Henry Thoreau stated, “There is nothing so rare as an act of your own.” However, why would acting upon one’s own thoughts and feelings be so rare or difficult to do?
According to John Bradshaw, “co-dependency is the most common family illness.” Co-dependence is a set of maladaptive, compulsive behaviors learned by a person in order to survive in a stressed or dysfunctional family.
Dysfunctional families involve a primary stressor such as the presence of alcoholism, depression, righteousness, passive/aggressiveness, actual illness or death, any abuse, or the controlling of feelings and situations. The family member who exhibits the stressor creates a threat to other members who must now adjust.
In an attempt to control the stress, members adapt to the person using ‘fight or flight’ coping mechanisms. This adaptation creates the co-dependency in that a person changes his/her behaviour due to the behaviour of another.
Some coping mechanisms include denial (“Oh, there’s nothing wrong here.”), withdrawal (emotional shut down) and reactive (anger) or re-enacting behaviour (start to drink).
These adapting behaviours become engrained in our childhood psyches and remain long after the stressor is removed (e.g., the alcoholic passes out, we move out) and continue into adulthood. Symptoms of co-dependency include controlling behavior, distrust in self and/or others, perfectionism, rigidity, avoidance of and difficulty identifying feelings, boundary problems, physical illness related to stress, and hyper-vigilance.
A common sign of co-dependency is the extreme need for approval and recognition. This often manifests in caregiving, often with an exaggerated sense of responsibility for others, a fear of being abandoned or being alone, and the tendency to do more than the share, often becoming hurt when people don’t recognize these efforts.
Co-dependent people have a greater tendency to enter into relationships with people who are emotionally unavailable or needy. The co-dependent relinquishes his or her needs and desires, setting up a parent-child dynamic.
Co-dependents feel that they are acting in another person’s best interest which makes it difficult for them to see their hovering, interfering and controlling nature. Although the intentions seem good, the focussing on others weakens the co-dependent’s sense of self and autonomy. In this way, co-dependents set themselves up for continual lack of fulfillment and have taken on the martyr role.
As with any coping mechanism, there comes a time when they no longer serve us. The co-dependent begins to feel like a victim. Depression, frustration and anxiety appear as the co-dependent fails to improve situations regardless of their efforts. Their soul may finally cry, “What about me!”
We all exhibit some degree of co-dependency in our relationships. Look for times of caretaking, feeling responsible for other’s feelings or situation, giving unsolicited advice, and being passive and nice. Feeling disappointed or hurt by others may also indicate our co-dependent expectations.
We are wise to note Melody Beattie’s insight, “Once I realized it was okay for me to think about and identify what I wanted, remarkable things began to take place in my life.”