When is he coming home tonight? Will he remember to pick up Jimmy from school or will he wind up at the bar again? Why can’t he be at least a little responsible? Doesn’t he know what he’s doing to our family?

Martha’s anxious thoughts nervously revolve around her alcoholic husband, Mark. She spends most of her waking moments obsessing over Mark’s alcohol problem, how to fix it or, at least, pick up the pieces in the wake of his irresponsible behavior.

Martha devotes herself to being a good wife and mother, constantly taking care of her children and husband, but she is out of touch with her own needs and feelings. Inwardly, she is resentful that all of her efforts seem to be taken for granted and that no one seems concerned about her needs. At the same time, she feels guilty for having those “selfish” feelings. She believes that if she were a “good Christian,” she would be able to serve and love Mark in a more unconditional way. In reality, Martha has a difficult time believing that her own needs and feelings are important. Instead of attending to her own needs, hurt, and confusion, her efforts are directed toward trying to get her husband straightened out and under control.

In another community, Joe tells his counselor, “The family I grew up in was pretty normal. I’m not really sure why I am here, or if I need to be. Nobody was alcoholic or abusive, and nothing really dramatic happened in my family. All I know is that something important seems to be missing in my life.” Joe went on to say that he is good at detecting what people around him want and adjusting himself to fit into their expectations. He is a people pleaser. At the same time, he is not really sure of what he needs or feels or wants, and he often feels empty or disconnected from himself and others. As he put it, “Sometimes I feel like a robot on auto pilot.”

In still another family, Don spends most of his vacation with his in-laws even though he doesn’t want to. He knows it will upset his wife and her parents if he wants to do something different, so he doesn’t say anything in order to keep peace in the family. Many of us hide our real thoughts and feelings occasionally, but for Don, this has become a way of life. He often winds up feeling frustrated and resentful toward his wife for not being more sensitive to his needs. At the same time, he avoids dealing with his own fears of being more open about his real feelings and wishes.

Martha, Joe, and Don all struggle with codependency, a phenomenon that initially attracted the attention of professionals who were treating alcoholics. Counselors working with alcoholics have noticed that alcoholics often have spouses or partners who are having significant psychological struggles that interact with the problems of the alcoholic. These partners are often consumed with trying to fix, rescue, or “pick up the pieces” for the alcoholic, but their efforts only help to perpetuate the problem. The term “co-alcoholic” was initially given to these partners of alcoholics.

“Codependents are ‘addicted,’ not to a destructive substance, but to a destructive pattern of relating to other people.”

Martha fits the classical description of the “co-alcoholic” because she is caught up in a pattern of rescuing behaviors that actually helps Mark continue his alcoholic lifestyle. Rather than setting limits on what she will put up with, such as making clear to Mark that he needs to seek treatment if he wants her to stay, Martha keeps bailing him out of his irresponsible choices. She calls his boss with excuses for his tardiness, and she takes on extra evening jobs because Mark has not maintained steady employment.

Even though Martha resents “having” to rescue Mark, on a deeper level she apparently wants to do so, or she wouldn’t continue. Taking the role of helper and responsible caretaker provides her with some sense of identity, wards off her fear of being left alone, and maintains the illusion that if she will just do the right thing, she will eventually help Mark get his act together. The thought of giving up her rescuing role or telling Mark that she will not put up with his irresponsible alcoholic behavior is scarier than continuing to live in their dysfunctional relationship. Martha’s misunderstanding of Christian virtues like turning the other cheek, having a servant attitude, and being unselfish, make it even more difficult for her to draw a line in the sand and establish some boundaries or limits that would help both her and her husband.

In the mid-1980s, addiction counselors began to expand their focus from addiction to alcohol and cocaine, to addiction to activities such as sex, work, shopping, and gambling, to name a few. The term “co-dependent” came to replace “co-alcoholic.” As psychotherapists started to study codependent people, they soon realized that these people actually have their own recognizable, dysfunctional compulsions. Their problems are not just a by-product of being in relationship with an addict. Nancy Groom, in her book, From Bondage to Bonding: Escaping Codependency Embracing Biblical Love, writes that codependents are “addicted,” not to a destructive substance, but to a destructive pattern of relating to other people. Typically, these destructive relationship patterns can be traced back to what they learned as children growing up in dysfunctional families.

