Beattie stresses that Codependents are reactionaries. They react to other people’s problems, emotions, needs, behaviours etc. and that when these problems, emotions, needs and behaviours become more intense the Codependent reacts more intensely. They become over-involved. “Overinvolvement of any sort can keep us in a state of chaos; it can keep the people around us in a state of chaos. If we’re focusing all our energies on people and problems, we have little left for the business of living our own lives. Worrying and obsessing keep us so tangled in our heads we can’t solve our problems. we become detached from ourselves. We forfeit our power and ability to think, feel, act and take care of ourselves. We lose control.” pg. 58. Often reacting to situations doesn’t lead to the positive outcome that was intended and as such a Codependents life can be come more complicated than it needs to be.
Codependents excessively worry or are preoccupied with a problem or person. They can also be obsessed with and controlling of the people and problems in their environment, emotionally dependent on the people around them and act as caretakers (rescuers, enablers). In rescuing they seek to take care of people who are capable of taking care of themselves. Beattie argues that rescuing such people from their responsibilities doesn’t help them to grow, it enables them to continue to shirk the consequences of their actions.
In obsession a Codependents feelings and thoughts are filled with the other person’s feelings and thoughts. Everything reminds them of that person and it can seem that everything that is said or done relates to them. In addition, the Codependent often has feelings that something bad is going to happen sooner or later and this fills them with anxiety if things don’t go as planned or normally. This causes fear and more anxiety. In order to overcome this Codependents try to control the situation or people to stop things from going bad or worse still, to avoid abandonment or taking care of themselves. A person with a strong sense of self-worth would at these times back away from the situation or the Dependent but a Codependent holds on tighter.
Whether Codependency is developed in childhood or in adulthood the Codependent demonstrates a lack of trust in themselves. Because they are unable to fix what they see as other peoples problems they feel deficient. Because they believe the lies that a Dependent tells them after being challenged by the Codependent (who often correctly asses the situation in the first place) they learn not to trust their own judgement or intuition. This lack of trust in themselves often leads to them clinging on to those who cannot or will not love them back – often settling for too little. Codependents are also controlled by others and find it hard to resist when someone they grow tired of caring for says or does something that indicates things may change, that they will make more effort and behave how the Codependent expects. So they stick by the Dependent hoping things will be different this time.
Codependents deny their true feelings (fear, neediness, anger, ambivalence towards a Dependent) because they are afraid that they may have to acknowledge that they have to take an action that they really don’t want to take e.g. leaving the Dependent or face a truth that they do not want to face e.g. they can’t fix this problem, the Dependent is abusive etc. Denial of feelings leads to physical problems as the body starts to struggle with the effects of stress and anxiety e.g. high blood pressure, fatigue etc. or as often can happen the effects of substance abuse/food abuse that the Codependent practices in order to numb their emotional pain.
Codependents undertake in manipulative behaviour in the name of love and trying to help but in the end “We aren’t the people who ‘make things happen’. Co-dependents are the people who consistently, and with a great deal of effort and energy, try to force things to happen” Beattie pg. 76. Codependents don’t understand that they don’t have to control others and that any element of control means that the other person would normally have no interest in achieving the outcome the Codependent wants to achieve. They ignore the reality because they are frightened of what it really means for them. “People ultimately do what they want to do. They feel how they want to feel (or how they are feeling); they think what they want to think; they do the things they believe they need to do; and they will change only when they are ready to change. It doesn’t matter if they’re wrong and we’re right. It doesn’t matter if they’re hurting themselves. It doesn’t matter that we could help them if they’d only listen to, and cooperate with, us. IT DOESN’T MATTER” Beattie pg. 80-81.
As a result of the behaviour of Dependents in their past/present Codependents also have a distinct lack of trust in others. They look out for signs that things are going to go bad, for misbehaviour, for betrayal… they expect others to hurt them. As a result they tend to withdraw emotionally from those they feel will hurt them.
