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Recognizing and adjusting co-dependent behaviors

October 4, 2016 General Wellness By Paula Durlofsky, PhD

Simply stated, co-dependency describes a dynamic in which one person enables and supports another person’s dysfunctional behavior or poor emotional health like alcohol or substance abuse, immaturity, irresponsibility, and under-achievement.

It’s important to acknowledge that having dependency needs is healthy and normal. In mature and healthy relationships, people are able to comfortably rely on one another for support, understanding, and help while–at the same time–retaining a sense of independence and autonomy. This dynamic is reciprocated, not just one-sided. Healthy dynamics between people fosters independence, resourcefulness, and resiliency, while co-dependent dynamics stifle and limit growth.

Recently, psychologists and other mental health workers have learned that co-dependent behaviors can also contribute to the formation of dysfunctional families, in general, not just families struggling with addiction or substance abuse. Therefore, addressing co-dependency behavior in treatment is crucial for a healthy family dynamic.

Common behaviors and signs associated with co-dependency include:

  • Need for excessive approval from other people
  • Organizing thoughts and behaviors around others’ perceived expectations and desires
  • Overly defined sense of responsibility of others’ happiness and emotional well-being
  • Inability to express one’s true thoughts and feelings for fear it will upset others
  • One’s identity and self-esteem is dependent on other’s approval and assumed expectations

Fortunately, co-dependency is a learned behavior and can be changed. Below are a few ways in which you can begin to change co-dependent behaviors:

  1. Awareness: Keep a journal for writing down co-dependent behaviors and the situations in which they are most prevalent. For example, when someone appears to be struggling, do you automatically jump in to help or rescue? Do you help to the extent that your own emotional and physical needs are put on the back burner? Co-dependent behaviors, in part, are normal feelings of responsibility and compassion gone awry.
  2. Boundaries: Setting healthy boundaries is crucial for changing co-dependent behaviors. Being able to say no without feeling guilty, anxious or afraid is what having healthy boundaries feels like. This is challenging for co-dependent individuals. Since pleasing others is crucial to their sense of self, so saying no is scary and anxiety-inducing.

    Have a clear sense of the boundaries that feel right to you and write them down. Place this list in an area of your home where you can regularly read it. This will help reinforce your boundaries and make them more conscious to you. Be prepared by knowing that upholding your boundaries will be difficult, at best, in the beginning. Have a plan in place for coping with these difficult feelings by making sure you’re making time to take care for yourself during this transition.
  3. Entitled: Feeling entitled to having your own thoughts, feelings, and opinions (even when others do not agree or feel the same way) is important for breaking co-dependent behaviors. Co-dependent behaviors are formed and reinforced by internal pressure to pleasing others. Therefore the co-dependent person has not developed their own identity or individuality. Working on developing an authentic sense of self and healthy entitlement increases self-esteem and self-respect, both of which act as a buffer against continuing co-dependent behaviors.
  4. Therapy: Co-dependency is a set of behaviors and beliefs about one’s self and others that forms in early childhood. Talking with a professional offers a better understanding of one’s unique reasons for developing co-dependent behaviors. Once your co-development behaviors are fully understood, it lowers the chance of developing future co-dependent relationships and increase the chances for having mutually satisfying and healthy relationships.

Dr. Paula Durlofsky is a psychologist in private practice in Bryn Mawr, whose practice focuses on psychological issues affecting individuals, couples, and families. She is affiliated with Bryn Mawr Hospital and Lankenau Medical Center.