Joe and Don provide examples of codependency in this broader sense of the term. There is no addiction to a physical substance in Joe’s life, yet he is exceedingly dependent on the approval of others. He is so “addicted” to meeting other’s expectations that he has serious difficulties taking care of his own God-given needs and connecting with his own independent thoughts and feelings. It is this loss of self-awareness and failure to attend to his own needs in order to please others that reflect his psychological dependency.

Don’s fear of upsetting his wife and in-laws by telling his wife he would like to spend some of their vacation time away from her parents is a sign of his codependency. Don doesn’t want to be responsible for the disappointment and anger his wife and parents-in-law might feel if he expressed his real preferences, so he keeps quiet. Peace at any price. If he wasn’t codependent, he could let his wife know that he would like to spend some vacation time with her and their children alone or with his family. That would force his wife and in-laws to take responsibility for their decisions and their part in having good family relationships, rather than letting Don shoulder the responsibility for their insensitivity to his feelings.

This article will help you understand Martha, Joe, and Don, and millions of people much like them. In fact, most of us probably struggle with a few tendencies common to codependent people.

Understanding codependency

Leaders in the codependency movement have been unable to arrive at one mutually acceptable definition of codependency. Each person brings a slightly different understanding. They all would probably agree, however, that people with several of these patterns have a codependent lifestyle:

  • Excessive dependence on things or people outside oneself
  • Accepting responsibility for others’ feelings or actions
  • Constantly trying to please others
  • Letting others dominate or abuse you
  • Neglecting one’s own needs
  • Having difficulty knowing one’s own feelings and wishes
  • A weak sense of personal identity and loss of touch with one’s real self
  • Difficulty setting realistic personal boundaries
  • Difficulty admitting that you are in a dysfunctional relationship
  • Excessive efforts to control or change one’s environment or people in it
  • Frequently feeling resentful
  • Being very fearful of rejection, or being left alone
  • Relationship problems growing out of a weak sense of self, excessive dependency, and efforts to control, change, or please others.

As you see from these descriptions of codependency, nearly everyone has at least a couple of these symptoms. Most of us struggle occasionally with our identity or with wanting to control others or with setting boundaries or trying to please. The almost universal presence of a few of these symptoms have led some people to question the helpfulness of the label “codependent.” But codependents don’t just struggle with a couple of these occasionally. They consistently rely on a codependent style as their basic way of relating to themselves and others.

I suggest you apply the information about codependency in a thoughtful, personalized manner. There is no “one-size-fits-all” codependency that fits everyone. If the label “codependent” helps you observe these dynamics and find ways of overcoming them, then the label will be useful for you. Many people have found the label helpful in better understanding how and why they relate in these kinds of dysfunctional ways.
Let’s look at several of these in more depth.

Excessive dependency on external cues

Codependent people are fearful of being abandoned, ignored, or shamed, so they continually look to others or things outside of themselves for cues to tell them what they should be like or what they need to do. Although sensitivity to others can be a wonderful trait, codependents take it to an extreme.

They become absorbed with adjusting to the cues that others give about their desires and wishes. Joe, for example, has become an expert at blending himself into his surroundings in this manner. But, in the process, he loses touch with his own thoughts and desires and ends up feeling empty, incomplete, or merely an extension of others. That is the next main symptom of codependency.

“Internal boundaries enable us to draw a line of distinction and
responsibility between our own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors
and those of others.”

Disconnection from many of one’s inner thoughts, feelings, and needs

Because codependents are so focused on pleasing or helping others, they tend to lose touch with their own desires and thoughts and feelings. They have learned to protect themselves by disconnecting from significant portions of their inner emotional life. Inwardly, they don’t feel strong, settled, and confident. This is because they struggle with their basic sense of self. Consequently, they have a hard time knowing what they want. They fear facing themselves truthfully and risking being true to their own feelings and judgments. When they are aware of emotions, what often comes to the surface are painful feelings of emptiness, shame, and anger rather than their healthy desires and potential for good judgments. Those are hidden behind their fear, guilt, and shame.
Confusion over boundaries

Since they are so concerned with what others expect and are out of touch with their own needs, it is not surprising that codependents are confused about their boundaries. Boundaries are the physical, mental, and emotional limits that set us apart from other people. Internal boundaries enable us to draw a line of distinction and responsibility between our own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and those of others. Healthy people take responsibility for their own emotions and actions, but codependents often feel responsible for the thoughts and actions of others.

