Codependency can develop for many reasons: an addiction or chronic illness in the family, an attachment disorder from past trauma, or having lived in a dysfunctional environment, among others. Codependency is even transmittable, passing down from parent to child, and from partner to partner. Mental Health America defines codependency as an “emotional and behavioural condition that affects an individual’s ability to have a healthy, mutually satisfying relationship.” This condition can often make us feel broken or defective in some way – like we need other people to stay close to us to have a chance at survival. In trying so hard to survive and avoid abandonment, we often end up giving our sense of self away.
Dysfunctional family dynamics are often to blame. If we live in an environment or have a relationship where it isn’t safe to be honest, have needs, or express our emotions, we shut these things down to protect ourselves. We focus all of our energy exclusively on either making others happy or saving them from their destructive habits.
Even after we leave these toxic relationships, the adaptations we were forced to make stay hardwired into our brains. We might surrender opinions, avoid asking for help, or try to control others. Or we might become clingy, anxious, and insecure. It’s also possible to have both. This hardwiring is permanent, and will continue to affect our relationships until we work to change it. The good news is that it’s always possible to find ourselves again – because no human being is ever born codependent.
Growing up, I had multiple “masks” that I wore to protect myself and keep the people around me happy. I got very good at it. I had a “bubbly” mask for when I wanted to hide sadness, loneliness, or anger. I had an “invisibility” mask for when I didn’t feel safe. And I had a “good girl” mask for when my parents got reactive, and I had to calm them down. However, there was a problem. One of these disguises was not under my control. When I wore it, I felt insensitive and callous. I hated that part of me. I called the persona “bitchy Emily” and stuffed her down where no one else could see.
It took me until I was twenty-four years old to realize that the “bitchy” mask was my assertiveness. Standing up for myself created more conflict at home, and so I learned to despise that part of myself. As an adult, I survived the same way. I surrendered my personhood as a way to maintain friendships, prevent crises, and keep the peace. Being alone filled me with anxiety. I had the nagging sense that, without someone to help, without someone to tell me who I was, I didn’t deserve to exist. I wasn’t real. I later found out that this is a form of dissociation, which is sometimes the result of trauma and prolonged emotional distress.
How do we heal from a lost sense of self? We start by going in search of our sovereignty. Codependents can feel like an annexed country, dependent on a larger nation for resources and protection. Or maybe you feel like you are the sole source of support and stability in the relationship. The truth is that, as codependents, we have been invaded. We are being willingly occupied. We will need to draw on a deeply buried source of strength to reclaim our right to govern ourselves. Sometimes that means allowing ourselves to feel the emotions we have been suppressing.
One of the landmarks on the road to codependency recovery is detachment. Despite its connotations, detachment in the psychological sense does not mean indifference. A healthy attachment to others allows us to feel loved, connected, and safe – and also allows us unlimited freedom to explore living. Detachment describes the state of residing in ourselves – neither controlling nor being controlled by the people around us. If we put our value in other people, when they move we are forced to move with them. It becomes a dance of necessity.
I must note here that detached relationships look different when children are involved. Children are dependent on their caregivers for sustenance, protection, and emotional support. They are also still forming their sense of self, and they need a healthy attachment to do that. When a child feels securely attached, she will automatically follow the urge to explore her environment, knowing she can always come back to her “home base.” As adults, we form home bases inside ourselves.
People have described the feeling of healthy detachment in different ways. For me, it’s a feeling of solidity, of standing grounded in myself. A friend of mine describes it as a sense of amusement when things that used to bother her no longer do. Detachment allows for the integration of the disparate parts of ourselves, our “masks,” that painful circumstances forced us to cut away. Slowly, you will find that the anxiety dissipates, the shame lifts, and the confusion clears away. Spending time alone will be healing again.
Sometimes it takes months or years to recover the lost pieces of our identities. The urge to be hard on ourselves for not improving faster is always there. Sometimes we might be afraid that after we have peeled all the codependency away, that there will be nothing left but a pile of tangled bandages on the floor. This thought could not be farther from the truth. We are sovereign beings, with our own thoughts, emotions, and opinions. And they matter, not because someone else puts value on them, but because we have them. We are made to be free.
Detaching from others does not weaken connections. If anything, it strengthens the good relationships while protecting you from unhealthy ones. Have you ever put aside your strength because someone told you that you weren’t strong? Put aside your innate intelligence because someone called you stupid? They had no right to change who you were. And they have no right now.
Beattie, M. (1992). Codependent No More. Hazelden Publishing.
Beattie, M. (1989). Beyond Codependency. Hazelden Publishing.
Chen, A. (2019). The Attachment Theory Workbook. Althea Press.
Codependents Anonymous International: https://coda.org/
CPTSD Foundation: www.cptsdfoundation.org
Mental Health America. (2020). Codependency. www.mhanational.org/issues/co-dependency