I’d like to talk about one of the causes of anxiety that doesn’t get a lot of press: codependency. I have personally struggled with it since childhood, and only since seeing it for what it is have I been able to heal from the bewildering cycle of fear, torment, and shame that codependency creates.
Please note: This post is not meant to replace the advice of a mental health professional. If you think you may be codependent, please seek help. There are links to resources at the end of this post.
Melody Beattie, author of Codependent No More, defines a codependent person the following way:
“A codependent person is one who has let another person’s behavior affect him or her, and who is obsessed with controlling that person’s behavior.” (59)
Many times, codependency arises as a coping mechanism for dealing with really difficult issues in our lives – or difficult people. If there is addiction, mental illness, or chronic physical illness in the relationship, there is a high chance that the person in the caring role will develop codependency. Now – not all people in relationships like these are codependent. And codependency can happen in a relationship without these difficulties, too.
Codependency manifests itself differently for different people. Some of the warning signs are:
- Not knowing how one feels, or what one thinks
- Walking on eggshells around the loved one
- Soaking up the loved one’s emotions
- Suffering from intense anxiety when the loved one is angry or sad
- A fear of being alone
- Difficulty trusting others
- Difficulty trusting oneself
- Always deferring to the loved one when planning activities
- Obsessively trying to “make things better” by giving unsolicited advice
- Hiding or downplaying the loved one’s addiction or illness when it affects one’s life
- Not having separate friends, hobbies, or activities from the loved one
- Making excuses for the loved one
- Being passive-aggressive
- Always trying to “rescue” the loved one from themselves
- Harping on the loved one that “they never change” when rescuing doesn’t work
- Getting upset and sad when harping doesn’t work
- Shame and self-loathing
Before we continue, here’s a crucial side-note. The most important thing you can do, if any of these bullet points resonated with you, is to focus on having compassion for yourself. I know, I know, easier said than done. And it’s okay if you’re not in that place right now. Developing self-compassion is one of the hardest things we can ever learn to do.
Self-compassion allows us to take a look at our own habits and behaviours and move forward with a sense of love, not anxiety. As The Anxiety & Phobia Workbook by Edmund J. Bourne says,
“Recovering from codependency in essence involves learning to love and take care of yourself.” (240)
So why does codependency cause anxiety?
Part of the reason is because we’ve stopped listening to our needs and emotions. We wait for the addict in our lives to change, to stop creating so much hurt. Maybe we try to take the issue on ourselves, or just hunker down and wait for the bombs to stop falling. Deep down where no one else can see, we don’t think our emotions or opinions really matter, even though we desperately want to feel loved and valued. Sometimes repressing the anger and sadness can backfire by causing intense panic attacks. Or it can lead to us lashing out at loved ones for small things that no one has any control over.
Codependency is a coping strategy, but it’s one that hurts us. It causes us to try to “rescue” people from their problems. It’s such an easy thing to do – like looking over someone’s shoulder when they’re doing a jigsaw puzzle and seeing where the next piece should fit. But it’s more than that. Codependency compels us to help, to take over. Because if we’re in control, the horrible anxiety fades to the background.
Looking at the why and the what of how we feel can be really painful. This is why self-compassion is important. It’s easy to get sucked into the spiral of thinking awful things about yourself, feeling overly guilty, and then cracking under the weight of the self-induced shame. Slow down. Take a deep breath. Give yourself a quick hug if you need it. Then keep going.
I would like to share a mental tool that can help soothe anxiety when you have the urge to “rescue” someone or are suffering through an enormous amount of anxiety over someone else.
Imagine your thoughts, emotions, and inner life as your “house”. Make it as detailed, beautiful, and relaxing as you want it to be. Do you have plants? Is there a bookshelf? What do you see when you look out the window in the kitchen? Walk through each room of your house. It will change and grow with you as you form new habits and learn new things.
Now imagine that all the people you’ve ever met, including the difficult people in your life, have their own “house”, too. This represents everything that they’re responsible for, including their emotions, actions, and the consequences of their actions.
What happens when we’re codependent? We end up “couch-surfing” in other people’s houses. We don’t get enough sleep, we’re constantly on edge lest we do something that bothers our host, and we lug around a suitcase of stinky laundry.
When you catch yourself obsessing over the well-being of another person, slow down. Say to your thoughts, Nope. I’m staying in my own house. That’s not my problem. This may take some practice for it to become easier. That’s okay.
When we stay in our own “houses” and only take responsibility for our own thoughts, emotions, and actions, we are learning to be free. And the feeling is amazing.
You may also notice that your own house has been a bit neglected. It just needs care and time. The incredible thing about recovering from codependency is that the freedom you discover won’t disappear. It is your birthright.
With love and hope,
If you are in an abusive relationship and don’t feel safe, call 911. There are links to resources below.
Links to Resources:
CoDependents Anonymous Canada
CoDependents Anonymous International
National Domestic Violence Hotline
Crisis Text Line (Canada)
Text HOME to 686868 in Canada to talk to a trained crisis responder.
Domestic Violence Helpline (USA)
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (USA)
(For a list of further helplines, please visit https://psychcentral.com/lib/common-hotline-phone-numbers/ )
Beattie, Melody. Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself, 2nd ed, Hazelden Publishing, 1992.
Bourne, Edmund J. The Anxiety & Phobia Workbook, 5th ed, New Harbinger Publications, Inc, 2010.