Remember Don? He dislikes spending every vacation with his in-laws but is afraid to honestly tell his wife how he feels. Don is afraid to set a boundary, but he isn’t happy about it. In fact, he inwardly blames his wife for not being more sensitive or considerate of his needs. But since Don isn’t being clear about his own needs, how can she know? Instead of waiting for his anger to build up, Don could simply sit down with his wife and express his own needs and seek a way of spending vacations that would be acceptable to both of them. His wife might not like it initially, and she might become angry. But if their relationship is going to grow more healthy and mature, both Don and his wife need to learn to be honest with each other and find some mutually agreeable compromises when they differ. This will never happen unless Don sets a boundary by epressing his needs.

External boundaries enable us to set limits on how we allow others to treat us. Codependents often allow others to hurt or abuse them or talk them into taking on too many responsibilities or activities because they are afraid to say no. This inability has been described like being in a room where the doorknob is on the outside of the door and the codependent is on the inside, powerless to set any protective limits. Anyone who wants to, can come in.

Martha puts up with her alcoholic husband’s verbal and sometimes physical abuse during his bouts of drinking because she is confused over her own right to set limits on what she will tolerate. Although she knows she shouldn’t be treated abusively, she doesn’t really believe that her own needs are valid enough for her to take care of herself. Like many codependents, Martha is so accustomed to seeing things through her partner’s eyes that she has lost touch with the depth of her own needs and her right to say no and set appropriate boundaries.

Excessive need for control

Codependents often have a deep sense of powerlessness because they live with, or grew up with, people who are out of control. They can also feel victimized or controlled by others because they feel such a need to meet the needs of others rather than their own. Ironically, codependents can also be quite controlling themselves. And while they take excessive responsibility for keeping the peace or pleasing others, they also may expend incredible energy trying to change the other person. Since they blame the other person for their unhappiness, they assume they have a right to try to change that person. They reason, If only “Mark” would get his drinking under control, my life would be better.

Or, if only “Sara” were a more considerate person, our marriage would be better. These conclusions justify their efforts to fix, “help,” or control the other person. The codependent’s view of responsibility goes like this: My spouse is responsible for my unhappiness, and I am responsible to try to change my spouse or act in ways that don’t upset him or her. But this is backward. We must take responsibility for our own happiness or unhappiness, and a spouse must take responsibility for changing his or her own feelings and actions. (While I often use married couples in my examples, the same dynamics can be evident in any relationship.)

On the surface, it appears that Martha, Joe, and Don are very accommodating in their relationships. They even seem to allow others to be themselves to an extreme. They go to great lengths to please the people around them and are, for the most part, nonassertive about their own wants and desires. But internally, they are resentful and cling to an internal demand that their significant others change.

Nancy Groom, in her book, From Bondage to Bonding , points out that there is a profound difference between having normal desires that other people change and holding on to a demand that they change. For Martha, Joe, and Don, most of their efforts to appease their partners are linked to the unspoken demands that they ultimately capitulate to their expectations. When this does not happen, their unfulfilled demands turn into resentment and bitterness. Because of this, they periodically blurt out their real expectations and anger, or tell their friends what victims they are of their spouse’s irresponsibility. Many codependents alternate between periods of trying to please their spouse, subtly attempting to change them, and brief outbursts of frustration when they directly express their resentments or expectations to others.

Relational difficulties

Given their loss of awareness to their own needs, problems with boundaries, excessive dependency, and tendencies to try to change or control others, it is no surprise that codependents experience significant relationship difficulties. Sometimes their relationships feel one-sided. They are constantly caretaking or adjusting to the people around them while remaining out of touch with what is going on inside themselves. These one-way relationships make healthy mutuality and intimacy impossible.

While many codependents fervently desire to soothe the deep loneliness and woundedness they feel through close relationships, most do not really understand some of the most basic aspects of interpersonal intimacy. One cornerstone for intimacy and, more generally, healthy interpersonal relationships is a basic respect for one another’s freedom to be who they really are and to take responsibility for that. Since codependents struggle with respecting themselves deep down, and since they are often trying to change their partners, there is a lack of this type of deep mutual respect for either themselves or their mate. Codependent persons can be either intimidated and threatened by their spouses, or look down on them as being needy or having a problem. But in either case, codependents do not look at themselves as a peer. Someone is always in an up or a down position.

