Codependency is a term often used to name some of the self-defeating ways that human beings can participate in relationships, the major characteristics of which include being overly controlling and/or overly compliant.
For today I’m thinking about the latter, that corrosive habit of engaging in excessive approval seeking and people pleasing that is usually followed by recurrent depression, anxiety, panic attacks or low self-esteem.
the drug of codependency
Approval seeking and people pleasing can be like a drug. When we actively engage in these behaviors, the dynamics are similar to pursuing other forms of intoxication. Seeking and getting ‘validation’ from whoever the ‘person of choice’ might be at the moment—whether it’s a romantic interest, a family member or a person in authority—can be a very powerful experience.
But after actually obtaining validation, the good feelings start to go away…the ‘high’ wears off…and then comes the crash…and then comes the shame and depressive feelings…and then the emptiness sets in…and then in order to feel better another ‘fix’ is needed…and the cycle continues.
As with all ‘drug seeking behavior,’ this process is an attempt to compensate for deeper layers of insecurity, as well as a strategy to avoid/numb recurrent emotional pain.
what are the roots of codependency and what can be done about it?
As is the case with many patterns of thought, feeling and behavior—the seeds of codependency are planted during childhood. As kids we absorb, mimic and internalize many of the social, emotional & relational patterns that we experience and that we observe around us during those formative years.
As I often discuss with clients in my therapy practice (Manhattan, NYC), this perspective is not about blaming parents; it is simply about giving an honest accounting of how we came to be who we are. As the saying goes, we are not responsible for what happens to us during childhood, but we are 100% responsible for what we do with it during adulthood.
And so if you find yourself gravitating toward patterns of approval seeking and people pleasing, instead of beating yourself up or continuing to avoid the issue, it is much more constructive to face the reality, to reflect on where these patterns came from, and to learn more about what meaning they hold for you in the story you have about yourself.
childhood & the stories we have about ourselves
Human beings think in narratives and stories, especially when it comes to personal identity and how we participate in relationships. If you identify with the traits of codependency, if they are part of the story of who you are, then it is likely that one or more of the following were true for you in childhood:
- Mom or dad was insecure, unhappy or unstable in ways that resulted in you giving much more emotional support than you got.
- One or both of your parents had anger issues which resulted in you learning that you needed to always be ‘good’ in order to keep the peace.
- There was addiction in the family, and the family was not able to openly and directly talk about it together—and so all your ‘real’ feelings went underground.
- Your parents’ marriage was filled with tension and conflict and you sought to be a positive influence in the home in the hopes of keeping the family together.
- There was a strict code of behavior that emphasized the idea that “children should be seen and not heard.”
- Your subjective thoughts and feelings were not sufficiently valued so you learned to minimize, deny or even criticize your own subjective experiences on a regular basis.
We come out of childhood with stories about who we are and who we need to be in the world. For the most part we are not even consciously aware of what those stories are, even though our behavior looks as though we have diligently studied the script given to us by our history.
Fortunately in adulthood, we can become aware of all these realities and we can re-author who we are and how we choose to live in the world. One day at a time, human beings have the capacity to write a new script and to grow in ways that allow for all kinds of new perspectives, new experiences, new relational patterns and new habits of living.
re-authoring your life
This is a one day at a time process, but the results are unmistakable. When people take responsibility for who they are AND for who they are becoming, everything is different.
Because once the trance is broken, once you see through the veil of false truth that you’ve been living under, you can no longer participate in self-defeating behavior in the same way.
Now you know better. And when people know better they do better, little by little.
Of course things do not change overnight. And sure, the processes of personal change and growth are often slow…messy…frustrating…etc. But these realities provide the context within which we learn to cultivate patience. That doesn’t mean we take a lackadaisical approach to building our lives; it simply means that we “live life on life’s terms.”
And while you cannot change everything and ‘be better’ right away, you can take great comfort in knowing that a new trajectory has been established, some new momentum has been set in motion, a new story of who you are and who you are becoming is being written.