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Alcohol and Mental Health

Codependency Habits: Untangling the Knot

July 11, 2023
20 min read
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Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
July 11, 2023
20 min read
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
July 11, 2023
20 min read
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
July 11, 2023
20 min read
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Reframe Content Team
July 11, 2023
20 min read

It's a breezy Sunday afternoon, and you're lounging on your favorite bean bag, basking in the glow of the latest sci-fi thriller on your big-screen TV. Suddenly, your phone buzzes — a familiar name, one that instinctively makes you sigh. It's your friend Alex, who’s probably facing another crisis and needs your emotional support. Again. As you put your binge-watching plans on hold, you realize that this scenario is all too familiar. It's not a one-off — it happens all the time. 

Like all human behavior, interactions that leave us feeling drained or exploited are rooted in science. We are wired to interact with others; unfortunately, however, this natural urge to connect can lead us down an unhealthy path. Enter codependency — a behavioral phenomenon based on unhealthy relationship dynamics. Let’s unravel the science behind codependency habits and explore the experiences that can set the stage for them. 

Codependency in a Nutshell

At its core, codependency is a behavioral condition that happens when a person becomes excessively reliant on others to satisfy their emotional or psychological needs. Psychologists suggest that codependency habits may stem from past relational experiences, typically those rooted in childhood

While these experiences lead one person to be overly reliant on others, others are left feeling like it’s their job — like it or not — to fix other people’s problems. Imagine a kid whose emotional thermometer was constantly set to "ensure everyone is okay.” This habit, nurtured over time, might develop into a codependency habit later in life. 

Codependency in the Brain

At the neurological level, codependency has to do with the part of the brain that deals with reward and pleasure, the Ventral Tegmental Area. When we help others — and when we receive attention and care in return — our brain releases the feel-good hormone dopamine. In normal scenarios, this is good news: the neurological reward on both sides encourages empathy and bonding. 

However, in codependency, this response goes into overdrive. As a result, people stuck in codependent relationships continuously seek this dopamine high, making their giving and taking behavior a compulsion rather than a choice.

Two areas of the brain play starring roles here: the emotional control center, the amygdala, and the conflict resolution center, the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). In codependents, the amygdala often rings the alarm bells of fear, rejection, and loneliness excessively, while the ACC takes these false alarms at face value and rushes to avoid conflict at any cost. This neurobiological double whammy can lead to the self-sacrificing behavior we see in codependency.

But Isn’t Caring Good?

But wait, isn't empathy a good thing? Well, yes and no. Codependency takes the concept of empathy and adds a dose of obsession — it's empathy on steroids, if you will. You bend over backward to fulfill others' desires, ignoring your own wants and needs. This can lead to stress, burnout, and a severe case of "I forgot about me" syndrome.

The second part of codependency is guilt, which saps our energy and sucks the joy out of life. The “giver” feels guilty when they’re not catering to the other person's needs, even at the expense of a much-needed breather. At the same time, the “taker” might know that they’re making unfair demands at some level, but feels overpowered by the need for constant attention.

All of this results in serious boundary-setting problems. Everything becomes an emergency.  Respect for personal space, time, or values go out the window, leading to chronic stress.

Codependent “Archetypes”

While the term “codependency” might seem like it’s describing one specific type of interaction, it's actually a multifaceted condition that can manifest in various forms. Understanding these variations can help us recognize the symptoms and get to the root of the issue. Here are the main types of codependent personalities:

