipulate the world to gain a sense of self-worth only to find it doesn’t work. We get through life by wearing masks and hiding who we are.
The reason co-dependency is less common in tribal cultures is that the soul is honoured, at birth and in ceremonial activity throughout life, and there is little separation from nature and self.
How to Overcome Co-dependency
Let us understand then, we live in a culture that by its very nature is co-dependent. We are trained to look outside of ourselves for success and rarely encouraged to look within and redefine what it is to be a successful human being. That is exacerbated by the misapplication of Christianity that teaches us to put others first often before we have learned self-love.
Here are some of the symptoms that are common amongst people in the west:
- Excessive caretaking
- Loss of identity
- Poor boundaries
- Rescuing behaviours
- Not allowing others to be responsible for their own lives: enabling behaviours
- Loss of interest in life
- Excessive anger – not least at our self-betrayal
- Staying in relationships that are destructive
- Elevating another’s poor qualities into a strength in order to stay in the relationship
- Playing God with self and others
All addictions are seeking a fulfilment in the outer world that can only be found within: a restoration of wholeness driven by an awareness – though often unconscious – that we are not whole.
Co-dependency is the hub of the wheel from which other dysfunction – especially addiction – rotates. But how do we overcome our co-dependency?
The implication of our dis-ease is that the very root of who we are is damaged and needs to be extracted and a new foundation for life laid. But we don’t have to start out that way and can instead gently begin with small changes, otherwise known as baby steps:
- Learn to be gentle with yourself. Step away from the mind’s need for perfection and see instead that drive comes from your lack of self-acceptance, self-love and self-worth
- Educate yourself. Read widely on both co-dependency and soul loss. Self-awareness is key
- Make a list of your relationships and compare the traits that are common to all
- Enter therapy and make friends with yourself, examining your childhood legacy, particularly the parenting pattern
- Learn to give to yourself more and less to others
- Become the observer or witness to your mind and its constant and often negative self-talk
- Set boundaries, both internally and with others
- In so doing, define where you begin and another ends
- Explore how your boundaries were ignored, invaded or invalidated in childhood
- Uncover your blind spots (therapy can really help here) and learn to face your own emptiness
- Consider attending 12-step groups like Al-Anon, Coda and Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous if appropriate
- Recognise your dysfunctional behaviour was initiated for a reason and the desire for wholeness is not wrong, but the evolutional impulse of all beings. Only the methods were misguided. You can learn better methods to get legitimate needs met.
How To Overcome Co-dependency In Marriage
Let us use as a basis this very helpful description of a co-dependent from Wikipedia:
A co-dependent is someone who cannot function on their own and whose thinking and behaviour is instead organized around another person, process, or substance. Many co-dependents place a lower priority on their own needs, while being excessively preoccupied with the needs of others. Co-dependency can occur in any type of relationship, including family, work, friendship, and also romantic, peer or community relationships.
The ‘co’ in co-dependency suggests this is a shared condition, one that needs another to flourish and take hold. We can almost picture the invisible cords which attach us to A.N. Other and the entangled mess we can so easily get into as we seek our wholeness in one another.
We must remember that a relationship is a system and like many systems is seeking equilibrium or balance. If one person is deeply co-dependent: intent on putting their partner’s needs first, ignoring and enabling dysfunctions like alcoholism or drug dependence for instance, and ignoring their own needs, they will have likely attracted their opposite number.
The Sliding Scale Of Mental Health
If we envisage mental health on a sliding scale, we would put co-dependency at one end of our scale and personality disorders/narcissism at the opposing end.
We are dealing with energy – let’s not make this personal – and energy moves around a family system, whatever the size of the family. In a co-dependent relationship, we are dealing with a system which is out of kilter, energy being given away and draining from the co-dependent towards the more outwardly self-centred partner.
I say outwardly, for the co-dependent is also self-serving although its manifestation is less overt and co-dependents often possess an innate kindness and desire to give that others do not.
Not all marriages and partnerships are so diametrically opposed but in extreme cases many are and these two personality types are a natural fit and together seem to make a whole.
Until they don’t, usually not long after the honeymoon high. But co-dependency can creep into seemingly benign unions and it is all too easy finding yourself walking on eggshells around a loved one as their love and approval becomes increasingly important.
Many can’t imagine being without their husband or wife although inevitably at some point that day will come. Yet all through literature, including The Bible, we are warned against this.
In one of the most famous spiritual texts, The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran, the author exhorts partners to give each other space: ’Let there be spaces in your togetherness…Love one another but make not a bond of love…The oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadows.’
The message is clear: your soul is your own. Do not give up your relationship with yourself, even in marriage.
But shifting long-established ways of being can be awkward and it is necessary to face the discomfort of change. Here are things we can do:
- Pursue interests that may have lapsed – with friends or alone
- Examine your beliefs about marriage, many of which will be inherited. Are they true for you?
- Set boundaries and learn to say no
- Accept you are powerless over how your partner responds while being mindful of not becoming anti-dependent (although you may need to for a while)
- Explain to your partner what you are doing and why: good communication really helps
- Understand that self-love must come first from now on
- Accept responsibility for your own life and happiness
- See clearly you have been trying to fix or change your partner in order to become happy, and its futility
- Find a good support group with others grappling with similar issues and behaviours (as mentioned above)
How To Overcome Co-dependency and Live A Fulfilled Life
After more than 30 years of working my own recovery and 25 helping others, I have seen all too often how easy it is to fall into old traps. The price of any form of sobriety is eternal vigilance. That’s number one.
The second is a willingness to take responsibility for our own life and fulfilment. The truth is there are many people who are born into this world who do not want to be here. That is something we all have to make peace with: we are here and we may as well get on with it and enjoy it.
One of the chief ways we can do that is to commit to ourselves and our own souls, recognising that whatever cards life dealt us, we are much bigger than who we appear to be. The world – even our families – may never recognise the inherent grandness and beauty of the soul – our own or theirs – but it is up to us to do so.
For that is what we are recovering, our true identity beyond name and form that has nothing to do with our biography, and everything to do with the divine spark we carry within. If we can learn to live from that place of self-realization fulfilment comes as a natural consequence.
We can of course do many things to help ourselves, some listed above, the chief of which is to discover and listen to that still, small voice within that bears unerring truth.
We then have to have the courage to listen to it and obey, something our co-dependency can arrest before we even get started.
For most, learning how to overcome co-dependency is a lifelong journey, and at the outset of your recovery when you are likely feeling beaten by life, that can seem hard. But it really isn’t, for you will soon see that a wonderful new journey awaits with all the joys of self-discovery and the bliss that is your birth right.