“Codependent children … have learned that it is dangerous and painful to be honest about their thoughts and feelings. “

Confused spiritual understandings

The distorted relationships associated with codependency often extend into the spiritual realm as well. Martha consciously believes that God is loving, forgiving, and full of grace. But on an emotional level, her image of God is quite different-more like the demanding, judgmental, perfectionistic parents she experienced growing up.

There have been moments when Martha has experienced the reality of God’s grace such as when she first received Christ as a teenager. But over the years her initial joy and enthusiasm over being a new Christian have been replaced by a legalistic, demanding God and a faith that seems like a never-ending list of do’s and don’ts. She tries to please God and meet His approval but lacks any real joy in her Christian life. The same codependent barriers that impair intimacy in her interpersonal relationships hinder her intimacy with God.

How Do We Develop Codependency?

Codependency can develop for many reasons. Here is a classic example of a dysfunctional family of origin. One member of the family has a serious problem like alcoholism or some other chemical addiction. Each of the other family members develops a role that helps compensate for, or avoids confronting the dysfunctional person’s deficits. In short, they try to cover up for the addicted member.

Many codependents do not grow up in this type of home, however. The causes of their dependency are more subtle. For example, codependency may also develop when one family member is chronically ill or depressed or has an explosive temper, or when there is physical, sexual, or emotional abuse and neglect in the home. Anything that forces you to give up your own emotional health in order to keep peace, satisfy, or attempt to “cure” or cover for another family member can set you up for a codependent style.
Codependent children usually lack an emotionally safe environment where they can express their own emotions, needs, thoughts, and desires. They have learned that it is dangerous and painful to be honest about their thoughts and feelings. Rather than lead to any resolution, being open just seems to make matters worse. Parents cannot handle the truth and only get more upset, defensive, or abusive. So they started focusing on pleasing their dysfunctional parent or being sure they didn’t upset him or her. This was the only way they had of coping. But in the process, the children lost touch with their own needs, desires, thoughts, and feelings. They became less than whole people emotionally. And since they had lost touch with their own needs, they ended up choosing a marriage partner out of their caretaking or dependent role instead of from a perspective of mutual love and emotional maturity. Consequently, they ended up in relationships fraught with unmet childhood needs.

Another way of understanding the causes of codependency is from the point of view of the child’s progress in growing from the absolute dependency of infancy to a healthy, mature adult interdependency. Anything that interferes with this process predisposes a growing child to become codependent. For example, if a baby’s emotional needs are not nourished sufficiently, the baby may become overly dependent and go through life trying to please others in order to gain the love that wasn’t received as a child. If a parent is overprotective, a child may never learn to stand on his or her own feet emotionally and intellectually. If parents are perfectionistic, the growing child learns to try to please others instead of recognizing her or his own needs and feelings. And if the parents rely excessively on guilt and shame motivation, the child learns to feel selfish for trying to have personal needs met. Any of these patterns can leave a growing child with a lack of confidence or a healthy sense of personal identity , worth, and self-esteem. They all make it difficult for them to stand on their own two feet. They predispose the child to become codependent.

Individuals who establish a healthy sense of self during their developmental years know who they are as individuals. They have a good measure of autonomy, and they are able to function without fearing they will lose themselves or be overwhelmed. They are able to engage in appropriate self-care while also caring for others. In the face of criticism or failure, they are still able to maintain a basic core of self-worth. They maintain a balance among the stresses and strains of life.

Codependent people have not been able to develop this psychological autonomy and are significantly impaired in their ability to function as healthy, reasonably autonomous individuals. This creates problems in many areas of their lives.

If you are codependent and struggle with your basic sense of self-worth, it can be easy to believe that you are inherently defective. Taking time to look beyond the lie that you are just plain defective to really understand how you personally learned your codependent patterns is a significant step in learning to respect yourself more. Every person has a story that is worth listening to and understanding, including you. As you begin to understand how you have been impacted by your experiences and recognize that your codependent patterns are understandable ways of trying to cope with difficult situations and not signs of inherent defectiveness, you will experience less self-blame and more compassion for yourself. You also will experience restored hope that you really can learn healthier ways of relating to yourself and others.