They can also sit in moral judgement on others, trying to dictate to them how they should behave. They like to think of themselves as knowledgeable, right or morally superior, they behave like martyrs. Often this is too much of a burden for the Codependent to be able to cope with long term.
In essence Codependents are people pleasers. They “make great employees. They don’t complain; they do more than their share; they do whatever is asked of them; they please people; and they try to do their work perfectly – at least for a while, until they become angry and resentful.” Beattie pg. 78
A Codependent will live their lives in indecision. Whatever decision they make it will be the wrong one because at some point they will feel guilty or frightened for having made it, particularly when other people’s needs are involved. For example, they may get resentful and angry for having to consistently help other people so they rage “No more, do it yourself!”. When the anger passes they feel guilty for their outburst which was a mistake. They now see themselves as selfish and go back to helping out exactly as they did before. Beattie summarises it by saying “Some of us believe we have made such bad mistakes that we can’t reasonably expect forgiveness. Some of us believe our lives are a mistake. Many of us believe everything we’ve done is a mistake. A few of us believe we can’t do anything right, but at the same time, we demand perfection of ourselves. We put ourselves in impossible situations, then wonder why we can’t get out.” pg. 120-121.
Sometimes Codependents project an air of weakness and seek for others to help them.
Beattie explains that Codependents need to stop reacting/behaving in this way and start to act in healthier ways.
Why do Codependents behave this way?
They genuinely want to help and want things to be better for the other person and themselves. Beattie states “Most of us aren’t even aware of what we’re doing. Most of us truly believe we’re helping. Some of us believe we have to rescue. We have confused ideas about what constitutes help and what doesn’t. Many of us are convinced that rescuing is a charitable deed. Many of us do not understand what we are responsible for and what we are not responsible for.”pg. 90
Others have taught them that they are worthless or that their opinions and needs are not important. Nobody has shown them that they don’t have to give all of themselves all the time. They haven’t been counseled that it is wrong to take responsibility for others who can take responsibility for themselves. If anything they have been encouraged by others to be self-less through intimidation, manipulation and even praise.
“at the heart of most rescues is a demon: low self-worth.” Beattie pg. 90. Taking care of people makes Codependents feel good about themselves because it makes them feel needed and powerful. This acts as a substitute for the feeling of being loved – which is something the Codependent doesn’t really feel they deserve.
Focusing on other people’s problems and defects stops them from focusing on their own problems and defects. In addition they haven’t learned or been taught how to manage their own feelings.
They have a sense of martyrdom and of goodness and they want to try to meet this ideal. This ideal is usually one that was programmed in during childhood e.g. via a repressive religion or parent.
The pattern of caretaking repeats itself as the Codependent denies their feelings and hopes that the next time they try it will all change – like magic. It rarely happens and if it does, the change doesn’t last long. The other person will not be able to keep up the effort or something new will come up that needs to be fixed. They never seem to work out for themselves that their needs and wants are just as important as anybody else’s, that they don’t have to give so much of themselves that it hurts – someone usually has to point it out to them.
What Happens When A Codependent Cares Too Much?
A Dependent doesn’t naturally take responsibility for the consequences of their own behaviour. A Codependent who takes on another persons responsibility doesn’t assist that person to get better by rescuing them, if anything they become more Dependent. This leads to them taking advantage of the Codependent who becomes overburdened, resentful and ultimately angry/vengeful as they find themselves doing things they don’t want to do for someone who just won’t change their behaviour (in a manner the Codependent expects). So what does a Codependent do now? Sometimes the Codependent will say or do noting and wonder why nobody understands what they’re going through. Most Codependents don’t feel they have a right to be angry. They bottle it up until it gets too much for them that they explode and do things they regret. They see this explosion as a sign that something is very wrong with them. In their rage they tell the Dependent what a crap job they’re doing of managing their life and catering to their needs. As the Dependent is now subjected to criticism and rage, they rage back, they feel resentful to the Codependent for their help. They ridicule, become abusive, feel guilty and try to please. They may abandon the Codependent. The Codependent then feels unappreciated, unloved, abused and like a victim. They wonder why the Dependent doesn’t rescue them back. They feel guilty for raging, they apologise to the Dependent and try to make amends. After all that the Dependent may still not be ready to change, they are unable to take responsibility for themselves just because the Codependent wills it.
