By Randi G. Fine
Codependency is an emotional disorder that begins forming in childhood, but it does not reveal itself until a person starts having adult relationships.
Codependents are people pleasers whom, for a variety of reasons, learned early on that placating others brought a semblance of order and emotional safety to their world.
Though a variety of dysfunctional dynamics contribute to this emotional disorder, boundary issues are always at the core.
Boundaries are the protective emotional and physical borders that exist between us and others. We use them to define the perimeters that make us unique and separate from everyone else. They are how we regulate our acceptance of how others treat us. When our boundaries are healthy our sense of self is healthy; we do not allow others to use or abuse us. When they are unhealthy we lack self-esteem, confidence, and judgment.
Boundaries develop as we move through the childhood stages toward individuality, as we become separate selves from our parents. When our separation and uniqueness within a family unit is encouraged and nurtured, our boundaries develop in a healthy manner. When these things are underdeveloped or stunted, so is our boundary system.
We learn how to apply boundaries to our lives by watching the way our parents or guardians apply boundaries to theirs. If our parents have weakly defined boundaries, chances are that we will too.
When I entered therapy and my therapist first explained that much of my suffering was rooted in boundary issues, I had no idea what she was talking about. I had never heard the term “boundary” used in that context. I thought she was way off-target. But over time, as she provided examples of what a life with healthy boundaries looked like, it became apparent to me that she was right. I realized that I had a hard time distinguishing where I left off and where certain other people in my life began. And I recognized my confusion in separating intimacy from enmeshment.
My healing began once I was able to make those distinctions. It continued when I stopped allowing others to cross over the perimeters I learned how to establish.
Though it was not easily accomplished the hard work paid off for me. I no longer have any of my codependent tendencies. All my relationships are healthy ones. I have been married to my current husband for thirty years. It is a relationship that would never have been possible in my prior state of mind. And the accomplishment that I am most proud of is that I raised two emotionally healthy children. The odds of doing that were not in my favor.
Most of us do not consciously evaluate our personal boundary systems. We are as unaware of their functions as we are many other behavior patterns ingrained in us as children. But they are the first things we must examine when our lives become unmanageable, our relationships disastrous.
Changing our codependent behaviors involves learning how to define ourselves as separate from others, learning how to discriminate between what feels right and what feels wrong, and learning how to allow others to take responsibility for their own lives.
This is a mental health issue, an addiction. Until the codependent becomes aware of his problem and acknowledges the part he plays in the failure of all his relationships, he will repeat the destructive behavior over and over.
The good news is that unlike other addictions, I believe codependency is curable. With tenacity and dedication it is a condition that, in my opinion, can be completely overcome.
Complete recovery requires exploration into childhood issues and their relationship to present patterns, but current patterns should always be addressed and managed first. The fellowship and support of groups such as CODA, Nar Anon, and Al Anon are invaluable to this process. These groups are attended by others who well-relate to what the codependent person is going through. Meetings are usually held at convenient places and should be relatively easy to find in almost all communities. Everything shared within the confines of the meetings is confidential, so attendees can speak freely and trust that what they say will not leave the room.
Faith, whether religious, spiritual, or however one wishes to define it, is essential to the process. Faith is what keeps us moving forward when things seem hopeless. We must find a source of strength outside of ourselves that can carry us during difficult times such as these.
Several helpful books and articles have been written on the topic of codependency. They can be found through internet searching or by browsing through a bookstore or library. I expedited my own healing process by reading as many books as I could find on the topic.
Whatever methods are chosen, the important thing to remember is that recovery will take time, support, and patience. Those who choose to embark on this healing journey must be kind, gentle, and forgiving with themselves. They will stumble, but the end result makes all the effort worthwhile-freedom, happiness, serenity, and fulfillment are the rewards.
The desire to help others is not a weakness and in most cases it does not indicate a codependent disorder. We should all help whenever we can. Loving, sharing, and caring are what living is truly about. For those of us who enjoy giving of ourselves but find it difficult to distinguish between helping and enabling there is a simple rule to follow. Helping is doing something for others that they are incapable of doing for themselves. It is a generous act that is appreciated not abused. It is a hand up not a hand out. Enabling is doing for others what they could and should be doing for themselves. It prevents the other person from facing the consequences of their choices. It is therefore an act that is more destructive than helpful.
A great deal of help is out there these days for those who desire it-resources are much more plentiful now than they were when I needed them in the eighties.
Remember… to have emotionally healthy relationships we must be emotionally healthy ourselves. Before we save the world we must first save ourselves.