Recovery Process

It takes time to overcome lifelong patterns of codependency, and the process often involves “two steps forward, and one step back.” But there are several specific steps you can take to break out of an ingrained codependent style.

Break through your denial

The first step is to face the problem honestly. Chances are, you have rationalized and justified and even spiritualized your codependent style. Now is the time to face it head-on. For someone who has spent a lifetime using denial to ward off pain, shame, or fear of rejection, this can be a terrifying experience. You will need support from people who can provide safe relationships that allow you to be emotionally honest on your journey. These supportive relationships might come from friendships, support groups, or professional counseling.

“Detachment refers to separating ourselves from whatever we
are obsessed with so we can begin working on our self.”

Support groups with other people on a similar road of recovery often provide more support for recovering from codependency than family and friends because members of these groups know what it is like to struggle with these issues. Your relationship with God can be a tremendous asset in your recovery. But it is important to be completely honest with God as well. Only then will you see that God accepts you precisely as you are, and that He expects you to have your own thoughts, feelings, and desires, rather than to shape your life to those around you. This will give you increased courage to be more aware of your own needs and feelings and help you make more authentic connections with God and others.

Face your childhood issues

One way to begin breaking through denial is to seriously consider the experiences that have contributed to your codependency. Most often this involves exploring significant aspects of your family history. Because codependents have learned to cope by disconnecting from their inner emotions, this exploration cannot be simply an intellectual exercise. It must involve a process of coming to terms with your actual feelings as a child. It also means being completely honest about your family of origin.

I realize you may have protected your family for decades, and you may feel incredibly guilty if you admit that you were wounded in your developmental years. But you cannot change unless you are completely honest about the negative as well as the positive aspects of your childhood experience in your family. This type of work is not easy and usually takes time. It often is done best in a safe therapy relationship.

Detach from unhealthy involvements

Detachment refers to separating ourselves from whatever we are obsessed with so we can begin working on our self. Since codependents are typically overly involved or attached to some problem or person outside of themselves, growth must involve giving up that over-involvement or preoccupation with trying to change, control, or please someone else.

This requires letting go of the energy you are expending on worry over the other person. This is not hostile withdrawal, indifference, or avoiding your responsibilities to others. Instead, it is giving up your efforts to take other peoples’ responsibilities so that they can learn to take responsibility for themselves just as you are learning to take responsibility for yourself. We cannot fix problems that are not ours to fix, and all of our worrying, obsessing, and trying to help only perpetuate the problem. After all, as long as we are trying to fix someone, they don’t need to fix themselves, and we don’t have to fix our self!

This may mean staying out of the way as an alcoholic spouse or friend loses his job. It may mean getting a separate bank account and letting your mate suffer the consequences of his or her financial irresponsibility. It may mean giving up your role as a people pleaser. And it may mean saying no when you are asked to take on one more responsibility at your church or your children’s school. These can be frightening steps, but you will never break the cycle of codependency unless you take them. You must disengage from your old codependent patterns.

Learn healthy self-care

It is not enough to give up your excessive efforts to please others. You must also become more aware of your own feelings, thoughts, and needs, and learn how to communicate them in relationships. Remember, you aren’t being selfish here, you are learning to be honest about your own needs so that you can have mature, mutual relationships. You will also want others to communicate their thoughts and feelings and needs to you.

Know God’s plan

Christians who are codependents are often afraid to learn healthy self-care because they believe that would be selfish or unspiritual. Remember Martha whom I mentioned earlier? In addition to having an alcoholic husband, Martha has two elementary-age children and rushes around from dawn to bedtime taking care of everyone’s needs but her own. Worrying about her husband, making meals, chauffeuring the kids to soccer practice, preparing to teach Sunday school, trying to be a godly wife and mother. the list goes on and on. Inwardly, however, she feels empty, burned out, and increasingly resentful over the never-ending list of demands. Yet she feels helpless to do anything about it because she is only doing what she thinks a “good Christian” should do.

In this frazzled state, imagine how Martha responds to a Bible passage like Philippians 2:3-5,7: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: who…made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant.”

