Codependency: Why it kills relationships, and how to start healing

By Elizabeth DeVaughn on 17th Feb 2020

A couple sitting together

Relentless people-pleasing. Frequent rumination and obsession about relationships. Constant worry about what others might be thinking of you. Deep feelings of inadequacy and insecurity. Not knowing who you are…

If these behaviors and feelings resonate, then you may struggle with codependency. The good news is that codependency is not a death sentence. It’s merely a set of survival skills learned in childhood, which can also be unlearned. Because codependency is a concept that becomes easily misunderstood, I thought it best to explain what codependency is and what it is not:

Codependency is not:
– The consistent need to connect with your partner
– Feeling afraid that your partner might be mad at you
– Feeling shaky if you’re partner is upset, accompanied by an anxious urge to talk and work it out

These are all normal attachment sensations and urges that are exquisitely designed to help you reconnect and reestablish safe, secure attachment with your partner (and with friends, others in your community, etc.) when needed. Unfortunately, our culture has created imbalanced, skewed messages around what independence should look like. This results in toxic individualism (aka, forgetting that we are biologically and spiritually designed for connection and community), whereby we shame ourselves for having normal, healthy attachment needs.

Codependency is:
– a pattern of shrinking the self in an attempt to help others not feel threatened
– a pattern of self-abandonment and self-betrayal (disregarding/sacrificing own needs in an attempt to make others happy)
– cyclical resentment of others when they don’t “return the favor” of helping; aka, “keeping score”

As stated previously, codependency is a set of survival skills learned in childhood. These skills are subconsciously learned and honed in an attempt to get one’s attachment/relationship needs met. Codependent behavior typically arises in chaotic, dysfunctional, or abusive households, where parents lack emotional maturity. Codependent traits in children are fueled by the subconscious belief that “If I can save (mom, dad, etc.), then they’ll be happy and okay, and THEN they can take care of me and love me.”

Why codependency kills relationships

Unhealed, these subconscious beliefs will continue to drive relationship behavior into adult relationships. Codependent behavior creates inherent imbalance, as the child learns early on that, “in order to make relationships work, I can’t have needs.” In other words, “only one of us can be happy at a time,” or “for them to be happy, I can’t exist.” It perpetuates a message of scarcity – that it’s not possible for you to honor both you and your partner at the same time.

For relationships to develop deep and sustaining love, intimacy, and safety, both parties MUST show up fully. This involves acknowledging your needs and emotions, communicating them to your partner, and practicing vulnerability. When one or both partners hide their needs, resentment and disconnection begin to fester, leading to relationship deterioration over time.

How to heal from codependency

The key to healing from codependency is to develop a relationship with the self. When you know who you are – and importantly, accept and love who you are – you begin showing up more fully in relationships. You own your needs and care for yourself well; you stop self-abandoning. And when you develop love and intimacy on the INSIDE, you’ll find it much easier to develop love and intimacy with a partner and in friendships.

Three steps to kickstart the healing process

Abdominal breathing + Affirmations + Visualization
Because self-betraying patterns are stored within the subconscious (which dictates roughly 98% of our behavior), we must access the subconscious in order to heal properly. Abdominal breathing helps connect mind and body, and it primes the brain for creating new neural pathways.

Self-loving affirmations (“I’m enough, just as I am,” “It’s human to be imperfect,” etc.) written DAILY kickstart the process of replacing old, shaming messages about the self that reside within the subconscious. Adding visualizations (picture yourself in the future, fully believing these self-loving messages; how would you feel if you believed it? What would you be doing? Connecting with the emotion is highly important.) while you write the affirmations helps the brain create new, self-loving neural networks in a much deeper way.

Try this daily practice: Start with at least five deep breaths from the abdomen (you can find YouTube videos for instructions on abdominal breathing). Then, write a few self-love affirmations and practice the visualization. Try this for 30 days.

Keep commitments to yourself
If you struggle with codependency, you’ve created deeply ingrained habits around self-betrayal. Self-love begins developing when you start to trust that you’ll show up for yourself. By showing up for yourself, you teach yourself on a subconscious level that you’re worth showing up for.

Try this 30-day practice: Pick one, small promise to keep to yourself daily. Keep it “light” initially, as to not overload the subconscious – maybe a 10 minute walk or stretch every day, or a two-minute breathing practice or meditation. Make sure you do this every day, even when parts of you tell you not to, or that you don’t “have time,” etc.

Get to know your emotions (because they help reveal your needs)
If you struggle with codependency, you’ve gotten really good at suppressing your emotions and needs. The importance of fully feeling and acknowledging your emotions cannot be understated: they help reveal what you need, and proper emotional releasing is instrumental in emotional, mental, bodily, relational, and spiritual health.

Try this daily practice for 30 days: Get a journal, and at least once per day, write the emotions you feel at that very moment (you can Google lists of emotions). Think of this practice as a window to getting to know the real you.

I myself have been in recovery from codependency for years. Knowing now that there is a different way to live, that you can stop the relentless obsessing and ruminating, that you CAN actually love yourself and stop people-pleasing, and that you can have the relationships you’ve only dared dream of, I hope to inspire hope with this piece.

If you’d like to explore and resolve these issues in a deeper way, counseling can be a great fit. Please feel free to reach out to us, or your local healthcare professional, to explore options for deeper healing. Healing is possible. We see you!

www.womanemerging.org / Instagram: @woman_emerging

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