  • The Rescuer. Rescuers feel a compelling need to help others, often neglecting their own needs in the process. They believe that they are doing good, but their excessive need to save others can be draining. They often feel responsible for others and find it challenging to let people handle their problems. (Example: Jim Halpert from The Office. While Jim's intentions are often well-meaning, there are instances when he goes out of his way to "save" Dwight from himself, even if it’s done in a humorous or sarcastic manner).
  • The Martyr. Martyrs believe in sacrificing their needs and desires for the sake of others. They often feel unappreciated, believing that their sacrifices should be recognized. Their identity is deeply linked to how much they can give up for someone else. (Example: Marge Simpson from The Simpsons frequently sacrifices her own happiness and desires for the well-being and happiness of her famous cartoon family).
  • The Enabler. The Enabler prevents others from facing consequences by stepping in to fix situations. Enablers might cover up for someone's mistakes or wrongdoings, unintentionally promoting the harmful behavior they wish to prevent. (Example: Skyler White from Breaking Bad. In the beginning, Skyler often covers up for Walter's actions or makes excuses for his behavior, unintentionally enabling his drug trade).
  • The Controller. This type of codependent person feels the need to control others, often out of fear or a deep desire for security. By having control, Controllers feel they can prevent negative situations or outcomes. (Cersei Lannister from Game of Thrones. Cersei often tries to control those around her, especially her children, to maintain power and security for herself).
  • The Victim. The Victim often feels persecuted and tends to blame others for their circumstances while seeking out partners who can provide constant support and validation. Often feeling powerless, the Victim relies on others to rescue or take care of them. (Example: George Costanza from Seinfeld. George often feels persecuted and blames others for the problems and circumstances in his life — all the while making his own situation worse).
  • The Denier. The Denier avoids confronting their codependent behavior, often neglecting their feelings and emotions. They might downplay problems or avoid situations that call for emotional involvement. (Example: Don Draper from Mad Men. Don often neglects his feelings, avoids confronting his past, and downplays the issues arising from his complicated personal relationships).
  • The People-Pleaser. This type always wants to be liked and will go to great lengths to avoid conflict. The People-Pleaser’s self-worth is tied to the validation from others. (Example: Ted Mosby from How I Met Your Mother. Ted often goes to great lengths to be liked and avoid conflicts, especially in his romantic relationships).
  • The Obsessive. The Obsessive is constantly worried about their relationships and partners and may feel a constant need for reassurance and validation while obsessing over small issues or perceived slights. (Example: Helga Pataki from Hey Arnold! Helga is often obsessively concerned with her relationship with Arnold, bouncing back and forth between love and hate).
  • The Clinger. Out of fear of abandonment, the Clinger becomes overly attached and needy. They may display possessive behaviors, fearing that their partner or loved ones will leave them. (Example: Rose from Two and a Half Men. After a one-night stand with Charlie, Rose becomes overly attached to him, often to the point of being possessive).

Understanding that codependency isn't a one-size-fits-all condition is crucial. People may exhibit traits from multiple types or might oscillate between them depending on the situation or relationship. Knowing these types can aid in identifying patterns of behavior, helping in the journey of self-awareness and recovery.

Types of Codependency Habits

Just like there are different types of actors in codependent relationships, there are also different types of interpersonal dynamics that frequently show up. Of course, each one comes with its own shades and nuances, but certain patterns stand out:

  • Constant validation seeking. This habit revolves around the constant need for affirmation from another person. A codependent individual might repeatedly seek assurance that they're loved, valued, or needed.
  • Passive-aggressiveness. Avoiding direct communication and instead using indirect tactics to express discontent or resentment is common. This can manifest as sarcasm, silent treatments, or sulking.
  • Fear of abandonment. An intense fear of being left alone or rejected can lead to clingy behavior. It might result in always wanting to be around the significant other or an inability to spend time apart.
  • Overbearing caretaking. Going beyond the normal extent to care for someone, often at the expense of one's own needs. It's not just about helping — it's about feeling a compulsion to be the sole caregiver, even when it's not necessary.
  • Difficulty setting boundaries. A codependent person might find it challenging to set and maintain boundaries. This can be as simple as not being able to say "no" or as complex as always merging one's plans with someone else's.
  • Obsession with others' problems. This habit involves being constantly worried or preoccupied with other people's issues. You start seeing their problems as your own, to the point of neglecting your own needs.
  • Denial of one's own needs. Ignoring personal needs, desires, and feelings — or not even recognizing that they exist — is common in codependent relationships.
  • Dependency on others for self-worth. When people anchor their self-worth on the presence and opinions of others, their sense of self-value might fluctuate based on someone else's mood or viewpoint.
  • Reactivity. Being overly sensitive to everyone else's feelings and needs can lead to exaggerated emotional reactions. If the other person is sad, the codependent might feel devastated.
  • Controlling behaviors. A codependent might attempt to control situations, environments, or even people to ensure their needs are met or their fears are mitigated.
  • Problematic communication. Avoiding conflicts at any cost might lead to suppressing feelings, not expressing concerns, or agreeing even when in disagreement, resulting in pent-up emotions and resentment.

Recognizing these habits and dynamics is an essential step towards understanding and healing from codependency. By identifying which behaviors resonate, we can begin the process of addressing the root causes and setting healthier relationship patterns.