Martha hears this message and concludes that in order to have a Christlike attitude she must keep putting everyone else’s needs ahead of her own. Sometimes, of course, we do need to put others’ needs ahead of ours. But recommending this to people who constantly struggle with codependency ignores two more important points. First, codependents like Martha feel like they have no choice. They must either do the giving, right “Christian” thing or be flooded with guilt or shame. They can’t do things out of a full cup or good motive because inwardly they feel empty. They lack a healthy sense of self and the good boundaries that allow spiritually and emotionally mature people to periodically set their needs aside for the welfare of others. Before codependents like Martha can serve others in a Christlike way, they must first find a balance between their needs and the needs of others. And remember, this passage doesn’t say not to look out for our own interests. It reminds us to “look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.”

If you look at the two verses just before where Paul encourages us to be unselfish and humble, you will find another interesting fact. The call to Christlike servanthood was given to those who have already had a grace-filled, restorative experience of Christ: “If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from His love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion , then make my joy complete by being like-minded , having the same love…”(Philippians 2:1-2, italics added). So it seems that, while God invites us to participate in the same loving spirit of servanthood as Christ, we cannot genuinely do that until we first personally know the encouragement, comfort, fellowship, tenderness, and compassion of God towards ourself.

“Jesus … clearly and directly expressed His thoughts and feelings
He also wasn’t afraid to say no! “

A crucial step toward recovery for co-dependents is to allow God to build up themselves by opening up to His healing grace and love for their imperfect selves completely apart from what they do. Realizing that the God they thought just wanted to use them to serve Him or was somehow against their being honest, open people, is actually their ultimate supporter can be a life-changing experience. Codependents need to be less like the biblical Martha—frantically rushing around serving Jesus—and more like Mary who was content to sit at Jesus’ feet soaking in His grace and wisdom (Luke 10:38-42). They need to realize that God wants them to be able to make their own choices in setting boundaries for themselves. They need to know that God wants to meet their deepest needs. We are told, “Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4). Codependents need to realize that God is their Ultimate Ally in becoming healthy, happy people. And it is important to realize that during this season in their development, the more spiritual path may not be compulsive self-sacrifice, but rather, allowing God to teach them how to say no to demands or requests without feeling badly about themselves.

Have you ever tried to start a campfire on a windy day? Think of how vulnerable that first little spark is to every little gust of wind. In a similar way, our tiny sparks of healthy self-assertions can be vulnerable to the “winds” of unrealistic expectations and shame. God wants to put His hands around our tiny “sparks” of healthy assertiveness and growing sense of self. One way His hands shelter our sparks is to remind us that He wants us to establish secure boundaries and positive feelings about ourselves.

It also helps to take a look at Jesus’ style of living. Jesus didn’t run around trying to please or control everyone, and He didn’t have a fragile identity or sense of self. Quite the contrary, Christ perfectly modeled a balance between time for Himself and time for ministry. He spent 30 years before He began His ministry. He had close friends. He crossed the lake to be alone and relax with His disciples. He knew His mission and what He thought and felt, and He clearly and directly expressed His thoughts and feelings. He also wasn’t afraid to say no!

Grow in relationships and genuine love

Having a healthy sense of one’s self is not being selfish. It goes hand in hand with being able to enter into loving relationships. A solid personal identity and awareness of our needs leads to mutual respect and love. Every codependent needs relationships where they can work on relating in new and healthier ways. Seek relationships with mature people with healthy boundaries. Then work on developing a mature, mutual relationship instead of a dependent one. Make sure that you and your friends communicate honestly.
Share your thoughts, wishes, and feelings mutually. And learn to make mutual decisions and to give and take and compromise equally. This may initially be difficult since you may have developed a “sixth sense” for finding people with poor boundaries who need rescuing. But only this kind of mutuality growing out of a healthy sense of your own selfhood or identity allows for intimacy and mature closeness to develop. In a mature relationship neither party is demanding or controlling and each opens up his inner self to being loved and being truly loving.

Exercise your “no” muscle

A very practical step is starting to set boundaries that you are comfortably able to live with. You simply cannot learn to care and give of yourself in a healthy manner until you have a basic place of safety for yourself. This includes having the ability to set clear boundaries and to say no. At times, saying no is more important to our spiritual growth than saying yes to another activity. If you are growing out of codependency, you don’t always need to have a clearly articulated or spiritual-sounding reason for saying no. Sure, you may occasionally say no when it may have been good to say yes, but after a lifetime of erring on the yes side, don’t be afraid of occasionally missing the perfect ideal! It is far more likely that you will continue to err on the side of compulsive giving or doing.

