Codependency As An Addictive Behaviour: What Does This Really Mean & How Do We Stop It?

When I think about codependency, I’m aware of many emotions that a lot of people feel – such as scared, lonely, worthless, and hopeless.  In my opinion, codependency issues are what lie beneath all addictive behaviors, and once we heal these, addiction falls by the wayside because it is no longer needed as a coping strategy.

The word “codependent” got its start in the 1930’s, meaning something a little different.  At that time, the word was hyphenated and meant to describe Lois Wilson (and women like her), who would go to the bar and drink with her husband, Bill Wilson – one of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous.  Later, when Bill W. was sober, Lois would explain that because Bill was at the bar so frequently, this was one of the only ways she could spend time with him.  He had been dependent on alcohol and she became his “co-dependent.”

Of course, the meaning of the term codependent has shifted over time and, in most cases, has a considerably different flavour in today’s terms.

Codependency as a Self-Protection:

I like simple definitions – and my present-time definition of codependency is when we put other people’s needs ahead of our own on a fairly consistent basis.  I know that this is easier to see in the behaviours of many loved ones of addicts, who give and give endlessly while putting up with manipulation and self-absorption on the part of the addicted person they care so much about.  And even though it’s easier to believe that codependent people are just being nice when they behave in these ways, if we look a little closer it will become easier to understand that this is not really the case.  It’s not that people who practice codependent behaviours aren’t nice people.  They are, but – as a recovering codependent myself, what I know to be true is that we don’t put other peoples’ needs first because we’re nice.  We do this because we don’t know how to handle it when other people are disappointed, frustrated or angry with us – and we don’t want to risk putting ourselves in that position.

In this way, codependency becomes a self-protective cloak that we wear to feel safe in the world: We go along to get along.

Most people who are classically codependent do, in fact, let others call the shots in their lives.  Their own needs and desires seem to matter less to them and they begin to live to please others.  Often, this behaviour begins in childhood, when it becomes clear that if they don’t please Mommy and Daddy – or whomever their primary caregivers are – it could create some dangerous feelings and situations for them.  These children generally see a lot of conflict in their young lives, and sometimes these difficulties are taken out on them to the point where they feel unsafe in their own homes.  Sometimes, these are the very kids who also get bullied at school, which can be doubly traumatizing for them.  All too often, no one steps up to advocate for them, either at home or at school – and they begin to feel as though they don’t have any safe space anywhere.  The only way they know how to deal with this is to be sure to not make anyone angry or unhappy – especially with themselves.

The Hole in the Soul:

Many people who become codependent feel a deep emptiness inside themselves.  They are not sure who they are or what their purpose in life is.  They often feel a flurry of confusing emotions that they have trouble naming – or knowing how to make sense of – and they don’t really know what to do about this.  What they know for sure is that they don’t feel very secure in the world.  They want to feel better but this seems elusive to them.  Some will develop other addictive behaviours – like shopping, gambling, even drinking or using drugs.  And these may seem to work for a while.  But what they really want is to keep the peace, to not make any waves, to not have anyone feel frustrated or disappointed or annoyed with them.  So they become experts at ‘reading’ other people in order to know how to please them.  When they feel liked by others — when there is no external conflict — people who struggle with codependency can finally feel safe.

Whenever we use a mind-altering substance or a mood-altering behaviour, we do it primarily to stuff down emotions we don’t want to feel.  It’s the same with codependency – we don’t want anything to feel wrong in our lives because this could lead to the dreaded conflict we’re trying so very hard to avoid.  But when we scramble to cover up our ‘negative’ feelings, we often find that we’re also not experiencing our more positive feelings such as ease, serenity, and joy.  

The Path to Recovery from Codependency:

As a recovering codependent myself, this is too high a price for me to pay now.  Experiencing my feelings – all of them, even the hard ones – is my birthright and I choose to no longer give that up.  I will not live in the numbness that addiction of any sort – including codependency – brings.  I will instead continue to develop my strength and resiliency so that I can live my life to the fullest, complete with the wonderful, thorough spectrum of my emotions – and I hope that more and more people will begin to make that decision too.  

Life is much better on this side of the addiction continuum! 

Candace Plattor, M.A., is an Addictions Therapist specializing in working with the family of people who are struggling with addiction. As a former addict with 35 years clean and sober, Candace knows that overcoming addiction is a family condition: everyone in the family is affected by addiction and everyone needs to heal. Learn more about Candace here:

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