Codependency is a maladaptive, unhealthy reaction to an addict. In its broadest sense it is a reactive and submissive response to the dominance of another. It describes an individual who organizes their life around someone else. It is a decision making process which internalizes someone else’s perceptions, beliefs and values.
In healthy relationships a person develops an autonomous as well as an interdependent upon others outlook on life. A healthy person can regulate both closeness and distance. In dysfunctional relationships, a person develops a pathological reliance upon others and the submission of one’s sense of autonomy. The codependent becomes dependent on the other just as the addict becomes dependent on a substance or behavior.
The codependent loses a sense of self, i.e. they do not have a sense of who they are. They develop what is called a false self. This false self is a mask they show to the world. The problem is that the person begins to believe the mask is who they are. It is born out of fear of loss of love. The person adapts to others to please them, hence they develop an overly strong sense of responsibility towards them.
Codependents, especially children, integrate and adjust to a world where abusive behavior is accepted, but telling the truth is punished. They adapt by altering their perceptions of reality, thoughts, feelings, and behaviors so they can conform to family norms and expectations. Because people need attachment for security, they will sacrifice their personal identity in order to maintain attachments, i.e. they will do whatever is expected of them at the expense of being who they are in order to fit into a relationship.
They respond by: denial, changing emotional responses to fit in, changing their interpretation of abuse, emphasizing the importance of personal control to keep things in balance, and developing all or nothing thinking.
Denial is a mechanism that structures their life and perceptions. A codependent is told that what they see did not take place, that abuse is love, etc. They learn not to trust their perceptions about the world or themselves. They learn to tolerate extreme behavior as normal. This distorts their view of themselves and they take on self-blame and guilt for others’ behavior. In the alcoholic home the codependent does not deny alcohol use, but will not see it as a problem. In fact the alcohol abuse is part of the family. Caretaking becomes part of their lifestyle and they will adapt their behaviors and emotions to take up these responsibilities. Any feeling, even good ones, are not to be trusted and can create as much anxiety as unpleasant ones. Talking and trusting lead to feelings that will create anxiety.