With God’s grace, you will learn by trial and error. In the process, always remember that God wants your genuine love so much that He is not going to coerce you into serving Him or others out of compulsion. As you soak up God’s grace and love, you will, in time, be able to give and serve from a healthy, genuine caring and love from your heart, rather than from fear or duty.

Seek counseling

Counseling can be another vital resource for recovery. It is especially helpful for those in need of significant healing from emotional wounds from their growing-up years. Ideally, an effective counselor should be: 1) someone you feel safe enough with to explore painful feelings and experiences, 2) someone with good personal boundaries, 3) someone who is able to help you explore significant unresolved areas from your past, 4) someone who is able to help you learn healthy ways of relating to self and others, and 5) someone who can help you develop a biblical understanding of yourself and your situation.

Work a twelve-step program

Many codependents have received wonderful help through twelve-step programs such as Codependents Anonymous and Twelve Steps for Christian Living. These programs are not run by professionals and typically involve meetings organized around principles of recovery commonly referred to as the twelve steps. Twelve-step groups are just one form of support groups. Other types of support groups can be helpful as well.

Frequently Asked Questions

Aren’t there cultural differences in what is considered codependent? Definitely. Some cultures foster a more group orientation of relating self to others that can be mistaken as codependent.

“The goal in overcoming codependency is not to become selfish and ignore others. It is to become emotionally and spiritually mature by being responsible.”

Isn’t it selfish to put so much emphasis on my needs and my personal boundaries? While there is valid concern over becoming overly preoccupied with yourself to the exclusion of others, most codependents are on the other extreme of the continuum where they may feel badly about normal healthy self-concern. For some codependents, it may be necessary to go through a period of focusing on self and learning how to set boundaries before they can arrive at more balanced interdependent relationships where they can, in the words of Melody Beattie, “become free to care and to love in ways that help others and don’t hurt ourselves.”

Some people, of course, may use the need to “be in touch with themselves” or “be honest” or “meet their own needs” as an excuse for selfishness or doing whatever they please. That is obviously unchristian and unhealthy. The goal in overcoming codependency is not to become selfish and ignore others. It is to become emotionally and spiritually mature by being responsible people who, by our health, encourage others to become responsible adults as well. Only when we stop doing for others what they can do for themselves will they begin to grow.

Can someone be a “little codependent”? In my opinion, yes. Real self-understanding does not come from attaching some blanket label to yourself. But if, as you learn more about codependency, you are able to move towards a deeper understanding of yourself, that is useful knowledge. Codependent ways, like other forms of dysfunction, exist on a continuum with some that are strongly tied to these strategies and others that are a “little codependent.”

Can I work on these issues of codependency by myself, or is it necessary to seek professional counseling? These questions relate to the previous question. There are some people who are a little codependent that may be able to work through these issues as they learn more and put it into practice in their relationships. Others, especially those who have a need to go through a more significant healing process from past trauma, may need more extensive support and guidance in professional counseling. The bottom line is that there is no shame in seeking the help you need—a message that needs to be unlearned by many codependents.

Additional Resources

Codependent No More: How To Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself by Melodie Beattie. Center City, Minnesota, Hazelden Press, 1987, 1992. This book is one of the first written for the lay public and is still one of the best-selling books on the topic. It provides a good introduction to codependency and steps toward recovery. It is compassionately written by an author who identifies with being codependent.

Recovery from Codependency by Dale and Juanita Ryan. This is part of an excellent series of Bible studies that relate scripture to various recovery issues called the Life Recovery Guide series. It can be a helpful resource for those wanting to work through barriers in their spiritual lives. Information on how to obtain these Bible studies can be found on the web site for The National Association for Christian Recovery, http://www.nacronline.com.

Boundaries by Drs. John Townsend and Henry Cloud. Grand Rapids, Zondervan Publishing House, 1992. This book, along with companion workbooks, can be helpful to codependents struggling with learning how to establish healthy boundaries in their lives.

From Bondage to Bonding: Escaping Codependency Embracing Biblical Love by Nancy Groom. Colorado Springs, NavPress, 1991. This book provides a nice counterbalancing perspective on the many codependency books that focus too much on self. While establishing a healthy self is important, it explores how to move from codependent strategies of relating to genuine intimacy or biblical love.