Working hard at changing someone else is unlikely to bring the Codependent the changes they seek. Sometimes that person is not capable of changing, they may not be willing to change or they may not have the skills to do the things as a Codependent needs them or wants them to do it. For example, a wife nagging her out of work Alcoholic husband to stop drinking and take some financial responsibility for their children is unlikely to work. Having highlighted his lack of ability to meet her needs and that of their children it is likely to make him feel worse about himself and more resentful towards his wife. He may drink more to compensate. Even if he tries hard to be what she wants him to be it is likely he will relapse because he doesn’t have the emotional strength that is required to sustain this level of responsibility whilst fighting his addiction.
If the Codependent has an Alcoholic partner then that is the reality of their situation, they have no control over changing the Alcoholic, they can only change their own behaviour and even then they may be limited in what they can achieve. In the example above the wife might decide to get a job in order to provide financially for her children but what then happens to her children? Who looks after them? The Alcoholic father? A paid child minder? Who will do the housework, the shopping? It is important for the Codependent to accept the reality of any situation, do what they can to make it better for themselves but not to crucify themselves and take on every responsibility i.e. work, look after the children, do the housework and look after the Alcoholic husband. Something has to give and it would make sense that the thing they should give up is that which someone else’s responsibility.
As time goes on and the Codependents own needs are not met they continue to feel resentful for all their hard efforts which harvest little reward and their behaviour disintegrates. The cycle of seeking to help, control, manipulate, hope, monitor, resenting, raging, analysing, guilt and apologising repeats itself until often the Codependent becomes so frustrated that they completely give up all responsibility and attempts to help. They may even begin to act irresponsibly themselves. They can vent their anger in verbally, emotionally and physically abusive ways. “I suspect codependents have historically attacked social injustice and fought for the rights of the underdog. Codependents want to help. I suspect they have helped. But they probably died thinking they didn’t do enough and were feeling guilty. It is natural to want to protect and help the people we care about. It is also natural to be affected by and react to the problems of people around us. As a problem becomes more serious and remains unresolved, we become more affected and react more intensely to it.” Beattie pg. 37-38.
On the flip side when a Dependent improves by no longer taking part in self-damaging behaviour and taking on more of their own responsibility the Codependent (contrary to what they might expect) is often still not happy. This could be for a number of reasons. It may be that it has taken so long and too much effort to get the Dependent to change that the Codependent is no longer in a giving/loving frame of mind. It might be because now that the Dependent takes better care of themselves the Codependent has lost the control they once had and feels useless. It could be that as things have improved the Codependent feels safer to express their anger and the Dependent reacts badly to it thus creating another set of problems. It is also likely that the Codependent doesn’t believe the change is permanent so they continue to look for signs of misbehaviour or it could be due to the Codependents fears relating to their own short comings and self-worth which they have not yet faced.
What feelings do Codependents have?
Guilt – for not being perfect, not having been able to fix the situation and for their bad behaviour (anger, resentment, violence, lack of strength etc.).
Resentment – for not catering to their own needs and looking after someone who cannot or will not change. For not being heard.
Anger – towards the Dependent for not changing or not appreciating their efforts. Towards themselves for not being strong enough to leave, cope or resolve the situation.
Frustration – for not being able to resolve the situation.
Love – in order to want to help and give of themselves, Codependents usually have an overly strong sense of wanting to take care of others. They become obsessed with love objects and their needs. It is argued that this is not real love because in order to love someone else you must love yourself first and Codependents generally don’t love themselves.
Shame – for not being good enough for other people to love them. For their “crazy” behaviour.
Fear – of intimacy, of not being good enough, of their feelings. When Dependents are violent or abusive they have fear of the Dependent.