When Alcohol Is Part of the Picture

In many cases, alcohol can make the knot of codependency even harder to untangle. The codependent individual might feel the need to "save" the person with the AUD — making excuses for their struggling partner, taking over their responsibilities, or even enabling their alcohol consumption. All the while, their emotional well-being becomes intertwined with their partner’s continuing struggles.

But why does this happen? Some experts suggest that codependent people might be drawn towards those with alcohol misuse issues. It could be because it fuels their need to feel useful or needed. Or it might be a learned pattern, especially if they grew up in an environment where alcohol misuse was rampant.

In a similar way, for the person who is the one struggling with alcohol misuse, a codependent relationship can make it more difficult to see the problem clearly and realize the power that they actually have over the role that alcohol plays in their life.

Breaking Free

Ready to take action? Here are some science-backed ways to loosen the codependency grip and regain your individuality:

  • Self-awareness. As they say, the first step is admitting there's a problem. Do you find yourself overly concerned with others' feelings and neglecting your own? Are you too reliant on others? This awareness is crucial.
  • Educate yourself. The more you understand codependency, the better you'll be able to cope with it. Read books, listen to podcasts, watch TED talks about codependent relationships, or consult professionals to deepen your knowledge about codependency.
  • Set boundaries. It’s perfectly okay to say no. It may feel uncomfortable at first, but over time it will become your new normal. In a similar way, try to be aware of the boundaries of others.
  • Self-care rituals. Schedule "me" time into your daily routine. It's not selfish, it's essential — for “givers” and “takers” alike!
  • Positive affirmations. As cheesy as it sounds, positive self-talk can help reinforce your sense of self-worth. 
  • Support system. Surround yourself with people who understand your journey and can provide emotional support. 
  • Professional help. Sometimes, self-help isn't enough. Therapists are trained professionals who can guide you through the process of overcoming codependency. There's no shame in seeking help!
  • Mindfulness and meditation. Practicing mindfulness can help you focus on your feelings and needs, making it easier to recognize codependent behaviors.

Tuning Your Mind

Bidding goodbye to codependency isn't like flipping a switch — it's more like fine-tuning a radio dial (remember those?). It takes time, patience, and a whole lot of self-compassion. And remember, it's not about becoming self-centered, blaming ourselves, or feeling guilty — it’s about making conscious choices as we balance empathy and self-care.

The next time you get a call from that friend who always needs your help, you might decide to step back and let them fight their own battles. Or maybe you'll intervene, but this time, not because your happiness depends on being needed, but because you genuinely want to help.

And on the flip side, if you’re the one making that call, pause for a few minutes first. You might find that there’s another path you can take — one that will ultimately lead you to healthier relationships and a more balanced version of you!

Summary FAQs

1. What is codependency?

Codependency is a behavioral pattern in relationships where a person becomes excessively reliant on others to satisfy their emotional or psychological needs. It often arises from past relational experiences, usually rooted in childhood.

2. How does codependency relate to the brain?

Codependency is linked to the brain's reward and pleasure center, the Ventral Tegmental Area. When we help others or receive attention, our brain releases dopamine. In codependency, this reward system is heightened. The amygdala (emotional control center) and the anterior cingulate cortex (conflict resolution center) are especially active, leading to self-sacrificing behavior.

3. Is there a difference between empathy and codependency?

Yes, while empathy is about understanding and sharing the feelings of another, codependency takes empathy to an extreme. It results in individuals neglecting their own needs to constantly cater to others, often out of guilt and obligation.

4. How does alcohol relate to codependency?

Alcohol can exacerbate codependency. A codependent person might feel compelled to "save" someone with alcohol misuse issues, often enabling their behaviors. This dynamic can be influenced by past environments where alcohol misuse was common or a need to feel needed.

5. What are the primary types of codependency habits?

Codependency habits can range from constantly seeking validation and fearing abandonment to overbearing caretaking, difficulty setting boundaries, obsession with others' problems, and dependency on others for self-worth.

6. How can someone break free from codependency?

Overcoming codependency involves self-awareness, education, setting boundaries, engaging in self-care rituals, using positive affirmations, building a supportive system, seeking professional help, and practicing mindfulness and meditation.

7. Is it possible to have a healthy balance between empathy and self-care while dealing with codependency?

Absolutely! Overcoming codependency is about making conscious choices that balance empathy with self-care. It's not about becoming self-centered but about ensuring one's own needs are met while also caring for others in a balanced manner.

Break Free From the Bonds of Codependency and Start Your Journey With Reframe!

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